Pulse: Chatter: Why Roxborough’s Throwing Down Over Vegetables

Is urban farming harming local wildlife?

David K. O’Neil is a fighter. Whether it’s encroaching housing developments or communication towers, he’s successfully battled to keep harm away from the little corner of Roxborough where he’s lived since 1986. But the newest blight faced by the tight-knit community isn’t underground gas drilling, or high-tension power lines. It’s … urban farming.

O’Neil’s home abuts grassy Manatawna Farm, a Fairmount Park-owned stretch of 76 acres, 27 of which are used by Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences to grow hay. Recently the city began looking for chemical-free commercial urban-farming sites – the kind where residents might go for their week’s veggie supply – and decided to lease five acres of those 27 to start-up farmers, figuring it was easiest to farm land that was already a farm. But critics say choosing Manatawna is less about logic than laziness.

The trouble, say O’Neil, his ally Councilman Curtis Jones, and members of local opposition groups – yes, groups, plural – is that farming will disturb the area’s wildlife, most notably a bird called the bobolink, which nests in hayfields. Plus, they argue, the city should be taking burned-out blocks and converting them into farms, as Detroit is doing on a large scale. “We shouldn’t be touching that which is already green,” says O’Neil. “There are thousands of potential locations.”

“You’d think it was a nuclear plant,” says Fairmount Park’s Joan Blaustein, who questions the residents’ motives. “The reduction of five acres is not going to make or break the birds. The truth is, they think this will disrupt their bucolic neighborhood.”

It may all shake out later this month when City Council debates Councilman Jones’s proposal to issue a moratorium on all commercial farming at Manatawna. But for now, the neighborhood, and its bobolinks, remains safe from the threat of homegrown squash.