• March 2012

Meet Philadelphia's Favorite Foodie, Mary Seton Corboy

Greensgrow Farms co-founder and chief farm hand Mary Seton Corboy is a homegrown superstar.

In addition to starting one of the Philadelphia area’s best-known urban farms in 1977, she also founded the Neighborhood Urban Agriculture Coalition (NUAC), and co-founded the Farmers Market Alliance. She’s been named a “Best of Philly” by Philadelphia Magazine, and was listed in Organic Style magazine’s Top 50 Environmental Power List.

For good reason. The DC native who has called Philadelphia home for three decades has been leading the charge for decades to develop urban farms and co-ops around the country. She and her fellow farmers have been heralding a single-minded mantra: “Eat well. Eat local.” Here’s more of her story.


Farming Wunderkind Mary Seton Corboy

“It all started as a crazy idea,” Corboy explains. “On a chilly, cloudy day in March 1997, Tom Sereduk and I pushed back the broken gates to an abandoned lot in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Without knowing it, we were firing the opening salvo in the urban agriculture movement. We went on a search for property on which to build an urban farm; old industrial land was what was available. A former galvanized steel plant to be exact.

“A conventional farm seemed highly unlikely to spring from an industrial brownfield. So it was back to the drawing board where we re-visioned an urban farm employing hydroponic growing of lettuce. Surprising even then, it was a success. In the years since the first cases of produce were delivered out of the back of the truck, Greensgrow Farm, Inc. has changed a great deal. Our willingness and ability to change, in fact, has been the root of our success.

“Today Greensgrow stands as a testament to hard work and harder heads. What was once a dilapidated industrial site is today an active, vibrant Farm Stand and Nursery. When we first got started in 1998, you might have thought we were crazy. Now over a decade later, folks are calling us visionaries. Well, we still think we’re just crazy.”

Following is a Q&A we recently did with the Washington, DC, native, who notes in her bio: “My mother was a do-gooder and my father a curmudgeon. I am a perfect cross between the two.”


Be Inkandescent: At 20something, you moved from DC to Philadelphia, armed with a BA in Political Science and English Lit from Wilson College. You got an MA in Political Science from Villanova University, and then worked as a chef before getting into the urban farming business. What made you decide that life at the helm of a co-op was the life for you?

Mary Seton Corboy: I wish I could say that running the urban farm and market at Greensgrow was me grabbing a dream and shaking it out. But the fact is that I was running from the possibility that there might be a normal 9-to-5 life out there, waiting for me to slow down and deal with it. The truth is that I was terrified of becoming someone with an uninteresting job and 2.5 weeks of vacation per year.

So when Tom Sereduk approached me about his idea of growing food locally, harvesting it, and having it at restaurants the same day, I thought, “Cool! No one is gonna confuse that with working for ‘The Man.’ Why I’m still at it is another story: I am pig-headed.

Be Inkandescent: What do you love about shopping at co-ops and urban farm markets?

Mary Seton Corboy: I don’t get into the big-store, wide-aisle, fancy-stuff supermarkets that are wowing people now. I grew up in DC, and markets were small, cramped places with a never-ending series of wonderful mysteries stocked on the shelves. It never ceases to amaze me how much stuff small stores can cram in. I love that many co-ops still feel like that, such as Weavers Way in Mt. Airy.

It just feels better to me to shop in places like that. And, of course, anytime you can find ways to keep money in a community, I feel it’s something we have to do. People really don’t get the impact of having a Wal-Mart in their own community—that all the do-re-mi they spend just flies away to their corporate headquarters, leaving nada where it started.

Be Inkandescent: Which cities/regions are leading the way in the co-op business? And in general, what is the state of co-ops across the country?

Mary Seton Corboy: Urban Farms are booming in San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston. Philly has a pretty active urban farming movement that started off as a leader, but has slowed to a runner-up. Some people see food co-ops as political statements. I see them as smart, sustainable revenue-generators that help the community thrive. Healthy co-ops are good business.

Be Inkandescent: Your mantra is “Eat well. Eat local.” Why is that tough for some people to do? And do you have any advice on how more people can adopt that philosophy?

Mary Seton Corboy: A number of years back I read that in the future, the rich will eat organic and the poor will eat genetically modified. That really struck me because eating good food should not be class warfare. Food, water, air, education, health care—these are the basics.

When I say that I am not political about food, I don’t believe that we were trying to ruin food access. I think farmers and food manufacturers were trying to make good food accessible to all. But then some CFOs and the marketing geniuses got in the way, and in their quest for the almighty dollar, they took something like corn flakes and tried to take them out of the mouths of the average American.

It makes me a little sick to think that as a society we turned a blind eye to this reality for so very long. But now, I believe there are enough people who are savvy and clever enough to salvage the situation. God help us if we don’t.

