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The Dripby Fern Shen4:08 pmJul 4, 20130

City awards bid for vacant parcels to Baltimore Free Farm

Above: Baltimore Free Farm, viewed here from Ash Street, will be able to purchase two Baldwin Street lots.

The latest box score from Hampden: Farmers: 1. Developers: 0.

Baltimore Housing announced late yesterday they have decided to award rights to buy two city-owned vacant lots on Baldwin Street to Baltimore Free Farm – choosing them over another bidder who reportedly planned to develop the properties.

“It’s a very happy Fourth of July!” said Jon Smeton, community impact intern for the three-year-old urban farming collective in North Baltimore.

Collective members, who were informed of the city’s decision yesterday, said they now have three months to come up with the remainder of the funds (“the last few thousand,” they say on their Facebook page) so they can complete the purchase of the land.

Smeton said the group was “overwhelmed” by the outpouring of financial and in-kind support from the community “which allowed us to submit a very strong bid.” He said the collective will be able to continue farming the .06-acres (where tomatoes, herbs, peppers and sunflowers are currently growing) and organize a fund-raising event to generate the rest of the money needed.

City officials announced their decision via an emailed release noting that, after two proposals were evaluated by Baltimore Housing, “the farming collective” was determined to be “the best fit for the Hampden community.”

“There are a variety of uses for vacant and blighted properties throughout Baltimore City and we appreciate everyone who comes to the table with a realistic proposal,” Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said, in the release.

“We know community managed open space enhances quality of life,” Graziano said, “and we support a balanced approach when considering development versus gardening.”

How did the Free Farm folk get the attention of a cabinet level official in the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake?

Converging Interests

The BFF members may be urban-farming back-to-the-land-ers, but their agenda has dovetailed fortuitously with several government initiatives being embraced by the city and its ambitious mayor. One of their earliest projects, the Ash Street Community Garden, was created on three lots they were able to farm though the city’s Adopt-a-Lot program.

(Under the program, over 800 lots have been adopted by residents throughout the city – a third of them by people planning to use them for gardening, the Housing release says.)

As the Free Farm evolved (growing and distributing produce and surplus food, winning awards for volunteer service and sustainable gardening practices) it began using two adjacent city-owned lots – 1522 and 1524 – fronting on Baldwin Street.

But organizers became alarmed when news spread earlier this year that the city was considering a bid from someone who planned to build on the land, kicking off a competing bid submitted on behalf of the Free Farm in hopes of keeping the parcels as part of their turf.

The controversy spawned a minor embarrassment for the mayor, breaking on a day last month when she was dedicating Strength to Love II Farm, an urban agriculture project in Sandtown.

In announcing the bid award, the release from Housing invoked several of the projects and concepts Rawlings-Blake touts regularly in speeches. In addition to Adopt-a-Lot, it mentioned Vacants to Value, growing Baltimore by 10,000 households and “helping Baltimoreans grow fresh local food.”

Smeton, who declined to discuss the purchase price for the land, said the collective has been “blown away with all the support we’ve gotten so far,” he said, adding that, it left them with “no worries at all” about coming up with the remaining funds.

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