On a rainy Friday in May, POP invited our partners to celebrate the construction of two new high tunnels at our home base, the POP Learning Orchard. These high tunnels are POP’s first major capital investment, and the latest addition to our infrastructure at the historic Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia where we also maintain a 90-tree demonstration orchard and edible plant nursery. 

Attendees at the May 10 high tunnel celebration included staff, board, and volunteers from POP and the Woodlands, but also from Farm Philly, TreePhilly, PA Department of Agriculture, US Forest Service, Neighborhood Gardens Trust, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, Public Interest Law Center, William Penn Foundation, UC Green, and the Junior League. POP community partners came to celebrate too, with team members from Urban Creators, Neighborhood Land Power Project, FNC Farms, and Norris Square Neighborhood Project showing up in support.

The high tunnel event ended up taking place two days after City Council’s Committee on the Environment held a hearing about progress on the Urban Agriculture Plan. Many of the same people were back together in community at the Learning Orchard after testifying or attending the May 8 hearing. Councilmember Kendra Brooks noted that “Over 100 community members came out to show their support for urban agriculture, and it is a clear message to the folks in City Hall that there is tremendous support and demand for land that we can plant and grow on here in this city. So thank you for being a part of the movement to reclaim the land for our people, to celebrate our connection to nature, and to build a green, sustainable city that our children wouldn’t be ashamed to call home.”

Left, the exterior of POP’s nursery high tunnel on an overcast day, set up for the event. Right, the interior of the tunnel showing the crowd seated on chairs and standing in the back of the high tunnel, listening intently to one of the speakers. Photo Credit: Melissa Simpson

The featured speakers were Philadelphia City Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, 3rd District, and Nicolas O’Rourke, At-Large, as well as Elizabeth Okero, Director of Urban Creators, a community farm and POP partner orchard in North Philadelphia. Hosts Jessica Baumert, Executive Director of the Woodlands, and Kim Jordan, POP’s Co-Executive Director, also shared remarks that provided more context around the history of this important West Philly green space and the partnership between POP and The Woodlands.

High tunnels are also known as unheated greenhouses, but POP’s plans go beyond an extended growing season. This landmark project will host an experimental food forest that simulates a warmer environment, serving as a lab to gain critical experience and build climate resilience for the city’s many orchards. The reality of growing trees and food in Philadelphia continues to change, and POP plans to be ready. POP’s new high tunnels were made possible, after years of planning, by funding from the PA Department of Agriculture, PA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Junior League of Philadelphia, and Citizens Bank. We got to the finish line thanks to city funding and a dedicated extended family of volunteers, partners, and supporters.

Clockwise, from upper left corner: Two POP Lead Orchard Volunteers pose while smiling with Deja Morgan, POP community outreach coordinator (center); Board member Nate Kleinman and FPAC Food Policy Program Manager Erica Mines; Councilmember Nic O’Rourke and Dr. Jamie Green, PA Department of Agriculture eastern region director; A group of attendees tours the high tunnel for in-ground production; POP co-director Phil Forsyth, Woodlands director Jessica Baumert, and POP co-director Kim Jordan line up in order of descending height. Photo Credit: Melissa Simpson

Jessica Baumert shared that “The Learning Orchard at The Woodlands clearly fits the goals of our mission to serve as a community green space and we are so grateful to have POP as a site partner. They have transformed a small section of The Woodlands in a very short time with their forward thinking, experimental, and community focused role in Philadelphia’s horticultural ecosystem. The new high tunnels connect with the history of this space, while looking forward to the future.” An excerpt from a letter written by William Hamilton (an eminent botanist and plant collector in his time, and a contemporary of John Bartram) to Thomas Jefferson in 1808 highlights some of the plants he was growing in his greenhouses at the time: “That most delicious fruit, the India mango, and what is nearly as fine, the Tahitian apple, the gooseberry of Tahiti, the South Sea plum, the guava, the water lemon, the China and mandarin oranges, the citrons, the shattuck, the lemon, the lime, etc., etc., etc.” The gooseberries now ripening in the Learning Orchard connect us to this past, and to this land, and help us dream about what’s possible.

