August 3, 2016

Once Blighted Trenton Lot Goes From Eyesore to Urban Oasis


FROM URBAN BLIGHT TO FARM: Planting is ongoing at Trenton’s Capital City Farm, a joint effort of several non-profit groups that has turned a trash-strewn lot into a verdant space designed to provide fresh produce and more to the local community and beyond.

For years, the two-acre lot next to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) was an eyesore filled with weeds, trash, and debris. But thanks to the efforts of several non-profit groups including Princeton’s D&R Greenway, the sprawling lot is now home to wildflowers, berry bushes, beekeeping, raised vegetable beds, and a farm stand.

Capital City Farm has been designed to serve its surrounding neighborhood as well as the community at large. Located at the end of gritty Escher Street, the now-peaceful meadow sits on land acquired two years ago with money from Mercer County’s Open Space Fund. It is the result of five years of planning and negotiating.

A suggestion by TASK volunteer Kate Mitnick got the project on track. “She was working at the soup kitchen, and every day she’d go by this two-acre parcel that was very blighted and full of trash, kind of a hangout,” said Linda Mead, president and CEO of D&R Greenway. “So she said, something has to happen here. Somebody had proposed putting a tow yard on the property, which would have been another blight on the community. Kate spoke to a friend of hers, who put her in touch with us.”

D&R vice president Jay Watson, who had a long history of working on projects in Trenton, saw the possibility of transforming the lot. “He pulled everyone to the table,” Ms. Mead said. “All of these non-profit organizations [Isles, Inc.; East Trenton Collaborative, TASK, the Escher SRO Project, Helping Arms, the Trenton Rescue Mission, the City of Trenton, and Mercer County] came together to talk about what this could become. A farm was what was decided.”

Negotiating the purchase was “a little tricky,” Ms. Mead said. “We had to set up where the funding would come from to do the environmental remediation. We were able to shepherd the plan through the Department of Environmental Protection and oversee the remediation work. The acquisition was completed at the end of 2014, and the remediation work was finished last fall. We had our first growing season this year.”

Because of environmental issues, the land can’t be farmed in the traditional way. “We couldn’t go below a certain point with digging. So we’ve done raised beds,” Ms. Mead said. The property includes “hoop houses” to start seeds. Beyond them, eggplants, tomatoes, herbs, squash, and other vegetables are coming up. Beehives are in the rear of the property.

This first growing season was not easy because of the amount of topsoil and fill that had to be brought in. “The plants weren’t producing. We worked with Isles, replanted, and got a donation of a truckload of mushroom compost,” Ms. Mead said. “We dug that into the planting beds, and we’re hoping to have more things in the fall.”

Working with TASK, the farm has hired two people from the surrounding neighborhood to help with the planting and maintenance. One grew up across the street. “His name is Derrick Branch, and he has been great,” Ms. Mead said. “Derrick helped paint the container we have on site, and then started helping as a volunteer. We ended up giving him a job. He loves it because his grandparents were actually farmers. He’s very proud that he’s doing this.”

Efforts to engage those beyond the local community are centered on Monthly Field Days, the next of which is scheduled for Saturday, August 20. The family-oriented day of activities will be focused on wildflowers, with printmaking, scavenger hunts, and making small planters to take home. Visitors can also tour the farm and buy produce at the farm stand.

The farm is also open Tuesday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for visitors, and Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9-11:30 a.m. for volunteers. A free meal for children under 18 is served every Wednesday during the summer from noon-1 p.m.

“We’re thinking about ways to make this available to the neighbors. We want to create healthy, nutritious food in the neighborhood,” said Ms. Mead. “In addition to a farm stand, we’re thinking about ways people can be involved, to engage and reward them. We’ve talked about vouchers, maybe a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) kind of thing.”

While Capital City Farm is only in its first season, there are signs that it is having the desired effect. “People are curious,” Ms. Mead said, “especially those who come to the Soup Kitchen. Some teenagers from the neighborhood are excited about working on the farm. People are stopping by. It’s been an interesting thing to watch.”