My job requires me to travel quite a bit. In every city I’ve experienced this past year, I’ve met some amazing people and seen some incredible places, and I always find myself saying “Why doesn’t stuff like this exist in Philly?”
I need to stop saying that, because the issue is that I’m just not looking hard enough. I think whenever you visit a new place, there’s a bit of excitement behind everything you see, and everyone you meet. It’s new, and something you’re not used to. I often forget that Philly is pretty damn cool, and all it takes is a short drive over to the next neighborhood to discover something new.
I did just that this past weekend, and spent some time at one of the coolest places I’ve been to thus far in the City of Brotherly Love: Farm 51
One of our graphic designers informed us of this gem of a place. Set in between two gorgeous row homes in Southwest Philly, there lies a full working urban farm, founded by Andrew Olson, an experienced horticulturist. He lives in the ivy covered house to the left in the above picture with his partner Neal, who also lends a pair of hands into the upkeep of the farm. What was once just a fun side project has turned into a community driven lush green space. Andrew and Neal are there to teach, and there to provide. Amongst the chickens, bees, dogs, and the maze of living green, you will find a sense of home, passion, and beauty. This isn’t just a farm, or a garden, but rather a piece of art that has had a lot of love and hard work put into it. It’s an inspiring place where you want to spend time. Get to know a little bit more about their story below, and how Farm 51 came to be!
Where are you from? What brought you to West Philly?
Andrew: I was born and raised in the ‘burbs outside of Wilmington DE. I spent a year with Americorps in Seattle post graduation and then stuck around the city for a couple more years. I had an incredible time, but longed for family, lightning bugs, and deciduous forest. I wanted to live in a big city and Philly was close to family.
Neal: I’m a city boy at heart, coming from Jersey City, NJ. Philadelphia has been home now for ten years, with my beginning years in this city studying photojournalism at Temple University. I met Andrew five years ago and have since had this Southwest Philadelphia-hybridized life where city and country collide. I’ve never looked back since.
What sparked the idea to start an urban farm?
Andrew: There has really never been a grand plan. I’ve always been a gardener and animal lover. My landlord at the time said I could do what I wanted with the garden and keep chickens. It spiraled out of control from there.
Neal: Like most things in our lives, farming just happened organically. Farm 51 started as a way for Andrew to get his hands dirty in a garden. For me, it started as a way to get to know Andrew. The only way I could get inside this boy’s head was to get my hands dirty and grow with him. It has been a never ending adventure since then.
Was farming something you were always drawn to?
Andrew: I can’t remember a time I wasn’t gardening. I helped my dad with the vegetable garden and my mom with her flower garden. My dad worked a lot and I had three siblings so I think it was time I got to spend with my parents alone. We grew up with too many cats, a pony, and every animal in between.
Neal: My parents had a very small garden in our backyard in Jersey City. We’d grow roses, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, and some herbs. Never in my life did I think those small summer experiences would be a window into what we do now. It’s a chance for both Andrew and I to be creative, try new things every season with either what we grow or the way we grow or with.
What has been the hardest part as far as upkeep?
Andrew: There’s a lot of romantic notions about urban farming and it’s absolutely wonderful, but it’s hard work. This time of year can be a drag. It’s usually hot and dry and I want to run away to New England. Unfortunately if you don’t plant fall crops now you wont have much to eat come October and November. We just planted our kale, broccoli, carrots, beets, and many others. I love soup and I’m really looking forward to soups with our own chicken and vegetables.
Neal: Farming in the city, at least professionally, is extremely difficult work. For us we still try to find the balance between growing for production and beauty, while sticking to our mission in keeping the farm as a safe green space where neighbors, friends and family can come together and hang out.
Have you seen a sense of community that has been sparked because of Farm51?
Yes. It has been the driving force behind this project. We wouldn’t have accomplished nearly what we have with out the support and hands on help from so many friends and neighbors.
We also have help from our third partner Charlotte Castle, who week after week puts in hard work on working on our educational side of the farm. From weeding to managing our three junior gardeners, she does great work fostering community within our immediate farm operation.
We’re also generously supported by Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program. They contribute seeds and transplants as well as work hard to foster the urban agriculture work that is happening all over Philadelphia. Just seeing the diverse group of folks that come by each Thursday for farm stand makes it all worthwhile. We’ve met so many people and made so many friends through this project.
What’s your favorite part about owning your own farm?
Andrew: It’s awfully nice to walk out the door and pick things for dinner. It’s also satisfying to help create a space that so many people are drawn to and want to spend time in.
What has been the most surprising part about your venture?
The emotional investment. We’ve become quite entrenched in the community. This neighborhood has been through a lot and continues to struggle. We’ve been very fortunate in our lives and we try our best to help out where we can.
How have you grown from this?
Andrew: I tend to be a pretty shy and introverted person and this project has pushed my boundaries.
Neal: The small experiences I’ve had with farming has helped me understand food a little more deeply. It has helped my creativity as a food photographer, understanding that food takes work, and its story deserves to be told with understanding and patience.
Every Thursday during the summer, Farm 51 has a farm stand that opens up from 4:30 pm to 7 pm. If you are in the area, be sure to stop by and check it out!
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