Greener Partners brings people closer to their food

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Jason Ingle, executive director of Greener Partners, stands amid squash plants at Hillside Farm. "Part of our mission as a nonprofit," he said, "is to help people have a deeper appreciation for the land and see [food production] as a viable alternative to housing or just a passive preserve."

Elwyn, a Delaware County nonprofit group that provides services for people with disabilities, has a 400-acre campus, much of which was farmed as part of what used to be a nearly self-sustaining community.

But the farmland has been fallow since the early 1980s, as the campus population decreased and the remaining residents became more disabled, said the group's president, Sandy Cornelius.

Then along came Greener Partners, a nonprofit organization led by Jason Ingle, who previously had made his living at a New York hedge fund, with a vision for a network of small farms in the Philadelphia region that would help bring people closer to their food.

Thus was born Hillside Farm, which occupies just under five acres on Elwyn's campus and is edging toward the end of its second season of organically growing tomatoes, squash, hot peppers, all sorts of greens, and even popcorn, so visiting children can see what corn looks like.

"It's a better use of the land. It's education for all. It's nice marketing, if you want to be businesslike, for Elwyn itself," said Cornelius, who is happy to see people coming to Hillside for a weekly supply of produce.

If Ingle has his way, the success at Hillside will be a springboard to help build what he called a "more sustainable food system that is regionalized."

"Part of our mission as a nonprofit," Ingle said during an interview this month at Hillside, "is to help people have a deeper appreciation for the land and see [food production] as a viable alternative to housing or just a passive preserve."

Besides Hillside, Greener Partners also has the 1.5-acre Skunk Hollow Community Farm at the Willows park in Radnor Township and the even smaller Farm at Waterloo Mills Preserve. On the drawing board for next year is a plot at Montgomery County's Norristown Farm Park.

Started four years ago, Greener Partners joined the growing ranks of Philadelphia groups geared, in some cases, toward local food production coupled with education and, in others, the connection of farmers in nearby agricultural areas with urban and suburban consumers.

Ingle, 36, has roots in agriculture, growing up on a farm in New York's Finger Lakes region, where his father bought land and planted a vineyard in 1971. But Ingle had left agriculture behind until recently. He worked in finance in New York after college, most recently at Aslan Capital, a hedge fund.

In 2001, Ingle and his wife moved to the Philadelphia area to split the distance between his family in New York and hers in Virginia. For five years, he commuted to work in Manhattan.

During that period, he participated in a program at Leadership Inc., a Philadelphia group that prepares businesspeople for service on nonprofit boards.

That training led to a position on the board of Tyler Arboretum near Media, where, Ingle said, he was on a steering committee that started a demonstration vegetable garden - the seed from which Greener Partners grew into an entity with a projected budget of $470,000 this year.

The first impulse of Ingle and his cofounders, Gary Cox and Erin Herz, all of whom came from the business world, was to establish Greener Partners as a business, rather than a nonprofit group.

But, in the end, Ingle feared that a for-profit Greener Partners would likely be no different than a financial boiler room. It could have turned into five guys holed up in Seagram's Tower in Manhattan, heads down, crunching numbers, when the real goal was to be involved with people in the community.

Mary Seton Corboy, founder of Greensgrow Farm in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, said she understood Ingle's dilemma, having tried very hard "to create a stand-alone business entity." But she found that Greensgrow "just kept crossing back over into the education component," the nonprofit realm.

Despite his instinctual for-profit mentality, Ingle has accepted the nonprofit model as the way to go for Greener Partners. "Farming is incredibly capital-intensive," even on a small scale, he said. It cost close to $100,000 to set up Hillside Farm, and that is without paying for the land.

Bob Pierson, founder and director of Farm to City, a Philadelphia business that helps the region's farmers distribute food in the city, has long argued that the local food movement cannot survive if it must live from grant to grant.

For Ingle, who has made enough money from other ventures to get by without pay from Greener Partners so far, the trick now is learning the ropes of nonprofit fund-raising - a far cry from his life of raising money for investment funds.

He leaves the farming to people like Rick Fonda, who had no farm background until he apprenticed at Red Hill Farm in Aston, on land owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

Fonda and two apprentices are growing vegetables for 80 members who pay $750 to pick up weekly allotments of produce for the season, with some left over to sell at the weekly farmer's market in Media and to donate regularly to local food cupboards.

One of the members, Mike Kohute, of Media, who struggled to get two bags of produce and a watermelon to his car one day last month, said he was in his first year and was pleased with the bounty.

"Compared to what you buy at the store, you can't beat this," he said, adding that his share was split with friends because otherwise it would be too much food.

 


 

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Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.