In the Field / WestSide Tilth
An urban farm transforms vacant lots
Alex Wadsworth and Carrie Nader, co-owners of WestSide Tilth
Photos by Stephen Gabris
In the past decade, Buffalo’s West Side has gone from cars propped on cinderblocks and falling-down houses to a lively, multicultural microcosm of entrepreneurial spirit, rehabbed housing, and neighbors who are beginning to know each other again. Tucked among maddening one-way side streets merging into pie-shaped intersections are coffee shops bustling with a steady stream of regulars, bars that are more bougie than divey, and bistros boasting menus of imaginative fare and national acclaim. A compact garden center, buzzing creative spaces, a butcher, two bakers, and still a few troublemakers. And then there’s another thing not typically seen in an urban setting.
At the corner of Normal Avenue and Vermont Street is WestSide Tilth, the newest in a growing number of urban farms that are transforming vacant lots into verdant sanctuaries teeming with a bounty of fresh, organic, hyper-local produce. The farm sits on eight former city lots that once held a corner bar and houses that were razed years ago. Using the city’s homestead program, co-owner Carrie Nader bought a fixer-upper house to rehab and live in, and an adjoining empty lot to tend a garden and a couple fruit trees several years ago. She had no intentions of starting a farm. But, over the next four years, she began to acquire the abutting vacant lots through auctions until she had the corner connected as one open space.
Around that time, now co-owner Alex Wadsworth showed up. He had been studying with Eliot Coleman, an inventive and prolific farmer and author specializing in organic market gardens, at Four Seasons Farm in Maine. Wadsworth was back in Buffalo and had been farming in people’s yards until he met Nader, then the two thirty-somethings got to work prepping the lots to open WestSide Tilth in 2017. Through meticulous planning, apprenticed know-how, and a bit of trial and error, they’ve been able to coax a staggering amount of vegetables, herbs, and greens out of just a quarter-acre of growing space.
Producing this much food on such a small parcel of land requires three essential practices: building supercharged soil, planting intensively, and giving seedlings a head start.
Crops are planted, pruned, and harvested by hand
First, the dirt. As the former sites of very old houses, WestSide’s soil was most likely laden with toxic lead paint, asbestos, and who-knows-what else, so planting directly in the ground wasn’t something Nader and Wadsworth wanted to do. They followed urban soil remediation standards for edible crops from Boston (Buffalo’s are still being developed), and started by covering the surface of the existing soil with a geotextile barrier. Essentially a huge piece of super-strong, porous black fabric, the barrier allows water to drain into the ground but prevents clean soil from mixing with contaminated dirt below it. Then they imported the perfect blend of compost and other biological material, clay, nematodes, and more to form the growing beds, long strips of mounded soil about a foot deep and flattened on the top–picture long, raised beds minus the side boards. There’s just enough space between beds for Nader and Wadsworth to pass through as they plant, weed, trellis, prune, and harvest by hand; they don’t need to leave room for mechanical cultivators or tractors to pass through.
WestSide uses intensive planting methods where individual plants, rows, and plant varieties are spaced closer together than on a field-based farm. Because the soil can be amended with organic fertilizers as needed, there’s enough nutrition to support more plants per square foot. They’re careful not to pair things that don’t grow well next to each other–bell peppers and fennel, for example, compete for the same nutrients–and take into account how quickly things grow and mature so one type of veggie doesn’t shade another one rooted nearby. You might find inter-plantings of peas and salad turnips really close to a line of heirloom Japanese eggplants, and courgette-style zucchini plants spaced just ten inches apart.
“Sometimes we call it the Hidden Farm,” jokes Wadsworth. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Where can I stick this plant?’”
Many of the veggie plants in WestSide’s beds get a head start in a propagation house at the back of the property. Nader and Wadsworth sow seeds by hand into trays of tiny cells, transplant them into blocks of Vermont Compost as they grow, then plant them in the beds when they’ve reached a larger size. This allows them to re-cultivate each bed two to four times per season–when one crop, like peas, is done, several flats of another veggie plant are ready to be popped into their place. The goal is to have most varieties of produce ready after about three weeks in the field instead of the typical five or six. This quick turnover not only increases the amount of food produced by the farm, it also prevents nasty things like bugs, blights, and mildew from settling in. The exceptions are tomatoes and cucumbers, which are grown in their own greenhouse with vines trained to meander up long strings secured to the ceiling. By growing up instead of out, these typical space hogs can produce several pounds of produce in just one square foot of soil.
This quick-rotation, intensive planting method means the farm chooses not to grow some varieties of produce, like things that take up a lot of space relative to the amount of edible food they produce (Brussels sprouts, pumpkins, corn, potatoes) and perennial crops that don’t get re-planted every year (asparagus, rhubarb, berries). On the other hand, it means they can opt for other treats that might require too much detailed handwork or specialized equipment that just wouldn’t make sense on a larger, traditional farm–like oyster mushrooms that sprout out of “logs” made from long, clear plastic bags full of straw in a special climate-controlled room; tender, nutty sunflower shoots grown in trays in the greenhouse and lovingly cut by hand; and bunches of fresh-cut flowers for the table.
WestSide Tilth’s CSA pickup is market-style, meaning that instead of a pre-packed box of veggies, its thirty members get an allocated amount of a certain produce category, like greens, and they can pick which combination of items they’d like, such as kale, chard, lettuce, spinach, to fulfill their share. Each WestSide Tilth CSA member gets a re-usable fabric shopping bag at the start of the season to tote their veggies home each week, and can pick up their shares on Tuesdays from 4 to 7 p.m., which is also when the farm stand is open for the public to shop. A tent set just inside the wooden fence gate boasts an impressive array of beautifully bunched and packaged herbs, greens, veggies, and mushrooms for sale, plus made-to-order flatbreads featuring produce grown on the farm. Given its city neighborhood location, farm stand patrons often wander over on foot and by bike to pick up a few things for dinner; payment by cash, credit, SNAP, and WIC are accepted.
Its closeness to customers is one of the biggest benefits of WestSide Tilth’s urban location. The farm’s delivery route, which includes Lexington Co-op, Black Sheep, Lait Cru, BreadHive, 100 Acres, Rowhouse, and Merge, is all within a five-mile radius of the farm’s gate. Sometimes, though, the proximity to people causes issues rarely experienced in a rural setting.
“The assumption is that farming in the city would mean rats,” says Nader. “But sometimes our biggest pests are people. We have some really great neighbors, but others are up partying late at night and we’re up at dawn to farm. Theft is an issue. We’ve also had people think this is a community garden, wander in, and pick things assuming they’re free. The pros of this location outweigh the cons, though!”