Prove your humanity

This story was first published on October 18, 2022.

July 7, 2023 Update: Since the story first aired, Lisa Freeman said construction has begun on their new store. And this spring, she was appointed to the Pennsylvania Farm Service Agency State Committee to support farmers across the commonwealth.

This is the third installment of our four-part series, “Sowing Soil with Soul,” featuring Black urban farmers who grow food to sustain their communities.

Manchester is a neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s north side. Its flat streets are lined with stately Victorian homes that display historical markers and houses that are boarded up and condemned. 

Longtime resident Lisa Freeman has been gardening in the majority Black neighborhood for years. She and her husband grew veggies with kids at Manchester Elementary School, and started a nonprofit. 

In 2014 she bought a property from the city near the school and the family’s home to start a farm. Now the 10,000-square-foot farm features a large greenhouse, a chicken coop, small storefront, and there’s more to come.

For our series, “Sowing Soil with Soul” with Soul Pitt Media, Terina J. Hicks visited Freeman Family Farm & Greenhouse.

LISTEN to the interview

sunflower mural

Sunflower mural at the Freeman Family Farm & Greenhouse. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Hick narration: When I walk through the fence into Miss Lisa Freeman’s farm, I’m greeted by a bright yellow sunflower painted on the red fence. There’s a scarecrow, too. And I can hear chickens.

Freeman: I’ve had several gardens, and this I own.

Hicks:  If you can describe your farm, your urban garden, and your surrounding areas, to us, that would be great.

Freeman: Well, this farm, it used to be a commercial building. This was a condemned site with the city of Pittsburgh. And it sat here and did a slow rot for about ten years or more. And the whole middle of the roof was gone. No one was bold enough to buy it. And then Crazy Lisa came out and bought it. (laughs)

Hicks: And you had the whole thing…

Freeman:  I had it torn. It was beyond repair. 

Hicks: So was this always a vision, something you wanted to do, have a farm, be a farmstress? (laughs)

Freeman: Well, this started because when I moved here, I bought the house. It was totally condemned, and I had a waterfall from our third-floor roof all the way down. You can look up and see the sky. And I totally rehabbed that building and brought it back to life. So the house was beautiful except for the front yard. It looked like tumbleweeds and straw and knotweed.

Hicks narration: That house was a few blocks over, on historic Liverpool Street. A neighbor showed her how to start a hydrangea from a cutting in an abandoned yard. She bought discounted perennials from a home improvement store, and the rest is history.

Freeman: I planted them. And the next year, all this beautiful color was coming. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that year, I won an award from this community for the best front yard, the best garden, whatever. And that’s really what started it. It just went right to my head. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I saw this spot over here like, ‘Oh, let’s just start that. How, how hard could this be?’

Hicks: What obstacles did you have to overcome to really get your project up and going? 

Freeman: When you do it in the urban setting, with a house that’s been torn down — then when it gets torn down — there is a big cellar most of the time, a big pit and all those cinder blocks they turn over, and it goes down into the cellar. You bury all that brick. I had to get a lot of that brick hauled away into landfills. 

So almost in every urban farm, you can’t grow in the ground because of cinder block — it’s bricks. So I had to bring in, develop the soil, woodchips, and compost, and soil. I mean, when I first started doing it, [I bought] like $1,000 worth of compost and lay it where I’d need, I mean, year after year after year. So that’s an obstacle. 

The moral of this is that anybody can do anything they put their mind to. Regardless of what you’re up against, you’ll always find a way. And Miss Lisa found a way.

Chicken coop

Chickens at the Freeman Family Farm & Greenhouse. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Hicks: So, could you take us along and show us what type of veggies that you’re growing? 

Freeman: These are chives that you put on your baked potatoes and green peppers. These are supposed to keep everything away. You see, that’s not working — marigolds. They don’t like the smell of that. But, see, these are urban critters. You can’t beat them out with just that. 

This is an herb patch, too, that’s gone to seed. These are asparagus, which I am so, like, thrilled. You see ‘em coming up? 

Hicks narration: Bees are still buzzing around squash and tomato plants. Everywhere there are whimsical pots of flowers and colorful signs that say ‘welcome’ or remind you to vote. And we pass three chickens in a coop decorated with a garland of ribbons.

Hicks: The chickens, do they have names? 

Freeman:  My son, those are his pets. And he grew those from chicks. And if he was here, they’d be walking behind them like, you know, they’re puppies. 

Hicks narration: She doesn’t know their names, but points to the huge mural of a rooster – red, orange, and blue – painted by a local graffiti artist on the wall the farm shares with New Zion Baptist Church. 

Freeman: That was one of the first things I did to just make myself happy to come here and see that vibrant rooster on the side of a church wall. 

Hicks: How do you see your project as building equity in the community around the issues of food?

Freeman: This garden, it provides for the marginalized, the elderly, and the medically vulnerable. That’s who I grow for. And I grow for Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank. 

It was started as a business, but when [the] corona.. the virus came, it shut down everything. But because I was a social worker, like, ‘Well, let’s just grow — people need it.’ And that’s what happened.

Hicks narration: Freeman says the pandemic has delayed her business plans, and the death of her husband from cancer has been hard.

Freeman: My husband died last year. And then this year, I wasn’t really sure I was going to be up to speed or wanted to do it. So I planted a few things. But this downtime gave me enough time to write grants, and I was awarded over $300,000 in grants, of which we’re getting ready to build a marketplace. 

And we’re focusing on health and not potato chips. Everything’s going to have a reason or a health benefit in our store because as you get to a certain age, you realize you just can’t put anything in your body. 

Hicks narration: Freeman says she’ll have pantry staples, too, and maybe grab-and-go salads. A soft opening is planned for next June.

Freeman: This is my garden of healing. It started with my husband. With learning how to eat healthy, it enlarged his life span. Where he had gotten, you know, a death sentence — he had a time, like six months — but my husband lasted five years. Because at that time I started…this is when the farm started, and I started cooking fresh, and he was eating fresh. It made a difference in his life. This is the garden of healing. 

Lisa Freeman is the owner of Freeman Family Farm & Greenhouse. 

Soul Pitt Media has award-winning online, print and podcast platforms with a mission to uplift the Black community in Western PA and surrounding areas by telling their inspirational stories and sharing resources that educate, inform, and empower. Visit Soul Pitt Media, which is woman-owned and minority-certified, at thesoulpitt.com.

Funding for the series comes from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.