The phrase “farm-to-table” rings true at Ballfield Farm in Perry Hilltop.

By Amy George

Living in Pittsburgh does not stop Northsiders from pursuing a small-town “vibe.”
The luscious and green Ballfield Farm in Perry Hilltop contributes to this sense of community, providing a literal breath of fresh air amidst the concrete clutter of the city.

In 2008, Mark and Courtney Williams spearheaded the transformation of a former Sanguigni Ballfield into the communal farm space seen today. Employees of The Pittsburgh Project, they had a knack for envisioning community development, and foresaw the promise of the overgrown, abandoned lot.

Though no longer involved, the couple leaves behind a passionate, core group of people committed to the farm. Local resident Carol Gonzalez is one of these people. A retired history teacher, Gonzalez acts as the informal crop manager, part of Ballfield Farm’s leadership team. She reflects on the farm’s origins:

“Many people still remember Sanguigni Ballfield, but [by 2007] it had become an eyesore and [was] sadly neglected,” says Gonzales. “Yet it was such a big space and Mark had a real vision for urban farming, so he just envisioned it. [It was] part of that whole community development vision.”

Carol Gonzalez, left, and community-based artist and fellow farm member, Sandy Kessler Kaminski, right, in front of Ballfield Farm’s entrance mural, which was painted by Kessler Kaminski. Photo by Amy George

Gonzalez explains another reason why the ballfield held such promise: its soil.

“One of the beautiful things about it, because it was a ballfield, it didn’t have that kind of lead contamination [unlike many other areas in Pittsburgh].”

Gonzalez remarks that the farm’s volunteers and members are “healing the land” through their efforts.

“The soil is becoming more and more rich [because] we do everything organically,” she states. “No chemical pesticides [are] used in anything we do. We collect rainwater. We use a no-till approach. We rotate our crops. We compost, wood chip, and reuse a lot of things that would otherwise go to [a] landfill, like cardboard.”

These sustainable practices are part of the farm’s “permaculture worldview.” This means growers try to stay as loyal as possible to the inherent microbiology, patterns, and features of the local ecosystem.

“We mulch, use ground-cover plants and as many perennials as we can, just to maintain that healthy microbiology of the soil itself,” explains Gonzalez. She is also passionate about the farm’s role in addressing climate change.

“[Growing your own food] is part of the whole vision of caring for the earth and learning to feed ourselves in sustainable ways,” says Gonzalez. “It is a way of addressing the existential climate crisis we are facing. It’s a win-win, because we are a growing community, but how do we deal with climate change?”

“[Growing your own food] is part of the whole vision of caring for the earth and learning to feed ourselves in sustainable ways. It is a way of addressing the existential climate crisis we are facing.”

The farm not only benefits Mother Earth, but all those who eat its food. The phrase farm-to-table rings true here, as anyone who pays a suggested membership fee of $15 per person or $30 per household can grow and harvest a wide array of fresh produce ready for consumption. Planting begins mid-March and ends in November, with this year’s crops consisting of everything from pawpaws to garlic scapes to horseradish. Most seeds are donated, and tools are already available in the farm’s shed.

“Members don’t have to bring anything but themselves,” Gonzalez emphasizes.
In recent years, a trend towards healthful, sustainable eating has attracted a greater number of Ballfield participants, resulting in greater amounts of food produced at the farm.

“We all eat, right?” says Gonzalez. “More and more people want to eat healthy and that’s the draw.” While membership fluctuates, according to Gonzalez, the farm has had as many as 46 participating households. “We were blessed to be a part of the Pittsburgh Urban Farm Tour last year,” she said.

Gonzalez emphasizes that growing one’s own food is especially important for today’s children.

“I really do appreciate the opportunity to have children know where their food comes from,” she says. “If a kid plants peas, they’re going to eat and enjoy peas. It’s a totally different experience.”

“Ultimately, Ballfield Farm cultivates not only colorful dinner plates, but a sense of community.”

Ultimately, Ballfield Farm cultivates not only colorful dinner plates, but a sense of community. Instead of individual lots, which is often the norm for neighborhood farms, members plant and harvest in rows together.

“It really is a collective working farm. Members indicate their preferences for crops so we are growing what people want, but we plant and harvest together,” says Gonzalez. “That means when people come to harvest, you harvest what you need and use all you take…It’s done cooperatively and on a trust basis.”

Carol Gonzalez identifies crops inside the “high tunnel,” a covered area and part of Ballfield Farm that operates year-round. Photo by Amy George

Belle, a fellow Ballfield Farm member, mother of three, and manager of Commonplace Coffee alongside her husband, agrees.

“It’s such a win for everybody.”

People really do come from “all walks of life” to work together in this space.

“The diversity reflects so much—age-wise, racial[ly], economic[ally],” Gonzalez explains.

“People bring their babies. We had two twin newborns last Saturday. Our members are food enthusiasts, community advocates, friends and neighbors, expert gardeners and newbies. We really are a community of learners. It’s a real mix. That’s what I love about it.”

Gonzalez sums up what Ballfield Farm has added to the Northside.

“We’re so blessed to have [this] urban farm. It has been a hidden gem.”

Ballfield Farm is always looking for more volunteers, and hosts workshops on various gardening matters as well as monthly potlucks. Extra produce from the farm is donated to the Northside Common Ministries Pleasant Valley Shelter. Official hours are Tuesdays, 6 p.m. to dusk, Fridays, 9 to 11:30 a.m., and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon. For more information, visit the Ballfield Farm website or find the farm on Facebook.