Redding tours urban farms across Pennsylvania

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Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and urban farmer Rafael Vencio laugh during a tour of Hilltop Urban Farm, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 20, 2021. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — This is Rafael Vencio’s first year farming, and he’s still learning the ropes. He’s running one of five incubator farms located at Hilltop Urban Farm, in Pittsburgh’s St. Clair neighborhood.

“I think part of what I enjoy the most is also failing,” Vencio said. “It makes me really resilient about having the drive and a clear goal of where I want to be. I want to have a sustainable business that can afford me life.”

He started AmBoy Farm after reassessing his life during the pandemic. Vencio, a Filipino immigrant, was working as the executive chef at a restaurant in Pittsburgh, and he was burning out.

“I thought about what’s sustainable for me long term,” he said. “People in the food industry, we live paycheck to paycheck. They’re the ones that are always left behind.”

Now he farms, cooks Filipino-inspired dishes with what he grows at pop-up events and sells the rest at farmers markets.

Farm tour

Vencio opened his farm plot to a tour from Pennsylvania agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and others in the community July 20, during Pittsburgh’s fifth annual Urban Farm Tour, hosted by the East End Food Co-op, Grow Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council and Pasa Sustainable Agriculture.

The tour aligned with Pennsylvania’s Urban Ag Week, where Redding toured urban farming operations across the state. He visited 11 urban farms in Reading, Lancaster, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia from July 19 to 22.

The state spent $1 million into 70 urban agriculture projects in 16 counties through the Pennsylvania Farm Bill’s Urban Agriculture Infrastructure Grant program. Hilltop Urban Farm received two of these grants — one for $15,000 in 2019 and another for $2,500 in 2020.

Investing in urban agriculture strengthens communities by combating food insecurity and improving access to fresh local food, Redding said.

“We are all created equal, but our access to food is not,” he said.

Creating access

Hilltop Urban Farm sits on about 23 acres of land that used to be a public housing project, St. Clair Village. The housing development was built in the early 1950s, consisting of 680 apartments and town homes. The property is 107 acres in all.

The final residents were relocated and the last buildings razed in 2010. Hilltop Urban Farm was dreamed up in 2013 as a way to reuse the vacant land. A feasibility study, commissioned by community advocacy group, Hilltop Alliance, pointed to food access as a major challenge facing residents of the area. The nearest supermarket is nearly two miles away.

The dream became reality in spring 2019 when the first plants went into the ground. Hilltop has a youth farm, a farm incubation program, and it’s home to the city’s largest orchard.

During the pandemic, when the youth programs were shut down, the farm pivoted to create a community farm to continue to engage with the community, said Ned Brockmeyer, director of farm programs at Hilltop Urban Farm. Produce harvested from the community farm is donated to local food banks and distributed via a CSA to families with a nearby elementary school.

Looking up

Vencio looks up to the other farmers at Hilltop. His farm isn’t as progressed as theirs, but he’s learning.

His long term goal is to use his farm to fuel a permanent restaurant location, to introduce people to the meals he grew up eating in the Philippines.

“What I realized is that we all eat similarly, no matter what part of the globe you come from,” he said. “We don’t realize how common we are.”

On top of that, he also wants to inspire and pave a path for other minorities and immigrants like him. He found the resources and the tools to help him reset his life at Hilltop Urban Farm. If he can figure out how to farm, cook and make a living from it, he wants others to be able to do the same.

“If I can do it, I’m hoping someone else can cookie-cutter my model,” he said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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