Groundwork Market Garden nurtures fresh produce and community feeling on Buffalo’s East Side

For the last three years—or as Mayda Pozantides measures time, growing seasons—a new venture has been taking root on two acres of formerly vacant land on Buffalo’s East Side. Pozantides and her partner, Anders Gunnersen, are the founders of Groundwork Market Garden, a community-oriented organic farm producing food for a thriving Community Supported Agriculture and farm stand. Rows of cabbage, kale, broccoli, radishes, garlic, and other spring vegetables fill the field adjoining the high tunnel, a covered structure similar to an open greenhouse­, where tomatoes, fennel, basil, and marigolds shelter from spring winds. Fruit tree saplings line the back fence, beyond which an abandoned rail line teems with overgrowth. The eight-foot fence notwithstanding, wildlife encroachment is sometimes a problem: a young peach tree recently lost its top to a hungry deer.

Both Pozantides and Gunnersen grew up in Buffalo and came to farming as a secondary career. Pozantides taught English abroad before taking long-term substitute teacher position with the Buffalo Public School system. Although some aspects of the work suited her—she retains a teacher’s drive to maximize the farm’s educational potential—she felt like her energy wasn’t being channeled effectively.

“There were several reasons I got into farming, one of which was that I wanted to be my own boss,” she said. “I like working in the soil. But also, it felt like a way I could effect change that didn't discriminate, because everybody eats; it's something that brings people together.”

She studied social science, and farming felt like a way to do something for the community. Knowing nothing about the practical side of it, she took an internship with a farm outside of Albany, N.Y. Her drive to learn about organic farming practices compensated for any previous gaps: she pointed out that the rows of tomato plants had been alternately planted with marigolds, which she said produce a hormone that act as a natural insect repellant for the tomatoes.

Gunnersen previously worked for the USDA, and his interest in urban farming movements in cities like Detroit led the pair to set up on the East Side. He still works full-time as the CFO of Reddy bikeshare, and tends to the farm nights and weekends as the de facto project manager, working on construction projects as well as the financial and digital side of the business. Pozantides handles the day-to-day affairs of the farm, the CSA, and the farmer’s market, as well as social media and marketing. She was initially skeptical of urban farming, but Gunnersen’s enthusiasm compensated. Their initial investment was self-funded, and Buffalo had the additional advantage of being relatively cheap. Choosing based on its size, the pair picked the farm’s future address off the list of properties up for bid at the city’s annual foreclosure auction. The night before the auction, Pozantides drove by the address. The two acres of land adjoined a large building with busted windows and faded signage painted directly on the brick. The most prominent words, in all-capital letters, read “Farm Seeds.”

“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s literally a sign! We have to get this property!’” Pozantides laughed. She and Gunnersen were the only bidders.

Their next step was to hire a company to perform a Phase I environmental test, and then breathe a sigh of relief when the soil turned out to be uncontaminated. (In fact, from the 1940s until the 1980s, the site hosted a lumbermill; its waste product was sawdust.) Pozantides and Gunnersen worked with the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State to create a business plan. They set up a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for the high tunnel so that they could direct-seed plants and extend the growing season. Pozantides was working at a restaurant at the time; when her boss learned about the Go Fund Me, he decided to throw her a fundraiser at Marcy Casino in Delaware Park on Earth Day.

“I think that’s something that’s great about Buffalo and starting a business here, is that the people are very supportive,” Pozantides said. “There’s room for small businesses like us to grow, and that’s exciting.”

Being her own boss gave Pozantides freedom, but meant she had to be self-reliant; she couldn’t take days off in the beginning, and a work/life balance was difficult to achieve. But, she said, “It feels like every year it gets a little bit easier, and you feel yourself clawing your way out of the startup phase and into a smoother ride.”

The recognition of the community has been integral to that feeling. Last July, Groundworks Farm competed at Ignite Buffalo, the business grant and mentorship program presented by 43North. They took second place, beating out some 500 applicants and winning $50,000.

The most significant result of the money was that they were able to hire an employee, which has eased some of the daily burden and allowed them to double their CSA membership. In addition to the CSA, in which members purchase shares at the start of the season and receive weekly portions of the ongoing harvest, Groundworks sells produce at the North Buffalo Farmers Market. In past years, Groundworks has offered an informal farm stand on Tuesdays alongside its CSA pickup. However, this year they will have a dedicated venue: a team of kids in the Western New York YouthBuild program, which teaches students carpentry skills through real-world projects, recently built a wooden food cart for Groundwork at The Foundry.

The social justice and community engagement aspects of urban farming are important to Pozantides, who pointed out the lack of grocery stores in the neighborhood. Groundwork Market Garden accepts SNAP, and this year it has joined the Double Up Food Bucks program, which doubles money spent at a farm stand: a customer who spends $10 of SNAP at Groundworks will receive an extra $10. The farm stand also accepts Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program checks as well as cash and credit.

Groundwork Market Garden is currently working with a development company to explore rehabilitating the abandoned building on its property; Pozantides estimated it to be a $4 million project. She and Gunnersen recently received a NYS New Farmers Grant Fund grant that they intend to put toward building an indoor mushroom growing facility that will allow them diversify production and grow year-round, starting with portobello, cremini, and white button mushrooms.

Read more about the African Heritage Food Co-op here.

In addition to the growing space, they envision creating an educational facility and perhaps a commercial kitchen and rental units. Currently, the farm participates in an urban agriculture and entrepreneurship youth program called Fresh Food Fellows. Jointly run by three nonprofits, the program includes classroom study of business and farming skills, the creation of garden beds, and a retail stint at the African Heritage Food Co-op. Pozantides said that last year, the program supported about 10 young adults who visited the farm three times a week for six weeks to learn about growing food and owning a business.

Pozantides wants Groundwork Market Garden to continue to function as an educational center “…where we’re teaching students how to grow food, how to advocate for food equity. …I think a lot of kids, especially in the city, aren't exposed to digging in the dirt. They don't have many opportunities to do it. They don't know where food comes from; they don't really think about it. So, they're always really into it. It's kind of an easy sell, because they're just fascinated. When you see a cucumber growing and you're just like ‘Omigosh, it came from a flower that turned into a fruit?!’ Minds blown. Every time,” she laughed. “Even if they don't want to go into agriculture, I think it's a medium through which you can teach kids life skills.”

Read more articles by Jen Wellington.

Jen Wellington is a native of New Orleans and a recent transplant to Buffalo. She holds a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University. In her free time, she enjoys foraging wild mushrooms, picking banjo, and playing with her dog, Gumbo.
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