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Pioneering Spirit

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Farm girl: Mary Seton Corboy on her contemporaries profiled in The L Life: “There’s a lot of Don—or Donna—Quixotes who, whether they’re going to get anyplace or not, seem to have decided early on in their lives that they were going to try to kick the ass of the windmill.”

How does urban farmer Mary Seton Corboy’s garden grow?
by Nancy Ford
• Photo by Jennifer May

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”
—from Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech,? delivered at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851.

Author Erin McHugh has done the world a great service. Celebrating and commemorating Women’s History Month with its release, McHugh’s The L Life: Extraordinary Lesbians Making a Difference conveniently collects within one cover the best and brightest of those women whose work and spirit is a template not only of our past, but also for where we, as a culture, are headed.

Among McHugh’s subjects are contemporary icons like Glee megastar Jane Lynch, as well as Logo television network chief Lisa Sherman and pop/punkers Betty’s Amy and Elizabeth Ziff. These relative “Janies-Come-Lately” are joined by heavy-hitters like early pulp fiction writer Ann Bannon; U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D –WI), author/activist Urvashi Vaid and her hysterical girlfriend, comic Kate Clinton; Dallas County Sherriff Lupe Valdez; the surviving half of the lesbian team that helped start it all, Phyllis Lyon; and others. It’s required reading for anyone, lesbian or not, who is turned on, or simply inspired, by estrogenic power.

One of those lesser-known women chosen by McHugh as a point of focus is Mary Seton Corboy. A pioneer in the fast-growing urban farming phenomenon, Corboy and her business partner established Greensgrow upon purchasing a distressed full city block in Philadelphia
in 1998.

One of America’s premier urban farms, Greensgrow provides a food co-op with a decidedly gay twist, Corboy explains, growing tasty produce like gourmet salad greens, baby arugula and mini-vegetables.

Its nonprofit outshoot is The Philadelphia Project, offering farm lectures, school tours, and workshops, all focused on expanding the urban farming idea.

Corboy, who counts beating endometrial cancer among her many accomplishments, spoke to OutSmart recently about The L Life, her green thumb, and “breaking down the walls.”

Nancy Ford: I understand that Greensgrow was established in 1998. Congratulations on your lucky-13th anniversary. It takes up a whole city block in Philadelphia?
Mary Seton Corboy: [Laughs] It does. Philadelphia has a lot of city blocks, and unfortunately it has a lot of city blocks that have buildings that need to be razed. We’ve got a lot of crumbling infrastructure in Philadelphia. I just came back from spending the morning in Camden, New Jersey, which makes Philadelphia look like Oz. They just need to tear the whole thing down and start over again.

What an incredible opportunity, to make something good of something that’s crumbling, as you say.
Exactly, and to save our farmland that’s going away at a ridiculous rate. To some extent, the demographic of urban areas is starting to change, which is fantastic. There are more retired people who are moving back into the city. And young people are saying, “You know what? I’m not going to move to suburbia. I’m going to stay here and demand better schools for my children and other people’s children.”

It’s almost a pioneering spirit, isn’t it?
Well, you can’t just demand things for yourself out of government and out of society and out of community. Nothing would get done. Obviously, I don’t need to grow food for myself. I’m not in a financial crisis, but I run into an awful lot of people who are. And I think to myself, “If I had no money, I think one of the first things I would think to do is grow some food for myself.”

That is kind of an obvious solution. Plus, there is an additional economic benefit to urban farming: how many people do you employ with Greensgrow?
I just finished the budget. This year I think we’ll have 22 to 24 employees.

It seems like a readily expandable idea. Do you have any plans for franchising in other cities?
We debate all the time whether or not to call it “franchising.” And we have certainly talked to people in other cities. It’s one of the ironies of farming: whether it’s an urban farmer or a rural farmer, they’re all very individualistic. They want to do things their way. [Even though] you already built the wheel, they’re certain they can rebuild the wheel better. We’re seeing incredible growth in urban agriculture across the country for a variety of reasons. Greensgrow has been a model, God knows. I think I’ve talked to everybody who’s ever considered urban agriculture as a profession—it feels that way, anyway. And we have a number of people who have been with us for a number of years who are more the “Pied Piper” than I am. They’re younger and more enthusiastic, and they don’t mind going to some of these places where you still have to sleep on somebody’s couch or share the bathroom with eight people. I like to think I’m a little past that now!