Be Inkandescent: Increasingly, restaurants are advertising that their ingredients are “farm to table.” Do you think that’s a marketing scheme, or the real deal?

Mary Seton Corboy: I was a chef and a chef’s job is to create. Buying local is one of the biggest creations to date. If all chefs bought only local ingredients, I would be on a beach with a Mai Tai in my hand. If you want to be sure, ask to see the receipt from the day’s purchases. I do. And then, when I go back for another meal, waitresses cringe when they see me seated. Good. They are just the messengers, but I ask and demand names—and you should, too. If they want tripe, go to the Italian Market—not the Safeway. Don’t lie to me.

Be Inkandescent: What’s the real importance of buying, and eating, locally grown food?

Mary Seton Corboy: It really does matter if some foods are uber-fresh. If you use canned tomatoes in your gravy (what they call pasta sauce in Philly), who cares. Better you should, as it gives you a more consistent product.

But God help you if you sell a Caprese salad and I even sniff ingredients from Florida. I simply never, ever order certain things out of season. When I started cooking professionally, we fell all over ourselves to get to the truck to get the asparagus in spring so we could put Veal Oscar on the menu. Then we could also make cream of asparagus soup—and we rewrote the menus for everything as it came through the door. Same with fiddleheads (baby ostritch ferns), and (this ages me) even basil.

Now, no one cares that asparagus doesn’t taste anything like asparagus. You could change it up with broccoli, and most people wouldn’t even know until they took a pee. The sad truth is that chefs have taken a piece of sandpaper to our tongues and we don’t know anymore. But I’ll tell you that I personally deliver the second pick of the year of berries (first pick berries aren’t as sweet) and peaches to the Standard Tap so that Chef Carolyn Angle can make me shortcake. It takes my breath away every year.

Then, I open a shack at my farm and make real, honest-to-goodness BLTs—the kind where the mayo and tomato juice start to mix together and slide down your hands and into your armpits. And I think, “Oh, there is indeed a God,” and She’s here in between these two pieces of white toast.

Be Inkandescent: What about Philadelphia attracted you initially? Do you still love the city? What’s keeps you in the City of Brotherly Love?

Mary Seton Corboy: I do love Philly, God help me. But I have never—not even when I was named “Best Philadelphian” by Philadelphia Magazine —did I stop thinking of myself first and foremost as a Washingtonian.

Honestly, to me DC is the most beautiful city in the world. I don’t mean all that marble downtown. I mean the horticulture, which is absolutely stunning. The worst neighborhood you have ever seen may still have a magnolia tree that, when in bloom, will take on any comers in any arboretum in the world.

What I like about Philly is that, like a lot of old East Coast cities such as Baltimore, it is a city of neighborhoods and has distinct characteristics. I think Philly has done a better job of handling gentrification than some cities have, and gentrification should not be considered a four-letter word—not when it turns old taprooms into gastro pubs. Saving the building for what it was built to be—something retail for the whole neighborhood—is a good thing.

Be Inkandescent: What tips can you provide readers on growing their own food? Do you recommend it?

Mary Seton Corboy: Everyone should grow their own food—at least once, so that they know what it feels like to have Mother Nature have her way with you. Beautiful things can happen when we put seed to soil. It gives one perspective on things.

I think watching food grow allows you to leave your own self for a moment and actually be embraced by the idea of nature enfolding you. Very new age, but food is so much more than nutrients—it’s community and soul and family and tradition and your mother’s love, all in a good brisket.

Be Inkandescent: What are your plans for the future—for yourself, and the co-op?

Mary Seton Corboy: Eight years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and given three months to live. Since then, well let’s just say that I don’t care if I have a Roth or a traditional IRA. I take every day that I am given and embrace it.

It’s hard to ignore, but I try not to let it be my guide. In spite of the many obstacles that this disease keeps throwing in front of me, I am blessed with a happy demeanor. So even when I feel like the world is crashing around me, I can almost always find something to be happy about. The sun always will come out tomorrow in my little world vision.

I was never much for planning my future, so to be told my future might be short wasn’t a huge loss for me personally. But professionally, it makes a difference. I used to think I’d have lots of time to work on Greensgrow. It is my child, and having a child changes everything.

Here’s the amazing thing: What started out as a simple exercise in me running away from a lifestyle that didn’t interest me has ended up being so much more. People depend on me. Their homes, their lives, their families depend on me, and the decisions I make. It’s a boulder I didn’t realize I was painting my name on, but I did and now I accept that responsibility. It’s made me more human.

Greensgrow is my beacon. It’s the reason I get up every day. The reason I fight nausea and pain and malaise. I hope she survives me. After all, it has survived in spite of me and my ass-backwards ways. It deserves to live on.

For more information, check out Mary Seton Corboy’s co-op: www.greensgrow.org.

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