Grim job market sends 20-somethings farming in Hampden. Yes, Hampden!

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Coast down hilly Ash Street in Hampden and you’ll spy a couple of queen-size iron headboards sprouting from a hill that’s been neatly divided into planted rows. The headboards function perfectly as trellises, but they look like funky sculpture.

Welcome to the Baltimore Free Farm, one of more than a dozen garden programs cropping up locally.

In January of 2010, Don Barton, 28, and a dozen or so friends, all in their twenties, all of whom found job prospects in Baltimore extremely dim, decided to found a farm in Hampden, and attempt to live off the food they raised.

Through Baltimore City’s Adopt-a-Lot program, Barton’s acquaintances Bill Hudson and Allison Guitard had secured an abandoned plot suitable for community gardening, and invited their more creative, industrious friends to roll up their flannel sleeves and plant.

The young farmers lease two buildings on site, a row house, where five of the participants reside, and a multi-use warehouse, ideal for rooftop gardening. Money’s tight, but expenses low. They stage fundraisers to help make ends meet, and received $10,000 early on from Kickstarter.com. Helps, too, that the landlord gave them a big break in rent, after the crafty crew promised to rehab the warehouse week by week.

Currently, a few hundred people participate in the Free Farm. City dwellers rent four-by-eight foot plots and raise food seasonally, for a donation of their choosing.

“We really want to lift the [intimidating] veil of mystique off food production,” Barton explains. “To show people how to do it and learn to do it ourselves.”

Seedlings have just been started in the group’s greenhouse: onion, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant coming soon.

Most days you can find at least several Free Farm members working outdoors, on the steep hillside land they call their own. Barton says they were very pleased, and frankly relieved, that soil analysis revealed healthy Hampden dirt (for the most part).

“We’re growing in the ground on our hill; it’s safe soil,” Barton says. “When we can’t vouch for the soil, we use a raised bed technique. You build a box and put landscaping plastic or a barrier, and fill it with soil, and you can grow in it.”

Core group members possess an impressive range of practical skills. Barton grew up in Carroll County, raising chickens, planting, and canning. His girlfriend, A.J. Sherman, does fiber work and screen-printing professionally. She helps decorate the space and stage colorful community events. Other workers are adept with carpentry, cooking, and coaxing a nice array of delicious veggies to life.

It sounds like a free-style hippie commune on one level, yes, but these kids seem much more driven than your typical song-singing hippies. They’re committed for the long haul, to educating people about growing food locally, and sharing and selling a portion of what they can produce. (Thus far, they’ve sold tomatoes to Woodberry Kitchen and Frazier’s.)

“I’d like to think Baltimore will follow through—we can clean this place up and make a difference,” Barton says.

Upcoming plans include alternative energy projects, and raising hens for their eggs.

“We plan to experiment with growing prawns and tilapia in tanks,” Barton explains. “And we’ll incorporate an alternative energy system to power the system—a [specialized] roof for rain collection can feed the tanks. Rooftop gardening is in the works. Up there, plants can be directly fertilized.”

Volunteers are welcome to help with farm chores every Saturday. The address: 3519 Ash Street. To learn more about the Baltimore Free Farm or to make a tax-deductible donation, go to: www.baltimorefreefarm.org



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