Philly entrepreneurs crowdfunded $50k to save a neighborhood farm

Stewards want Life Do Grow to become a ‘trampoline’ for local start-ups.

The Life Do Grow farm in North Philly

The Life Do Grow farm in North Philly

Branden Eastwood / WHYY
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

What does $50,000 mean to a three-acre farm? For one urban oasis in North Philly, it’s a literal lifesaver.

The Life Do Grow farm, a nearly decade-old sanctuary on a corner lot at 11th and Dakota streets, is recieving a $55,000 boost thanks to a recent crowdfunding effort.

The five-figure gift will be presented to the garden leaders at a ceremony Thursday evening — and it comes just in time. Financial troubles have been threatening the garden’s very existence in recent years.

Life Do Grow’s co-founders say they’ll use the money to cultivate the next generation of farm leadership, and turn the three-acre space into a “trampoline” for start-ups and entrepreneurs in the neighborhood north of Temple University.

The crowdfunding initiative was led by local entrepreneurs enrolled in the Next Level Trainings, an Ohio-based program that teaches leadership skills.

Will Toms, cofounder of the local creative resource firm REC Philly, is among 23 students in the class. When he and his pupils were assigned to join forces and set a lofty fundraising goal for a cause of their choice, Toms convinced them to crowdfund for Life Do Grow.

The group surpassed its $50,000 funding goal in just 22 days.

“At first it was like, ‘Are you kidding?'” Toms said. “Just seeing the continued effort, rooting each other on, it was like, ‘Whoa, we did it.’ “It’s not about the dollars, it’s about the impact.”

The Life Do Grow farm was founded at 11th and Dakota almost 10 years ago.

The Life Do Grow farm was founded at 11th and Dakota almost 10 years ago.

Emma Lee / WHYY

How a group of teens built a North Philly community hub

The REC Philly office is set just two blocks away from the sprouting sanctuary — and Toms has always been drawn to its mission.

Like so many community gardens, Life Do Grow transformed a vacant lot from a dumping ground almost 10 years ago. Today, the green space north of Temple University boasts a community farm and two community gardens.

The project’s cofounders are a mix of former Temple students and North Philly natives. They were all between 14 and 19 years when they joined forces with the broad mission of building a creative space in the neighborhood.

“We just didn’t know what the hell we were going to create.”” said Alex Epstein, a Temple alum and Life Do Grow’s executive director.

Since then, the site has evolved considerably. Farm managers grow and give out food, sure, but the scope of the land is much more broad. They run a job-training program for local kids, as well as a food justice education program for students from kindergarten through college. The farm also hosts regular music and arts events.

Since its inception, Life Do Grow has provided 125 jobs and 75 youth leadership trainings. It’s run 65 community events that engaged nearly 10,000 neighbors, according to farm leaders.

“We’ve consistently found new ways to celebrate education within the farm,” Epstein said. “The food itself is what really roots us in the land, in the neighborhood, but over 10 years we’ve been able to branch out.”

This North Philly farm awaits a $55k contribution

This North Philly farm awaits a $55k contribution

Emma Lee / WHYY

Can a community farm help grow small biz?

Approaching the pasture’s 10-year anniversary, Epstein said the future is uncertain. Training the next generation of leaders is a vital step — and the $55,000 boost makes it possible.

The past few years, the farm started running out of money, and leaders weren’t sure how to pass on a sustainable operation to the up-and-coming farm management.

“Right as we started to reimagine our future and identify our new needs, this came along,” Epstein said of the crowdfunding. “The timing of that still blows our minds.”

From the farm’s inception, the goal was to pass it along to younger neighborhood residents, building their ownership in the community. With such a major influx of capital, Epstein feels comfortable enough now to pass the torch.

Rob Smith, the farm’s 22-year-old events manager, is among those taking over.

“It’s really like a nice natural step in the process, being a youth who was in the program, watched it grow from essentially nothing at all to this crazy amazing place,” he said. “It really helped me grow into a community leader.”

Smith’s immediate plan is to turn the farm space into an incubator for small businesses in North Philly.

Inside the three acres at 11th and Dakota, there are already six business plans in the pipeline — including home remodeling and landscaping companies, a union for local artists and a food truck to sell the farm’s fresh fruits and veggies.

“It’s really going to be used as a trampoline,” Smith said. “We can come here and we can jump up to the next level in whatever our business is, because we have this opportunity for investment in our community that’s so rare.”

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