3rd District Councilmember Jamie Gauthier talked about the work of Dr. Eugenia South and the Penn Urban Health Lab. Their research has shown the healing effects of nature, and aims to “enable health through racial, economic, and environmental justice for Black, Brown, and all people and neighborhoods harmed by structural inequity.” Gauthier noted that “urban farms foster food sovereignty, promote sustainability, and build community, but they also have to be a part of the conversation when we’re talking about violence prevention in this city. I want to thank the Philadelphia Orchard Project for being a model of excellence and a steadfast partner in this work. POP has 24 orchards — let me just repeat that again— 24 orchards in the 3rd district alone, and I’m really grateful for that.”

From left to right: POP co-executive director Phil Forsyth, councilmember-at-large Nicolas O’Rourke, councilmember-at-large Kendra Brooks, 3rd district councilmember Jamie Gauthier, The Woodlands’ executive director Jessica Baumert, POP co-executive director Kim Jordan, and Urban Creators co-director Elizabeth Okero. Photo Credit: Melissa Simpson

We all learned a new phrase from Councilmember O’Rourke, “peacock proud and honeymoon happy”, as he began his remarks by putting the high tunnel event into context not only with that week’s hearing, but the overall creation of the city’s Urban Agriculture Plan. He continued, “I want to thank you all for inviting me out today to celebrate these exciting new efforts, this new endeavor underway in this space. It’s amazing to think about what ripple effects it will have on the wider network of growing spaces in Philadelphia. You all are thinking very hard about our shared future, which I think is particularly important… There’s so much life and hope and potential here, so many connections to cultivate. So I’ll close by saying this, which I said in council a few weeks ago. Any green transition worth its name involves a ton of shifts in our economy, in our workforce, in our infrastructure, honestly, even in our geopolitics. But one element that has to be a part of a green transition is a deep and sustained change in how we relate to the land itself and how we relate to each other.”

Clockwise, from upper left corner: People tour POP’s plant nursery, with one high tunnel visible in the background; Dom Matti (Pasa), POP board member Nate Kleinman, and Jehane Semaha (US Forest Service); Julian D’Andrea (POP), Shawn (Urban Creators), and Phil Forsyth (POP); Marci Green (POP board president), Rebecca Fruehwald (NLPP), and Annie Tickell (Farm Philly); Sharon Appiah (POP) and Jiana Murdic (Get Fresh Daily); POP LOV, Mindy Maslin (“Tree Lady”, retired from PHS), and Joe Shapiro (POP and Woodlands volunteer extraordinaire). Photo Credit: Melissa Simpson

The question of how we relate to one another also resonated with Elizabeth Okero from Urban Creators. “This is deeper than farming. This is community organizing. This is creating wellness based community events. This is connecting with the direct people we serve as a means to change. The historical narrative we see has left our community members forgotten, from side lots to large pieces of land like we tend at Life Do Grow farm, along with many other organizations in North Philadelphia, such as Norris Square Neighborhood Project, Iglesias Gardens, North Philly Peace Park, just to name a few, we are now being seen citywide as vital and necessary for the betterment of our community, and we need these conversations to continue beyond the urban ag hearing and beyond today. With partner organizations like Philly Orchard Project, we’re able to expand our own knowledge of what is possible when it comes to healing in relation to the land and in community.”

For many of POP’s community partners, who are used to working with staff in their own gardens or orchards, it was their first visit to the Learning Orchard. We provided tours of the high tunnels, but also the edible plant nursery, the solar system powering the irrigation and high tunnel mechanics, the berry gardens and the mushroom cultivation, the understory herbs and the nitrogen-fixing shrubs, the bee hives and the pollinator gardens. The Learning Orchard demonstrates the many different ways in which we seek to better understand the interactions between the edible and non-edible plants, the soil, the non-human creatures and the people who care for them. It lets partners see the variety of what we are growing, and the ways in which we are learning the best ways to deal with our changing climate and how we can continue to grow perennial crops that feed our neighbors.

We valued the opportunity to welcome so many visitors to our growing space: to talk about our shared future, and to plan and dream about how we can continue our efforts to grow and sustain urban agriculture at all scales across this city. From the elected officials who can work at the legislative level to remove barriers and increase access to needed resources, from compost to water to funding; to the philanthropic organizations who can provide much-needed support not only for infrastructure but for ongoing operations, paying the team members who keep things running; to the dedicated land stewards who make up the staff, board, and volunteers for POP, Urban Creators, NLPP, and so many others– let’s keep this conversation going.

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