There’s something very organic about that “grassroots” outreach, too.
Yes, as you say, there’s something that’s pioneering about it, and you have to be willing. You’re not going to walk into a fancy office. We were five years at Greensgrow before we got a bathroom! People used to say to me, “What is your official title?” And I’d say, “Well, we really don’t have titles here. I think once we get indoor plumbing, then we can work on the titles.” So you have to be willing to have that cowboy spirit and be a little “rough and ready.”

Yet, at the same time, one of the things that I think is appealing to younger people about urban agriculture is that the life of a farmer can be pretty lonely. But if you’re farming in the city, whether it’s 6 or 7 or 8 o’clock or whatever time the day ends, you still have city life in front of you. I notice, particularly, that a lot of our staff takes advantage of that! [Both laugh]

The best of both worlds, then! Greensgrow specializes in growing gourmet and mini-vegetables as opposed to the giant prize-winning pumpkins. And you do arugula pesto. Is that available online?
No, it’s not. We have actually just finished a study with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School to find out what it would take for us to begin making it available online to select food stores. But I find often that when people ramp up their business like that, quite honestly, one of the first things that goes is that they stop using a lot of the local product, because if you’re going to invest in a business like that, then you need to have a constant source of supply for your business.

That’s one of the issues we have here in the east. It’s not like Oregon. It’s not like we can have basil in our windowsills all the time.

That makes sense. And if it took you five years to get a bathroom, it’s not like you’re looking for any huge profit margin to pay for a corporate jet!
[Laughs] Yeah, the jet’s going to have to wait. More like a paper airplane. Even if I did that, I’d have to make it out of recycled paper. Sometimes I feel like the watch is on me, and anytime that I throw out the wrong thing or don’t use something, people are like, “Oh, I thought you were Miss Re-using.” I think, “Aw, shut up and give me a break, would you?”

Philadelphia has had record-breaking snowfall and cold temperatures this year. Is this affecting your “yield” in any way? Do your summer crops vary wildly from your winter crops since you have a greenhouse?
Yes, we do purchase a great deal less. The range of food that’s available, when you start getting into controlled environment agriculture, is much more limited. It’s hard to convince people who have access to every kind of fruit and vegetable in the world that it’s better for the world, it’s better for the planet, if you don’t eat, say, those strawberries. If they like strawberries, I don’t want to tell anybody they can’t have what they want.

But we’ve actually had a very good growing season, even though it’s been extraordinarily cold. This is the time of year when the sun, really, in many ways, is the strongest because it’s closest to the earth. Some things grow very well in greenhouses.

Do you think being a cancer survivor contributes somehow to your ability to achieve things that can’t be done by others, like establishing Greensgrow?
I’ll tell you the truth—I think most of my life I’ve kind of thought about myself first. Both working at Greensgrow and having gone through a health crisis [made me realize I] really need to just stop being strong for a minute, and recognize that people want to help, and they can help. It’s meaningful for them to help you, so you really have to let your guard down.

In my case, I really had a wall around myself in many ways, emotionally. I remember my mother saying, “When you have a baby, you lose all modesty.” When you have cancer, you also lose all modesty. It really does, it breaks down walls. You open yourself up to love, and, hopefully, what that does is allow you to love better, yourself. I never went through an “Oh God, I’m going to be dead soon so I have to leave a legacy.” I was at a place in my life where it helped push things over into the next level.

I guess there is no cookie-cutter way of going through things; it’s going to be different for every person. I’m proud to be a survivor, I’m proud to talk to other people and help other people that are going through it and see if some way my experience can make their experience a little easier.

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