Farmer Pirates cultivate East Side treasure
There are two things the East Side has plenty of: vacant lots and cheap, dilapidated housing. To the Farmer Pirates, that means gold, and the opportunity to live more intentionally. “A different lifestyle is available to us on the East Side,” says Dan Ash, one of the initiators of Farmer Pirates Cooperative. “Not only can we grow our own food in the city, but we have greater economic freedom by buying houses cheaply and working together to fix them up. We’re putting ourselves in positions where we don’t have to be so worried about bringing in a paycheck to pay the bills. It gives us more creative freedom.”
The Farmer Pirates Cooperative is a group of farmers and farms, at various stages of development, who’ve endeavored to work together to tap into and further develop an economy of support that helps current and would-be farmers take advantage of vacant lots, buy in bulk, share resources, and drastically reduce individual expenses. Membership currently includes individuals from Wilson Street Urban Farm, Cold Spring Cooperative Farm, SolRise Farm, and two on their first season: Michigan Avenue Urban Farm and Common Roots Farm.
Though farmers on the East Side and elsewhere have been working together for years to share resources, the real impetus for the more structured group came from an October acquisition of two clusters of vacant lots around Michigan Avenue and Riley Street, and Peckam and Coit Streets. Ash and fellow farmer Mike Raleigh bought half the lots at auction and half from a developer. “Within a three-week period, we learned about and acquired thirty lots,” Ash says. “Our plans changed overnight.” Their intention was never to cultivate the land themselves but to make it available to other farmers, and Farmer Pirates became the vehicle to make that happen.
That’s what brought Terra Dumas on board. Dumas had been farming in rural Maine for three years, and even had her own farm: Take Root Farm. But ultimately, she decided she wanted to get back to Buffalo, her real roots, and do something important with her skill set. Now she’s a founding member of Common Roots Farm, and excited about it. “Starting a farm in the city poses challenges unlike those I knew as a rural farmer,” Dumas says, “but since I started working with the folks who make up Farmer Pirates, I have no doubt that together we can begin rebuilding healthy, vibrant communities.” Immediately following the big October lot purchase, other members of Common Roots bought auctioned houses adjacent to the new lots, suggesting that the cooperative structure at work here could be transformational for the East Side.
The cooperative officially incorporated this past February. The name Farmer Pirates was an easy decision. One piece is ideology. “Pirate,” Ash says, is a word that embodies resistance, and for Farmer Pirates, that means resistance to the current industrial food system. “We’re opting out by growing our own food. We don’t have to go to grocery stores and buy food we feel is unhealthy. We’re taking control.” Mike Harter of Common Roots Farm says similarly that he likes the do-it-yourself focus: “We’re stepping up and taking back an old method, and reconnecting with our environment.”
Daniel Ash with neighborhood children at his East Side farm, Cold Spring Cooperative
The second piece is obvious. Heave ho’ing on the East Side with Farmer Pirates is fun. For their Kickstarter fundraising campaign, the group got together and sang, in multi-part harmony, their own rendition of “Home on the Range.” The purpose of the campaign was to fund the purchase of a truck to facilitate a shared composting program. Ash promises that the “pirate mobile” will be decked out in proper pirate garb and have a big flag. They’ll probably wear bandanas, he says, and compost haul will be their loot.
The aim of the composting program is to eliminate the inconvenience and cost of hauling in manure from a distance. Instead, they’ll pick up large amounts of food waste from partners like the Food Bank and Golden Cup Coffee Company and drop it off at composting sites on each farm. Mark Stevens of the Wilson Street Urban Farm, now on its fourth season, says this program is critical to expanding farming efforts and ameliorating the soil. “Right now we have twenty-five lots but we’re not fully utilizing them,” he says, “because the soil is poor. We’ve been getting piecemeal compost, but we’re always at the mercy of getting a truck at a reasonable rate to bring in horse manure, for example. Transportation costs are an issue. We need that control in our own hands.”
The Farmer Pirates Collective’s first season will focus on putting together its compost program, facilitating wholesale purchases of farm-affiliated necessities like seeds and soil amendments, sharing among farms the equipment each already has, and hosting fundraising events like a fall pig roast. After that, the sky’s the limit. They’re looking into group liability insurance, buying more lots when they become available, working with artists to create sculptures that double as plant terraces, and greenhouse and water catchment projects. Ash says one of his ultimate goals for the Michigan Avenue Farm is to build a market where all cooperative members will be welcome to sell produce.
And that’s one of the beautiful things about the cooperative model. The farms are not competitive with one another. Profit is not the main objective. It’s about building a healthy community and recognizing one another as the best resources for enacting positive change.
To learn more about how you can get involved with Farmer Pirates, or for more information about individual farms, go to www.farmerpirates.com
Cold Spring Cooperative Farm
Southampton Street and Masten Avenue
Common Roots Farm
Peckham and Coit Street
Michigan Avenue Urban Farm
Michigan Avenue at Reily Street
SolRise Urban Farm
East Utica Street at Masten Avenue
Wilson Street Urban Farm
360 Wilson Street
Sarah Quintal is a sporadic freelance writer now on the hunt for an eye patch and a hoe.