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A Baltimore City High Tunnel Farm Brings Agriculture to its Urban Surroundings

By Cara Newcomer

In a seemingly typical urban neighborhood, The Greener Garden hides in the backyards of the urban homes in Baltimore City. The Greener Garden consists of high tunnel farming as well as open field farming, established by Warren Blue, a self-made farmer, with the help of his wife, Lavette.

Blue has nine high tunnels, seven he built himself and two funded by USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), four of which were put in over the past year. Sam Engler, a Soil Conservationist at the NRCS Baltimore field office in Maryland, worked as a planner to help the Blues with installing their latest high tunnels.

The high tunnels, or hoop houses, are a type of greenhouse that doesn’t use heat to regulate the temperatures. A high tunnel system is an enclosed structure that is used to cover and protect crops from sun, wind, excessive rainfall, or cold, to extend the growing season in an environmentally safe manner.

Blue said they decided to try using high tunnels to farm when they found out they were a good way to grow different strains of crops in various weather conditions. “With different strains of crops, you have to get the crops in early, and with the weather being as it is, the hoop houses add another dimension to growing,” Blue said.

The Greener Garden began with Blue’s intention of buying a home with enough land for a small garden. Over the course of about 28 years, Blue’s garden continued to expand into what is now a working farm. “But we weren’t always farming on this scale,” Blue said. “I’d say for that last five years or so we’ve been doing this.”

Blue said he began expanding the farm after buying the unused property next to his house and eventually looking into buying the other surrounding areas of neighbors’ backyards. “When we bought this house, we were talking about how we wanted a house with some land to it and we saw this little garden,” Blue said, pointing out a small portion of what is now a larger farm. He said he is currently in the process of buying another neighboring property to expand further.

The Greener Garden grows and sells a variety of produce including, collard greens, peppers, okra, squash, tomatoes, herbs, eggplants, cabbage, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and kale. Blue said that they don’t always grow the same produce year round or consistently over the years.

The Greener Garden is an entirely organic operation, according to Blue. “Anything that we use here is organically approved, we don’t use anything else,” Blue said. “If it has chemicals, we don’t bother with it.” Blue said their own personal lifestyle as vegetarians has transferred into their farming style. “If I’m not going to eat it, I’m not going to grow it for somebody else to eat.”

Blue said he takes his produce to local farmers markets, sells to local restaurants and that they have loyal customers who have been following them for years. They also use Facebook and have partnered with the Farm Alliance of Baltimore as a way to get the word out about their business.

Blue says he has developed a support system that he compares to a family that continues to grow. He said many of the people from the NRCS office, like Engler and Eric Hines, an NRCS District Conservationist, have helped him through the process. “They walked me through the whole thing, how to get it set up, how to apply for the application,” Blue said.

In addition to the help from NRCS and the other organizations throughout the state, the Blues have volunteers that help them harvest the crops and sell the produce at the farmers market. They are also planning to work with the University of Maryland to get interns to come to their farm in the coming year to do research and work with the 4-H club to conduct classes for younger kids in agriculture.

For now, Blue doesn’t think he’ll add any more hoop houses to his farm, but he said he is excited to take advantage of the new ones he just installed, saying the success of his farm will be with the use of them. “We’re going to be able to grow new things and next year we’re planning to put in hydroponic trays and hopefully the year after that we can put in some aquaponics,” Blue said. The Blues are looking forward to continuing to grow their farm and to see what they can do next to further their business.