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Growing fruits and veggies in the city

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For decades, people in cities have relied on farmers in rural areas to grow the fruits and vegetables we eat. But a new generation of farmers says there's no reason to keep agriculture out of the urban core. Ann Dornfeld reports.

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Sean Conroe and Amber Banks found each other like so many people do these days: on the Internet. They met for cupcakes, and talked about their hopes and dreams. It wasn't a date. Amber and Sean both wanted to start a farm. In the middle of the city.

"Because there are a lot of neighborhoods that don't have access to healthy, fresh produce and if they do it can be very expensive. So we see unused space as a great place to grow food to make it more accessible to people."

They call their project Alleycat Acres. Conroe created a Web site to recruit volunteers and donations. Within a week, they were offered a plot of land between two houses in south Seattle. Conroe says 20 volunteers worked for six weekends to turn the grassy land into what it is now. A farm.

"We have spinach, onions, radish, lettuce and chard that's all ready to be harvested right now."

There are carrots and green onions. Peas, beans, and turnips.

"Broccoli, tomatillos and cucumbers which are all starting to pop up. And then strawberries."

Sean Conroe is in college, and Amber Banks is a teacher. But they both grew up farming and gardening.

"Since this is our first year it's gonna be tough. But we are very pleased so far. We did not expect there to be this much food already, so things are definitely off to a good start."

The Alleycats have harvested nearly 200 pounds of produce so far. They've donated most of it to local food banks. They deliver it by bike.

(sound of snipping and bagging greens)

Bridget Barni is sitting in the dirt thinning the salad greens. She's one of the 80 people who've signed up to volunteer on the farm.

"I just learned how to do this this morning. It's amazing what you can learn when you show up on a Saturday and are willing to get dirty!"

Like a lot of the volunteers, Barni doesn't have much gardening experience.

"So what's the secret to picking in the right place. The right leaves?"

"Y'know, I asked that same question! And it turns out there is no science to it! It's more like, just get in there and let the new leaves get some sun and grow."

Exposing city-dwellers to the joys of growing food is one of the Alleycats' missions. They invite school groups to the farm to help out. And Amber Banks says they want the same people who get food donations to know how to work the soil.

"Y'know, 'cause we're not gonna be around forever. People are eventually gonna have to take over these gardens. To teach people that they can feed themselves from the ground that's right around them is really a good message as well."

Sean Conroe says Alleycat Acres is expanding to other vacant lots in the city. So are a lot of other urban farming groups. They're planting carrots in unused yards. And broccoli where old businesses were torn down.

"We'd like to expand as much as we can where there are empty lots that have ample sunlight, that have access to water and that have community rallying around projects such as this."

The city has even dubbed 2010 "The Year of Urban Agriculture." But these farms' growth is limited. That's because like a lot of cities, Seattle has restrictions on urban farms. The city council is now considering changing those laws.

For the Environment Report, I'm Ann Dornfeld.

Copyright 2010. The Regents of the University of Michigan. Used with permission.

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