Urban Farm

On an overcast and generally drab day in April, various city officials stood on a red caboose and spoke to a crowd of folks gathered at what was once a repulsive scrap of riverside scrubland. With the train car as a sort of stage, Mayor Todd Strange and City Councilor Tracy Larkin stood in front of a microphone, made some remarks about the importance of sustainability, and cut a ceremonial green ribbon to proclaim the opening of the city’s new “urban farm.”

The media stood awkwardly, with their expensive shoes sinking into the boggy ground, but the crowd was mostly a few assorted stakeholders (friends, family, consultants) and some folks from the Earth Fare grocery store who handed out some dried pea snap crispy snack items. There didn’t seem to be too many folks from the general public there, but, again, the weather was pretty gloomy. Also, it’s lunchtime on a weekday and most people would probably rather be at their jobs or having lunch.

Still, there we are, sinking into extremely mushy just-laid sod, listening to Mayor Strange and multiple city planning types talk about the bright new tomorrow dawning as the city engages in a new public-private partnership to carve an “urban farm” out of the downtown land just down the steep hill from Overlook Park (on Bell St.). While there’s still a stretch of land between the new farm and the actual river, it’s a fantastic beginning to allow life to move onto the desolate shores of one of the region’s greatest resources and attractions.

The farm? Well, they have a bunch of above-ground planters, with some basil and a few other things growing. Obviously the current batch of plants didn’t grow there, but were transplanted in from somewhere. There’ll be more planters soon, with the promotional material making a distinction between the “teaching beds” and the “production beds.” We found ourselves wondering about the production capacity of the (roughly) 60 beds over a growing season and what would be done with the food.

And there’s a windmill! That’s the real eye-catcher: a spinning, actually-functioning windmill, just like back in the old days. Except that this windmill screams of futurism because it actually functions, drawing water up from the ground into the storage cistern, working without burning of fossil fuels.

The farmer, Jetson Brown, says a few words into the microphone. He says he was living in Petaluma, California, when he heard that the city was hiring and he came to Montgomery to work at Hampstead’s second Montgomery-area farm (the first is at their far-eastside experimental housing development). It’s unclear who’ll be paying the farmer — the city or the Hampstead Institute — and how much he’ll make (promotional materials suggest $30,000-$35,000) to tend the above-ground planters and give guided tours to school groups and interested citizens.

He’s got his work cut out for him. Evidently the soil at the farm’s plot of land isn’t prime for growing. We were told that because it used to be a rail yard, one of the challenges Brown will be dealing with is residual toxins in the soil. Thus the raised beds are full of fertilizer made of manure from the Montgomery Zoo, a cool way that the city can pitch in to assist the project in a low-cost and sustainable way. Evidently this manure is also used in a bunch of city landscaping and grounds maintenance. They’re going to plant sunflowers in the back beds of the farm and some other plants that will help to improve the soil over the next few years.

At least part of the city’s plan for the farm is modeled on Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham (which is only 3 acres, supplemented by a 25 acre suburban farm). We haven’t been up there, but evidently their former director worked closely with the city and the Hampstead Institute to get Montgomery’s newest farm started.

The farm is not that easy to get to. It’s behind the Montgomery Advertiser’s building and their parking lot, so when you drive there you think you’re just going to end up being behind the newspaper building to park in employee spaces. The city should probably put up some signs at some point. They did announce that the farm is going to be a trolley stop now, but we don’t know anyone who takes the trolley.

There are still a lot of questions that remain, but ground was broken for the farm only a few months ago and there’ll be plenty of time to learn about the details. How late will it be open? Who can pick the veggies? How many groups will want tours? How much money will taxpayers be putting in over the long term and how much will come from the private interests at the Institute?

The new urban farm is an undeniable good. It took an old, useless, polluted piece of valuable riverside land and turned it into a potential Eden of both economic development and healthy eating. It is both literally and metaphorically an example of planting the seeds of a better city. It potentially holds an elusive antidote to blight, crime, obesity, and any other number of problems, while acting as a positive draw for visitors and an inspiration for residents that a better world is possible.

The Hampstead Institute Downtown Farm is holding a soil nutrition workshop on May 14 at the farm. Signup begins at 9:30 a.m. on the morning of the workshop. A July 9 session will deal with seed saving and sustainable gardening. For more information, contact Anne Randle at 334-740-8542 or email anne@hampsteadinstitute.org.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Someone asked me yesterday if they could have their own veggie garden at Montgomery’s Urban Farm. Anyone know the answer to that?

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