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Urban farming becomes a family affair

Ashley Hassett

As urban farms become a familiar feature of many large cities, they’re also presenting a challenge for zoning laws and regulators. WBFO's Ashley Hassett tells the story behind Buffalo’s second urban farm, as the east side of the city looks at how to handle more farms in the future.

Newlyweds Daniel and Alex Ash live in an old two story house on Gittere Street located on the east side of Buffalo where they lease six acres. It’s their first year running their own urban farm.

“The land was owned by the railroad company for about 100 years. Somebody at some point, we think about 40 to 50 years ago planted about 25 apples trees, a couple pear trees, and three or four cherries, but they haven’t been maintained for at least a decade if not more, so we’re looking to bring those back into production,” said Ash.

Credit Ashley Hassett / WBFO News
Daniel and Alex Ash stand in front of their compost pile.

Alex Ash came to Buffalo with her parents Mark and Janice Stevens five years ago from rural Wyoming County. The Stevens family, own the other urban farm on the East Side a few blocks away on Wilson Street. Alex and Daniel attribute all of their farming knowledge to their parents.

“Another important thing that has been successfully passed down is that they feel they can do these things, they can do whatever they want to,” said Janice Stevens.

Mark Stevens says she started farming, because she didn’t want to grocery shop for things they could grow themselves. They also used farming to teach their children life lessons.

“I always use the example of potatoes from the littlest kid who was spacing out the potatoes with their feet to the ones who were tamping it over, and then when it came to harvest time we all did that together. We dug up the potatoes, we sorted them, we stored them in the basement, and they would feed us all winter long. They knew that they were an intricate part of that process,” said Stevens.

Credit Ashley Hassett / WBFO News
The fruit trees located on the Gittere Street urban farm.

Daniel Ash talks about why soil is usually a big concern for urban farmers as the younger Stevens children dig holes for bean plants as part of their summer project.

“If the area that you’re growing has been historically residential then you’re more likely to have issues with soil fertility and low levels of organic matter. When they demolish houses they bring in loose fill that’s low quality and you basically have to start from scratch in terms of building your soil,” said Ash.

Ash says he and his wife got lucky with their soil, because the land they lease has never been developed. The city location has other benefits, says Mark Stevens.

“We lived in a large dairy farming community and we were the only organic people surrounded by large farmers, so we were constantly worrying about the chemicals they were spraying, what our well water was bringing up, because of those chemicals were leaching down in, airplanes flying over to spray the corn. So we don’t worry about that here,” said Stevens.

Credit Ashley Hassett / WBFO News
Janice Stevens (far right) gives her children direction when digging holes for bean plants.

Alex Ash says that’s not the only difference between rural and urban farming.

“There’s a lot of positive feedback, people are like whoa, this is a great thing you’re doing, but other people are like, a farm in the city? No. Farms belong in the country,” said Ash.

Mark Stevens say they also made the move so they could share their love of farming with others, and they’re working with a local co-op called Farmer Pirates.

“So were sharing equipment, we have a tractor that we have access to, we have various tillers that we share, lawn mowers, we share knowledge. The cooperative now owns some land that is leased to its members,” said Stevens.

Composting is another business sideline for the co-op. Daniel and Alex pick up ingredients from the local equestrian center, neighbors, and other businesses.

Credit Ashley Hassett / WBFO News
The Gittere Street urban farm.

Buffalo has been suffering from a declining population leaving most home and lots on its east side vacant and run down. City Common Council member David Franczyk says that’s why he’s supported the two urban farms in his district.

“You’re not going to build house on every lot. At one point some developer said well, we might want to build. Well, we got plenty of streets of plenty of streets with a lot of empty lots where you can build, because this is a great experiment and I think it’s been a great success,” said Franczyk.

Alex Ash says she and Daniel plan to bring chickens, roosters and maybe even goats to their urban farm in the future.

“I would love to have animals. We want to start working with the city on that soon,” said Ash.

Council member Franczyk says right now goats aren’t allowed, but he’d be open to the idea if it’s done properly.

“We’re a city, were not a farm, but it’s a city that has emptied out more than half of its population and on the east side more than that. So if there’s ways to do it in a way of a high standard then it’s something that we can look at, because we do allow chickens,” said Franczyk.

Mark and Janice Stevens say the future looks good for their city farm and others like it.