This article was originally published in the June 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Allegra Lovejoy never dreamed she would be managing a farm in Trenton when she graduated from Princeton University in 2014. And for a very good reason: there was no farm. But there was a dream, Kate Mittnacht had it, and it was almost a reality when Lovejoy graduated.
Urban farms, as every person and organization in the process of creating the Capital City Farm knows, are not just a piece of property that someone decides to plant on. Rather, and this is particularly true for Capital City, they are former factory sites.
In this case the factory site was located next to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. Mittnacht, a Hopewell resident who has volunteered at the organization for years and is impressed with its warmth and family feeling, looked at the razed, empty lot curving around the building and was dismayed to learn that a proposal was in place to use it as a tow and junk yard for vehicles. She proposed an alternative use, one that would be beneficial for the area’s residents as well as TASK patrons by enabling them to enjoy an attractive, open, and welcoming outside space.
It was a nice thought, but the big stumbling block was how to fulfill it. Mittnacht hit the jackpot when she talked to her friend Sophie Glovier. At the time Glovier was on the board of the D&R Greenway Land Trust and was involved in its work in preserving land. Glovier talked to D&R Vice President John S. Watson Jr., and Jay, as he is called, “really made this happen,” says Mittnacht.
Over a three-year period, from 2011 to 2014, Watson chaired the numerous meetings at the D&R headquarters that led to Capital City Farm’s creation and definition of its goals — all shaped with the participation of the City of Trenton, Mercer County, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Isles, East Trenton Collaborative, Watson Institute of Thomas Edison State College, TASK, Escher SRO Project, Helping Arms, Rescue Mission of Trenton, Trenton High School Volunteer Club, Lawrenceville School Community Service Club, and Princeton University Community Action.
After all the meetings and negotiations, D&R Greenway was able to put together funding that allowed the property to be preserved as open space. “The Mercer County Open Space Preservation Trust Fund Tax deserves a lot of credit for this,” Mittnacht says. “Their funds were crucial.”
While the property was preserved, it was not much to look at. Indeed, it was an overgrown, weed filled, and, as the euphemism goes, used for illegal activity. The next year was spent on site remediation. By that time Lovejoy had spent a year working for the Food Project in Boston, where she had maintained a farm and dealt with 100 teenagers. When she heard of a job that involved creating and managing a farm in Trenton, she jumped at the chance.
Lovejoy freely admits she has absolutely no gardening background. She grew up in Brooklyn, where her father commuted to Manhattan as an arts educator and composer associated with the New York Philharmonic, and her mother was involved in the restoration of historic buildings. It was her time at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School that spurred her interest in how the environment affects economics. She studied farming and conservation and the economics of the food system. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says.
Lovejoy started work at the farm the summer of 2015. The first months were devoted to ensuring a storm water barrel was installed to reroute runoff from TASK’s roof, sowing a meadow filled with colorful wildflowers (a splashy announcement that Capital City Farm was a positive presence in the community), and planning what crops to grow the follow year. Isles’ work in school and community gardens was particularly helpful in deciding not only what to grow but in describing what is best suited for the area.
‘“The goal is to have the farm a self-sustaining nonprofit, one that not only sells produce but also enriches the environmental health of the surrounding community.’
Environmental activity went beyond the farm’s borders. Twenty-two trees were planted along Escher Street, and the farm’s frontage on North Clinton Avenue was landscaped with flowering trees and native flowers. Arrangements were also made within the surrounding community. Compost scrap is collected from TASK and two coffee shops. The TASK chef uses fresh herbs in the farm for his recipes.
The first vegetable crops were sown in spring, 2016. Two part-time staff members were hired to help with the maintenance and harvesting.
Derrick Branch “wants to be here forever.” A native Trentonian, his parents came from farming backgrounds in the south. “They met here,” Branch says, “and now that I’m a farmer, I feel it’s a full circle of life.”
Graham Apgar is a “transplant from Hightstown to Trenton, where I’ve now lived for seven years.” An engineering major at the College of New Jersey, Apgar says his interests have traveled from engineering to art to gardening. He has used the first and last of these to build a chicken coop, and if that proves successful over time, will construct more to offer eggs from the farm.
Everyone learned a lot that first year “and we managed to feed a family of five robust ground hogs,” Lovejoy reports. Even so, there was enough left over to donate produce to the Marcus Garvey School and to families affiliated with Habitat for Humanity as well as to give cut flowers to senior centers and St. Francis Medical Center.
This spring’s horrible weather has wreaked havoc on getting the growing season started. Lovejoy orders all seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. While that firm has heated greenhouses to produce and process its seeds, Lovejoy does not. Not only was her unheated greenhouse too cold to start anything in early March, the water inside was frozen.
Now that the weather has finally warmed, crop planting is well underway. “This year will be our first doing garlic,” Lovejoy says. “We planted the bulbs in the fall, and while we’re not quite sure how they will survive this past winter and spring, we are really looking forward to having a garlic crop.”
Other tried-and-true performers during the coming growing season include greens such as collards, kale, lettuce, spinach, and callalloo (the last widely used in Caribbean cooking). Summer crops feature tomatoes, squashes, melons, and various kinds of hot peppers. Herbs of all kinds are grown and sold, both fresh and dried; cut flowers range from ageratums to zinnias.
“We also sell flowers, herbs, and vegetable seedlings for home garden planting,” says Lovejoy, “and honey from our beehives.” The farm is now open every second Saturday for tours and plant and produce sales. Starting June 12, Capital City Farm will be a vendor at Greenwood Ave Farmers Market every Monday from 1 to 6 p.m.
“The goal,” Lovejoy explains, “is to have the farm a self-sustaining nonprofit, one that not only sells produce but also enriches the environmental health of the surrounding community. D&R specializes in jump starting endeavors such as ours and we are fortunate to be supported and guided by them.”
Unspoken, but surely thought, is the hope that sooner rather than later D&R will devise a humane way to get rid of the blasted ground hogs.
Capital City Farm, 301 North Clinton Avenue. Open to visitors and volunteers Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, schedule changes, and programs, visit www.drgreenway.org/capitalcityfarm.html.