On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Garfield, Ricardo Robinson sits in the grass shaking a small handheld sifter. Robinson, quiet but resilient, is slowly removing broken glass from a vacant plot of land through which Shamrock Way once ran. He's not planning on discarding it; instead he'll save it and use it to edge the plant beds that will someday stand where he sits. If Robinson and partner Maria Graziani have their way, the plot, which actually consists of several lots on which several houses once stood (and a few others still do), will one day host the Healcrest Herban Farm.
Graziani, a University of Pittsburgh graduate and certified herbalist, steadily makes her way up the hill that defines the neighborhood, balancing two five-gallon buckets of water on a rod on her back like a yoke. Her steps on the pavement are much like her steps in planning the farm: slow and deliberate, but constantly moving her forward. She is cautiously optimistic about purchasing the land, which had been used for years for illegal dumping (and drug sales, she believes). She is slowly, with help, working to clear it out.
Clearing it out means both picking up trash and ridding the land of overbearing invasive plants such as knotweed. "Ricardo keeps saying 'This is [the knotweed's] home, we just have to work with it,' and I just keep saying, 'But it's invasive!'" says Graziani. Whether they manage to get rid of the knotweed completely or choose to make it part of their effort somehow, the people of Healcrest will have to surmount the threat of overwhelming weed growth if they want to realize their dream of an educational and production farm in the middle of the city.
Healcrest is a play on the farm's proximity to Hillcrest Avenue and its potential to heal the community it will be a part of. Graziani explains that she and her partners in the project, including Robinson, Steffany Yamada, Brian Funk, Robert Cantillo and Grace Keller, hope to run the farm as a series of plots tended to by individuals from the neighborhood. The small-time agriculturalists will then "pay" for their plots by giving a certain amount of produce each week to the farm to sell at farmer's markets. The money raised will be used to purchase resources for the day-to-day running of the farm. In addition, Graziani hopes someday to hold workshops at the farm dealing with herbalism and holistic healing, and provide holistic treatment alternatives to people with low incomes.
After getting the land cleared of a lot of the trash and problem plants, the Healcrest farmers plan to work on soil amendment -- the process of eliminating or reducing what is bad in the soil while adding nutrients. "It's a major part of greening a brownfield," Graziani explains. "It's important that people know techniques to heal the soil."
Graziani doesn't want to coerce her neighbors into eating health food, but she wants to help them to gain access to food they know will make them feel better. "Our focus is healing," she says. "It's not like a ... doctor. In that sort of situation a patient relies on the doctor's word to know what's right. Our approach is, you know yourself and what is best for you."
Graziani and her partners see another wound in need of healing in the rift between city dwellers and the food system. Urban agriculturalist Mindy Schwartz, of Garden Dreams, Inc. in Wilkinsburg, recalls the days when she first began growing vegetables on her plot on Center Street. "Some neighborhood kids came over and said, 'What are you doing?' and I said, 'I'm picking tomatoes,'" she explains. "They said, 'You're doing what?' and I explained that tomatoes came from the vines that were growing there. And they said, "No, they don't! Tomatoes come from the supermarket!'"
Such misconceptions are rooted in something deeper than simple childish naiveté, the Healcrest farmers believe. City dwellers can go their entire lives without ever taking part in, or even witnessing, the growth of food from seed.
At the farm's future site, Graziani is trying to figure out what to do about a nearby abandoned house when a fawn, not yet rid of the white speckles it was born with, stares back at her from a stand of trees nearby. For a moment it's nearly impossible to believe that Penn Avenue is merely a few blocks down the hill. Graziani and Robinson hope that their neighbors on and around Hillcrest Avenue will get used to this feeling.
Healcrest Herban Farm seeks donations of equipment, and cash for the rental of heavy equipment, in addition to new volunteers. Maria Graziani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.