A student waters plants at one of Howard Brosius' micro farm projects in North Philadelphia.

by Lou Mancinelli

Children at the Wyck Historic House, Garden and Farm in Germantown, Awbury Arboretum and elsewhere will soon learn how to reap the benefits of micro farms.

By providing them with the micro farm experience and teaching them how to grow vegetables, the programs seek to encourage children, ages 3 to 11, to eat healthy foods and to learn about the science of agriculture as it relates to the environment and their communities.

The vision is that of Howard Brosius, a Glenside resident who is founder and executive director of Chipping Hill Micro Farms (CHMF). The idea came to him a little more than a year ago.

According to a 2010 report by the Philadelphia Department of Health, 64 percent of the city’s adults and 57 percent of its children are obese, and 70 percent of those children live in North Philadelphia.

“All of a sudden it dawned on me – here’s something where there is a tremendous need and I had the skill set to do it,” said Brosius, 65, a retired investment broker.

The skill set Brosius refers to is the one he developed and refined growing up on his family’s 200-acre Unionville, Chester County, mushroom, dairy and vegetable farm. He would wake up at 5 a.m. and milk the cows from 6 to 8 a.m. and then again at night.

If a pump or a hose broke in a tractor, or the plumbing failed on the farm, he would figure out how to fix it. But after working for more than 40 years as an investment broker and after graduating from Penn State University in 1968 with a degree in agriculture, Brosius is bringing the farm back to the table.

Once a week he goes to the Jubilee School in West Philadelphia and the North Light Community Center in Manayunk and teaches kids about gardening. One of the first lessons the children learn is how to mix soil.

Brosius has developed a special mixture composed of 50 percent mushroom soil substrate, 15 percent topsoil, 10 percent pearlite, and the rest a commercial potting mix. The kids take the soil and put it into flats, plant seeds and put them under the growing lights before they are transferred to the micro farms.

This month, Brosius’ plans to set up a teaching program at Awbury Arboretum in Germantown were approved. Those plans include using a portable micro farm to begin to teach children about farming, as well as the installing a 100-foot-long micro farm to demonstrate the possibilities it offers in a long-term setting.

Brosius envisions in the long-term that the vegetables grown at the micro farms could be used to stage a weekly farmer’s market and benefit the community. The goal is for children to take an interest in the food they eat and recognize that fresh foods are delicious and obtainable, he explained. By learning to cultivate a garden at an early age, children develop responsibility and understand the importance of what goes in their body.

“Kids love to play in dirt,” said Irene Madrak, executive director of the North Light Community Center, “so right there [the program] is a good thing. It really fits into what we’re doing.”

The kids at North Light, often children of low-income parents, already had a program called “Teens for Food.” That program takes interested teens and teaches them about agriculture and helps to prepare them for the workplace.

It started in a 1,600-square-foot garden and has moved to a half-acre lot. The teens run a business that sells the produce they grow to a local ShopRite. Through the Chipping Farms program, a micro farm has been installed on-site at the community center.

Micro farms are 4 by 8-foot raised bed wooden framed gardens. The gardens are topped with polycarbonate roof panels – the same material used to construct greenhouses. They use electricity to heat mechanisms embedded in the soil and light bulbs to maintain a growable climate throughout the winter. They have sensors and motors to lift the roofs should the temperature stray from its 45- to 75-degree range under the panels.

Brosius designed the gardens last year and tested the slightly larger prototype at a friend’s home in Plymouth Meeting. He grew spinach, radishes, beets, carrots, herbs and more straight through the winter, while the polycarbonate panels held two feet of snow. The gardens also yield up to three times as much as outdoor home gardens, he said.

After one of his long-time finance clients took sick in 2009, Brosius took over a number of the client’s responsibilities. The client ran a number of foundations that provided grants for institutions similar to the Wyck House, North Light, or Awbury.

In about nine months, Brosius made over 65 site visits to organizations whose members applied for grants from his client’s foundations. That is when he saw the huge need for children to learn more about the benefits of vegetables and gardening.
“There’s a culture problem here in Philadelphia,” he said.

In 2009, a Temple University Center for Research and Obesity Education Center study published in the journal Pediatrics, showed that almost three out of every ten Philadelphia school students shop at corner stores twice a day, five days a week.

Gardening can help to improve hand strength and self-esteem in adults, according to a 2009 study published in HortScience. It can make kids more aware of positive nutritional habits and can even begin to improve their academic performance, a Cornell University blog from this year reported.

One of the places he visited was Treehouse Books, where he launched his first program last March. It was also the month he incorporated CHMF as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity. There he ran the Art in the Garden summer camp at Treehouse Books in North Philadelphia, situated on the fringe of Temple’s campus.

In addition to teaching the kids about agriculture and gardening, as well as providing them with first-hand learning experiences, the kids eat the vegetables they grow.

“The 3, 4 and 5-year-olds love them,” said Brosius about veggie sandwiches with carrots, spinach, arugula, tomatoes, lettuce, onion, and cucumber slices as bread. “But I can’t get the 10-year-olds to eat them.”

Moving forward, Brosius says he has already been informed by some foundation directors that his current business model lacks sustainability. That is something he plans to develop in the future.

He envisions micro farms dozens of feet long that can help stock farmer’s markets and programs for the hungry. His goal is to install the program and teach it to the teachers at that program so they can continue it without him in at least 10 such organizations.

“If I can take a child age 3, 4 or 5 and everyday feed them vegetables, they are going to develop taste buds for them,” Brosius said. “Then the kids are going to want them. All of a sudden I’m creating a reverse culture. Kids are teaching parents.”

Chipping Hill Micro Farms’ mission has been enabled through grants from the Patricia Kind Foundation, Green Tree Community Health Foundation, Caroline Alexander Buck Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation.

For more information visit www.chippinghillmicrofarms.org.