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Lessons from a New Urban Farmer

Posted: October 1, 2015

Penn State Center ~ Engaging Philadelphia summer intern, Matthew Tsui, spent his summer working for Heritage Farm, an urban farm located in Philadelphia. Each day, Matt learned and practiced farming techniques, agricultural business skills and data collection with the exceptional staff and volunteers at Heritage Farm.
Matthew Tsui

Matthew Tsui

Matt grew up in Wyndmoor, a Montgomery county suburb, where large oak trees and cardinals are commonplace. Nature was always been accessible, he says, “I remember spending my weekends planting flowers with my mom and bird watching in the woods behind my grandparent’s house. My childhood was quaint and peaceful”.

However, Matt and his family also lived just a few miles away from some of Philadelphia’s worst neighborhoods, it was impossible for them to be ignorant of the nearby urban issues. On Sunday trips to Chinatown, Matt and his family would see weeds and rusted refrigerators accumulating in West Philadelphia’s vacant lots. Matt’s mom, an art teacher in the Philadelphia School District, would frequently worry that she may lose her job soon, because another public school closed due to poor funding. It was even impossible to watch the local news without learning of another kidnapping or rising pollution levels in Schuylkill River.

Despite it all, Matt grew up a true Philadelphian. Born at Thomas Jefferson University hospital, he believes the Phillies Phanatic is greatest mascot ever, will eat Jim’s Steak cheese steak (wit. onion, of course) whenever he can and proudly affiliate himself as a “Philly Boy” through good times and bad. However, this internship provided him a broader perspective of his hometown and an introduction to potential future careers in Philadelphia’s local food industry.

After Matt transferred to Penn State University for his junior year and decided to study Environment Resource Management in the College of Agricultural Sciences, his academic advisor, Tammy Bennett, asked him about his dream job. He was torn in two directions and wondered, “How could I have career in the city and in nature?”. The Penn State Philadelphia Center provided a possible path to the future: an internship with Heritage Farm, a 3-acre organic urban farm located within the beautiful Methodist Home for Children campus.

The Methodist Home for Children (MHC) provides housing and programs to support families with overcoming the challenges of poverty. Heritage Farm supports MHC by providing healthy, fresh and locally grown fruits and vegetables to families and children who live there. Every Thursday, Heritage Farm sells their produce to the Children and Families at its Farm Stand for only $1 or $2. Troy, co-manager of Heritage Farm, says, “We push to supply local families with healthy, fresh and organic foods to broaden their horizons.” Troy explained that our Families are usually hesitant about trying new and healthier foods.

Still, in Matt’s mind, the question remained: “how could an urban farm be financially stable if it is underselling its produce?”. He soon learned that although, many Philadelphia urban farms are mission driven, non-profit organizations that aim only to achieving their community outreach goals, Heritage Farm is first and foremost a business. Approximately two-thirds of Heritage Farm’s income comes from selling produce to local restaurants and community shared agriculture (CSA) organizations. By first assuring they have a profitable growing season; Heritage Farm will be able to consistently continue providing nutritious fruits and vegetables for Families and Children.

Matt also soon learned that mistakes are made every day working on a farm. It could be leaving the sprinklers in the nursery for too long or accidentally harvesting $200.00 worth of tarragon thinking it was rosemary. Farm manager, Adrian Galbraith-Paul took Matt under his wing. Matts says, “Adrian, taught me great lessons every day, from preparing compost tea to bunching garlic chives for Derek’s Restaurant”. However, Adrian’s most significant lesson for Matt was that successful farmers never stop learning from their mistakes!