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After Two Decades, a Philadelphia Urban Farm Grapples with Growing Pains

At Philadelphia’s Greensgrow Farms, the signs of the busy summer season are everywhere. Marking its 20th anniversary this year, the nonprofit urban farm is overflowing with colorful perennials and organic veggie starts. Twice a week, the more than 650 members of the farm’s city-supported agriculture program (CSA) converge on the farms three sites to pick up a box of hyper-local food. Two decades in, Greensgrow’s leaders have much to celebrate. But they also have a lot to consider. The presence of the farm has helped gentrify its surrounding working-class neighborhood, a problem common to cities around the country. As Philadelphia’s good-food landscape has expanded, Greensgrow faces competitors ranging from supermarkets stocking more local and organic foods to other urban farms in Philly to meal-kit delivery services like Blue Apron or Purple Carrot. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Greensgrow is the loss of its founder and “chief farmhand,” Mary Seton Corboy, who died in August 2016 after a long battle with cancer. Now, the farmers are faced with issues that could impact its long-term survival, such as how should Greensgrow carry on Corboy’s vision, support its changing neighborhood and evolve into more of a year-round operation. To begin to answer these questions, Greensgrow turned to a familiar face—Ryan Kuck, a Tennessee native who originally came to Philadelphia to study architecture and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “I told Mary for three years I wasn’t going to take over,” said Kuck, who started as lead farmer at Greensgrow a decade ago and helped launch the offshoot in West Philly, where he lives. “I was always a neighborhood farmer, and it’s important to me not to lose a connection to my neighborhood.” But after Mary’s passing, and after reflecting on his deep connections to the people and projects at Greensgrow, Kuck agreed to take the reins of the organization. And a year later, Corboy still looms large over daily operations for the farm and its 40 employees—a poster-sized photo of her hangs in Kuck’s office, with the caption: “WWMD” (What Would Mary Do?). It’s a question that both inspires—and sometimes vexes—Kuck, who now must sort through everything from basic accounting practices to larger questions of Greensgrow’s direction for the next 20 years and beyond. “I knew how hard a job it would be,” Kuck said. “I knew how impossible it would be to fill Mary’s shoes. I have to change the shoes, and look at how Greensgrow survives and how do we embrace change.” Wanting to build on...

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