A new pilot program is ‘growing food and farmers’ in one of Pittsburgh’s food deserts

Urban farmers, assemble.

A groundskeeper watches as a group of students tours the future site of the Hilltop Urban Farm in St. Clair. Once operational, organizers hope the farm will serve as an oasis of fresh produce in the Hilltop, one of Pittsburgh's harshest food deserts.

A groundskeeper watches as a group of students tours the future site of the Hilltop Urban Farm in St. Clair. Once operational, organizers hope the farm will serve as an oasis of fresh produce in the Hilltop, one of Pittsburgh's harshest food deserts.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE
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Yes, we have farmers in Pittsburgh — we just call them urban farmers — and if you’re one of them, you’re in luck.

The 2019 Pilot Farmer Incubation Program at the Hilltop Urban Farm in St. Clair, a planned 23-acre urban farm nonprofit, is now accepting applications from experienced urban farmers to farm 5.75 rehabilitated urban acres for the 2019 growing season.

Participants will be provided access to land and farming amenities and will learn farm business management skills and food growing techniques.

This is a big deal for a few reasons.

Once fully operational, the Hilltop Urban Farm will be the largest urban farm in the country, according to Sarah Ashley Baxendell, director of green space projects with The Hilltop Alliance, the group overseeing the project.

It will also multiply the City of Pittsburgh’s food supply by 400 percent and quadruple the amount of food grown within the city’s limits. Crops include vegetables, fruits, nuts and more.

This is also the first urban farmer training program in the U.S., particularly at this scale, Baxendell said, adding, “There are a few other places where urban farmers are trained, but it’s primarily as apprentices or on micro-plots.”

And if all that wasn’t reason enough to consider applying, know that the Hilltop Urban Farm will also serve residents of the Hilltop, a collection of a dozen communities on Pittsburgh’s southern end and one of the harshest food deserts in the city. We chronicled the Hilltop’s struggle with fresh food access issues — and the Hilltop Urban Farm’s planned role as an oasis in the midst of all this — in our four-part series on food deserts last year.

Baxendell has said legitimate portions of the food grown at the farm will stay in the Hilltop, while other portions will go to restaurants Downtown, food co-ops and other destinations.

She added of the farm’s mission to build — or rebuild — Pittsburgh’s agricultural presence: “We’re growing food and farmers.”

The application deadline for farmers to apply to the Pilot Farmer Incubation Program is Feb. 1, 2019. Applications can be downloaded here. Delivery instructions are included in the link.

A site tour and information session will be held for program applicants from 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13 at the 700 Cresswell Street farm. An application working session will be held from 5-8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 831 E. Warrington Ave., Floor 2.

A press release announcing the opening of the pilot program’s application period lists the average age of a farmer in Allegheny County at 60 and says more local farmers are leaving the profession.

“The 2019 Pilot FIP is designed to train a new generation of farmers, focused on the urban core of the City of Pittsburgh,” the release adds.