Where the Sidewalk Ends

Farming on the West Side

by by Jonah Wolf

In a 4,275-square-foot lot among Harrison Street’s clapboard houses in West Providence, 14 cubic yards of compost stand at a second-grader’s height, and orange flags mark eight different beds. This is Sidewalk Ends farm, which Laura Brown-Lavoie B’10.5 founded this spring along with her sister, Tess, and their friend Fay Strongin.­

From Providence to France to Maine and Back
A Comparative Literature and Literary Arts concentrator whose lyric essays have been published in publications both national (the Seneca Review) and local (the Independent), Laura first got her hands dirty during her semester off, traveling France with the popular program World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which allows world travelers to help out on farms in exchange for room and board. Upon her return, she started working at both Red Planet Vegetables, the local farm run by Catherine Mardosa B’03, and City Farm, the 3/4-acre farm in Providence’s South Side that serves as a (literal) training ground for many local growers. Tess will graduate next month from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individual Study, where her self-designed curriculum investigated “the way that industrial agriculture is underpinned by a whole system of economic and political values, but also social values, and even certain narratives of American history.” Over the last summer, the two sisters and Strongin all worked at a farm-to-table restaurant in midcoast Maine.

Getting the Lead Out
The urban farmer’s second task, after finding a space, is controlling its lead levels: many city plots, once occupied by lead-painted houses, still contain trace amounts of the contaminant. When Sidewalk Ends began, their soil had lead concentrations upwards of 400 parts per million. As a result, they haven’t been able to plant anything; in the meantime, Fay and Laura’s Governor Street apartment plays host to a young crop of carrots, as well as six baby chicks they bought off Craigslist. The farmers are planning to build a chicken coop on the most contaminated part of the lot (“We thought it would just take the Pythagorean theorem,” Laura says, ruefully, of her first foray into architecture); for the rest, they’re replacing the top five inches with alternating layers of dry leaves and compost. (This latter will include the clippings from haircuts Laura will provide over the summer, along with a muffin, for $5.)

The Sidewalk Ends farmers take encouragement from Front Step Farms, down Harrison Street, whose farmer, Nathaniel “Than” Wood, has been able to rehabilitate his soil over the one year he’s been in business. The two farms share a steel broadfork to work the soil and a plot on Bowdoin Street in Olneyville, whose lower lead concentrations are more amenable to deep-growing roots and tubers. This summer, they will pool their produce into a small Community-Shared Agriculture program, a subscription service whereby Rhode Islanders can pay $10 a week for fresh vegetables. An optional bread share will be baked weekly in the cob oven Wood built, out of all-local clay and straw, on his plot. (Wood also plans to run, for the second consecutive summer, a clandestine restaurant serving pizzas topped with his vegetables on a picnic table in the back of his plot.) The two farms have joined the Little City Growers’ Cooperative to distribute their produce to local restaurants, and will participate in the Farmers’ Market at nearby Armory Park over the summer.

In the five years since Michael Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma, urban agriculture has become something of a hipster cliché, the stuff of Stuff White People Like (#5: Farmers’ Markets, #6: Organic food, #132: Picking their own fruit). Still, the environmental benefits of eating locally are as undeniable as the hegemony supporting large, single-crop farms. Even if the new jobs barely dent Rhode Island’s eleven-percent unemployment rate, one can’t but be heartened by the initiative of these farmers and their investment in this city.

White people like JONAH WOLF B’12.

For more information about Backyard Farms CSA, and to subscribe, email [email protected] The Armory Park Farmers Market occurs Thursdays 4-7 from June 2 to October 27.