BFF – Nothing Short of Amazing

Occasionally, some intellectually leaning person will try to make the case against hope.  They will tell you things are bad and that it is important to be realistic, and the cards are terribly stacked against us and you should not delude yourself, and you should prepare for things getting worse, and really this is the reasonable and prudent thing to do.  Nonsense, i say.

For if you were reasonable, you might well just give up on Baltimore. The city has seen a 30% decrease in population since 1950, collapse of infrastructure, a high violent crime level, a spike in heroin use, food deserts and more.  The folks at the Baltimore Free Farm (BFF) however are nothing like discouraged, taking every piece of abandoned property as they possibility can for a guerrilla urban garden or collective housing.

Welcome Sign to the garden - classic anarchist suggestion

Welcome Sign to the garden – classic anarchist suggestion

When you arrive at the Ash Street community gardens you are met with the above sign.  It is the only “security” the garden has, asking people to be respectful and only to pick things if they have been involved in planting there.  Our enthusiastic tour guide Wolvie says it seems to work pretty well.

bounty of riches - mural beside the Free Farm gardens

Bounty of riches – mural beside the Free Farm gardens

The Free Farm gives away food it grows and recovers every Wednesday.  BFF also has a big warehouse, which it got control over when they agreed to fix the leaking roof.  Inside they also run a kitchen which supports the efforts of Food Not Bombs on Sundays.   So it is not just a “free farm” in name; in practice people are supplementing their diets with locally grown organic fruits and vegetables that they do not need to pay for. For the neighbors and for the economically disadvantaged, this is a significant direct improvement in their quality of life.

Radical Trust based Tool library

Radical Trust based Tool library

For me what makes the BFF crew so inspiring is their willingness to take risks.  The tool library is a classic example.  There are racks of shovels and leaf blowers and all manner of hand tools.  They are in a shed which is unlocked.  No librarian, but there are slips for people to sign out when they take things.  And they mostly do.  Wolvie tells me that they have lost very few items from the tool library.  And they tells me they have never paid for a tool in the library.  People give him shovels and other hand tools, and they often sharpens or fixes them and then they return to the public wealth.

One day someone will walk off with most of these tools and leave no note.  On that day i am confident the BFF folks will pull together some other tool donations, take some more risks and restart the library, perhaps after some cursing.

Rocket stove powered pizza oven.

Rocket stove fired pizza oven, Cooks a pizza in two minutes.

The above photo is a salvaged pizza oven which has been retrofitted with high temperature rocket stoves.  I am told by a mostly reliable source that they can get this oven hot enough to cook a pizza in 2 minutes – and it has that nice almost burned crispy bottom that so many people like.

What Wolvie points out is that if you know you are going to have a lot of people, due to this speed and the ability to cook multiple pizzas at once, you can feed a tremendous number of activists, musicians, volunteers, revolutionaries, traveling circus performers, homeless people or whoever else might be over that day for food.

Rabbits in their special house

Rabbits in their special house

BFF is not vegetarian.  They have chickens and meat rabbits (whom they also use the pelts from).  The structure of the rabbit hut is a mushroom shaped concrete hat which is on the ground and has fencing all around it, including underground so the rabbits don’t flee (or get attacked).  This concrete mushroom has holes in it so the rabbits can get under and burrow, but can’t go through the fencing under it.  The rabbits seem quite happy and they are quite large.

GPaul in the BFF salvage components greenhouse

GPaul in the BFF salvage components greenhouse

A huge fraction of the material infrastructure at BFF is salvaged materials.  The entire greenhouse GPaul is depicted in above is made from recovered materials.  Including all of this huge gauge plastic tubing that would not break short of a full on ice age.  It would cost a pretty penny to build this from materials purchased at a hardware store.  But the resourceful folks at BFF use their salvaging talents and patience in place of cold cash and the results are impressive.

The fancy dinner is another success story.  For the last 3 years they have had one large fundraising dinner per year called “the Fancy Dinner.”  They go out of their way to make nice food and purchasing organic, and from local sources as much as possible.  In past years they have used their own inputs as well as buying from health food stores.  The event now has something of a reputation and it has grown in both attendance and in the size of the meal.  This year Whole Foods approved their donation request and gave them $850 worth of food.

