The Urban Farmer: Planter Of Seeds, Grower Of Neighborhoods

Mary Seton Corboy looks like an intellectual and a farmer collided, wearing soiled covered clothing, thick-rimmed glasses, and blessed with the gift of a permanent tan. She keeps her agenda and checks her email with a Blackberry, hands out business cards, and makes sure the farm is up to date with social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. The 51 year-old is charming with a twist of ironic wit and unsuspected strength for a petite, soft-spoken woman. She is a revolutionary, community activist, and an inventor. Mary Seton Corboy is an urban farmer.

Corboy is one of eight children and spent her childhood and adolescence partially in Ethiopia, but mostly in Washington D.C. Her father was an original member of the Peace Corp. and later worked for the United States State Department.

Moving from Ethiopia to Washington D.C was not the only change in Corboy’s life. She has gone through many transitions and was described by Philadelphia Magazine as a “political scientist turned chef turned gardener.” The confusing life changes can be easily summed up. In 7 years she attended 5 different colleges. Corboy describes herself as not being “academically inclined” and graduated at the bottom of her Catholic high school class. She was young and unsure what to do with the rest of her life. It was not until one of her English literature professors described poetry as a metaphor, as more than what a person or poet says, that poetry actually means a world greater than reality. She heard that, something clicked, and life made sense to Corboy. She graduated from Wilson College on the Dean’s List with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and English Literature. Her academic achievements at Wilson awarded her a scholarship to graduate school.

She attended graduate school at Villanova University just outside Philadelphia and has not left the area since. Following the political lead of her father, Corboy continued her education and graduated with a Master’s degree in Political Science. During the early 1980s, while in graduate school Corboy discovered her passion for cooking. She says she became “enthralled with cooking” and soon realized she was not interested in political science anymore. It became a dull, mundane task and, to her, simply meant just reading the newspaper everyday. Cooking was different, because it allowed Corboy to be creative. It was the then the political scientist turned into a chef.

Since Corboy grew up in Washington D.C., she rarely stepped foot into the outdoors, let alone a farm. It was not until after graduate school that Corboy learned she liked the outdoors. Her enlightenment came when she was asked to take care of artist, Andrew Wyeth’s estate. It was not an easy transition from city girl into country bumpkin. Corboy’s first experience on the estate was driving a rider mower right into a river bordering the estate. After that mishap and a few other adventures Corboy fell in love with the outdoors. She was learning and expanding her mind everyday with knowledge she never learned in college.

In 1998, Corboy opened Greensgrow Farm with then partner Tom Sereduk. The farm opened originally to grow and sell hydroponic lettuce to restaurants throughout the city. The idea was to cut down on the travel time of the food to ensure freshness and premium healthiness. The farm takes up an entire city block in the Kensington neighborhood. According to Corboy, her and Sereduk did not choose Kensington, Kensington chose them. The farm sits on top of vacant land on which an old steel plant once stood, in the middle of a once benign neighborhood. When Corboy and Sereduk first opened Greensgrow and told their friends the idea of a hydroponic lettuce farm in Kensington, everybody thought they were crazy. At the time the neighborhood seemed like a barren wasteland, not to mention it was notorious for being unsafe. Nothing stopped the two aspiring urban farmers, because they believed cultivating in a city lot was an efficient way to reuse wasted urban space. The chef turned into a gardener.

With Corboy’s determination she was able to take the vacant city block and make it a breath of fresh air in the mostly industrial community. The idea of an urban farm seems an oddity in itself. Food cannot be grown in city soil, and concrete and asphalt cannot be broken down to plant seeds. With this in mind, Corboy mixed her creativity with some brainpower and the farm is now lined with rows of raised beds, which are filled with organic soils used to grow a plentiful supply of not just lettuce, but a variety of vegetables.

Corboy is a cancer survivor, a cancer surviving urban farmer. Her passion did not let her sickness get in the way of farming and shaping Greensgrow into a core of community development for Kensington. For those who know her, Corboy is inspirational, a fighter, a woman who shows those around her that you can’t take things for granted.

When describing Corboy, Greensgrow employee Stefanie Emery says she is, “a strong person, a lot of people don’t have that kind of will.” Corboy talks openly about her sickness to the workers on the farm and Emery said she has even referenced working on the farm lugging an oxygen tank along her side.

People often refer to cancer as a battle, an unfortunate battle in which many are defeated. In an online video profile by Logo, an MTV affiliate, Corboy said, “without humor I would have given up a long time ago.” When Corboy was fighting her battle she was armed and prepared to defeat it using humor, strong will, and her philosophy of life.

Corboy has learned to see the lighter side of life. Working somewhere as uncanny as an urban farm can be very unpredictable at times. On an almost daily basis she is called out of her row home office to solve a problem on the farm and she never knows what is going to happen, she just knows she needs to laugh it off. Corboy believes humor gives a better perspective for the dark sides of life. Emery says Corboy, “takes things seriously, but has a good way of looking at them.” Corboy describes humor as a level of pathos, just like hurt and sorrow. Rather than hurt or sorrow she says, “humor is what you get when you throw me emotions.” Instead of giving up when a hardship strikes, she sees the irony in life and that helps her get through everything day-to-day.

Corboy is a great presence in the neighborhood and has created Greensgrow to be a powerful tool in Kensington. In its twelve years of operation the urban farm has done wonders in transforming and developing the community. Corboy and the farm have not asked the citizens of Kensington to change instead have helped make the community a more attractive place to live. Greensgrow itself has transformed from a business located in Kensington, simply making money, into what Corboy calls “a community-based business all about the neighborhood.”

There is a banner that hangs on the fence surrounding the farm that says, “Greensgrow Farm: Growers of food, flowers, and neighborhoods.” Corboy has developed the farm to be not only as a resource for fresh local, food to those in the neighborhood, but also as a tool to be used in the community and to educate those living in the community. Greensgrow seeks to educate not only about urban farming, but also about the importance of eating locally grown food, its health benefits, and emphasizes sustainability.

Since the urban farm is a fairly new idea, something no one has quite figured out yet, Corboy is always finding new ways to be creative, and everything is an experiment. The farm is always growing, evolving, and changing. Recently, Corboy and the Greensgrow crew renovated the kitchen of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church located a few blocks away from the farm. This kitchen is open for the workers at Greensgrow to make the prepared food they sell. It is a community project kitchen and is open for the neighborhood to use.  Emery says, “Mary likes to give back to the community” and believes she has hopes of one day turning it into a soup kitchen.

Through the tribulations Corboy has learned a lot about herself, the world, and life. There have been many times when she could have given up, cried, and settled into a normal, boring job. When talking about life Corboy says, “you just have to go where the road takes you.” She has found that she always lands on her feet with all the decisions she makes and ideas she has, no matter how crazy they may seem. Corboy could be busy doing something mundane, like reading the newspaper, but instead she is constantly reinventing something on an urban farm in an industrial Philadelphia neighborhood. In all of her efforts, Mary Seton Corboy hopes for one thing, to make reality better.

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