The Free Farm’s mission is larger than distributing food to those in need on a general basis, but they also provide emergency cooking and distribution services during periods of uprisings, especcially those focused on racial justice and police violence.

Fancy Dinner Poster outside BFF

Fancy Dinner Poster outside BFF

More comically, Wolvie and some of his comrades went bow hunting three times for deer so that they could have venison for the fancy dinner. They failed three times.

On the drive back after the last failed attempt, Wolvie pulled up next to a hunter with a pickup truck filled with deer they had recently killed. Wolvie rolled down his window and said “Can we have a deer?”  The hunter paused for a moment and said “sure,” then took the deer off his truck, called in the tag to the police so Wolvie could transport the deer body legally.

When Wolvie explained what they needed it for and tried to offer money to the hunter, he declined saying, “When you asked me if you could have a deer, I figured that you must have really needed one.” And thus there was venison at the Fancy Dinner as well.  This year they had 120 people buying sliding scale tickets between $25 and $50. That is a chunk of change for an event with very low costs and all volunteer labor.

These seedlings will be planted in the garden soon!

The Free Farmers are scrappy fundraisers. They have done two successful crowd sourcing projects. One to buy vacant land and one to repair the roof of the warehouse. They were both successful, and $12K went to purchase two small plots of land which are now urban gardens.

But these kids don’t always wait for money to move.  They will find abandoned vacant lots and start planting on them, even if they don’t own it.  Sometimes the land owner will come and tell them to leave and they may even lose some stuff.  But what happens almost all of the time, is that the land owner is happy to have someone maintaining the land in any capacity, because it reduces their costs.  Or they don’t care what happens to their land.

Some of the worst i have seen in the industrialized world

Some of the worst i have seen in the industrialized world

So you can sit with your intelligent hopeless friends and pontificate about the giant potholes and endless junkies of Baltimore.  Or you can pitch in at the Free Farm and actually build a better world.

Spring will come

Spring will come

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

[Update June 2020: Names and genders have been updated to incriminate the right people.]

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

14 responses to “BFF – Nothing Short of Amazing”

  1. Susan Gockeler says :

    Great story. In Rochester NY our organization Lots of Food is on the way of turning the town in to a food free for all. Walking by? Hungry? Eat.

  2. Red says :

    I needed to read something like this today. Thank you.

  3. richard w. lisko says :

    what if hope is just another unnecessary illusion that will have to be abandonned in order to create something good? is not the right action stronger in its own right without ties to outcome? is hope here and now?

    • paxus says :

      Jbird: i have watch hope change the lives of activists on 3 continents. In my book there is not a more powerful force. It can inspire people who are otherwise depressed and disabled to change their circumstance and throw off institutional oppression. And without it, we are certainly lost.

  4. Angie Tupelo says :

    There is whole book (or blog post) in “When Billy explained what they needed it for and tried to offer money to the hunter, he declined saying “When you asked me if you could have a deer, I figured that you must have really needed one.” “

  5. Angie Tupelo says :

    Reblogged this on Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History and commented:

    I grew up in a place where most people didn’t hunt for entertainment but for survival; where one deer can make a big difference to a family living on the edge. For me the most poetic and hopeful part of this post was “When Billy explained what they needed it for and tried to offer money to the hunter, he declined saying “When you asked me if you could have a deer, I figured that you must have really needed one.” ” Hope comes from many directions.

  6. robyn says :

    Thanks, I needed to read that. As I tend to get very synical about the world.

  7. says :

    Very cool, glad to see what BFF is up to; visited them over the summer on the way back to upstate NY from Virginia; was staying at the Twin oaks community there and stayed for the communities conference. Really wonderful stuff!!

  8. Matthew Fallon says :

    I love that so many groups out there are creating these community based models with so many similar features.
    My garden has a lending resource library (tools are locked though as its at my home) we donate produce to LI Food not Bombs and other local charities. Hold seed swaps.plant free gardens on empty lots in town. Built a cob oven for our monthly vegan potlucks.salvage materials etc…it’s inspiring to see these efforts spreading all over!

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