(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — At the end of the block, on the corner, a construction crew works a jack hammer. The clunking and clacking and clamor can be heard from the middle of the garden several lots away. In the garden, shrouded in the shade cast by a towering sunflower, Stephanie Ciner works a rake into the soil. She’s preparing to plant savory corn. A car passes, driving down the city block on East Seventh, music blaring from its windows.

There are two worlds here: A world where food grows and the soil cooperates to produce edible or beautiful (or both) plants, enough to share and sell; there’s also a world where the shovel hits concrete and rubble and the neighbors in their respective front yard argue loudly about making power equipment run. To many, these two worlds are incompatible. To Ciner, the two worlds coexist. She’s named it Wild Field Urban Farm.

Ciner, even without camouflage, can be almost completely hidden by the garden. The vegetables, herbs and flowers are tightly planted. It’s a one-out, one-in sort of situation — planting where another crop was recently harvested. On July 14, she had cleared out garlic and some carrots and was planting savory corn in its place.

Ciner plants savory corn at Wild Field Urban Farm on East Seventh Street in Erie.

She puts more than 50 hours of work each week into her garden during growing season. Some volunteers also kick in time, she has a 13-year-old apprentice who is eager to help, and at times, Ciner pays people for a couple hours of work. But for the most part, it’s her labor, and a labor of love.

But it’s also a business. Ciner sells vegetables, flowers and plants. Most of the produce is sold at the Little Italy Farmers Market. (Ciner says she’s at the farmers market every Monday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. adding, “I love to meet people and hear them share their stories about their gardens and what they grow.”) In the spring, seedlings from the urban farm are sold at the Edinboro Market in Edinboro. She runs a flower CSA (community supported agriculture), essentially a farm subscription service. Ciner also takes custom orders for flowers for special occasions and puts together wreaths and other natural décor in the fall. Erie bakery Herb and Honey purchases ingredients from the urban farm (garlic scapes, chamomile, rhubarb and lemon balm) and in the past, the Erie Food Co-Op Cafe and Bakery has purchased ingredients.

“Sometimes people walk up and say, ‘Hey, do you have such and such thing — I’ll buy it from you,'” Ciner said.

Stephanie Ciner owner of Wild Field Urban Farm in Erie.

Ciner moved to Erie in 2016. She’s originally of Johnstown and had lived in Philadelphia before moving to Erie. Initially she had moved to Erie for service in AmeriCorps, but she stayed. She works as a part-time gardener at Erie’s Public Schools. Before moving to Erie, she already had been planning to grow her own food for herself, her family and her neighbors. She spent time learning.

She doesn’t have an agricultural degree, and she didn’t inherit the family farm. Instead, she has an English degree and gumption. She started with gardening and then did an apprenticeship to learn more about farming. She also reads a ton about farming, she said. She’s described it as a “constant journey” and said she’s had many decisions to make along the way.

“I feel like it’s true for everything — when you try to take a hobby and part of your life and make it your income, there’s just a dance there,” Ciner said. The dance is between growing what she loves to grow, and growing what she thinks will earn a profit.

“My brother does photography and we can talk about the same things. He loved spending his free time taking pictures, then he started to get a following and people started to order stuff…he was kind of like, ‘I’m not having the fun I used to have…'”

In Erie, Ciner knew that access to land would be important for her plans, so she bought a home next to what the city called “side lots.”

“We’d call them vacant lots. The city calls them ‘side lots.’ They’re not truly vacant — there were homes, and they have histories and stories, and then they become just places that people drive on and mow,” she explains. “I was able to purchase both lots that were adjacent to my home, and then I expanded my garden into a part-time business.”

She works the land by hand, for the most part. She prepared the soil for the corn using a metal garden rake and a short garden fork (no rototiller). She recently invested in a single sprinkler (before the sprinkler, she said it took about two hours to water the garden by hose, and longer when she watered the garden from a watering can she filled from the now-empty rain barrels). The lots have sandy soil, so it’s an uphill battle to keep the plants watered.

Whereas many farmers lean into the “dust-on-the-boots” and “risking it all each season” mindset (like some sort of country song that’s come to life), Ciner said she avoids that worldview.

“There’s something about this life that really sustains me, even when it’s extremely difficult… it is hard, but it’s also really beautiful,” she said. “The food is really good, and watching bees fly out of flowers when you come to pick them, and coming out and just having something to pick and eat and sit in the shade, having things to share with other people, watching something going to seed and saving the seed and sharing it with other people, the rhythms with the seasons…I love living this way. Even if I didn’t have an urban farm and I just had a garden, I’d still be living this way.”

A bee enjoys the bounty of Wild Field Urban Farm in Erie.

In other corners of the local food producing scene, growers lament the food system. Ciner is aware of the issues in the food system, but she seems to prefer education over advocating. Talking to Ciner, one gets the feeling that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to local food and the food system/supply in general.

“Our food system, nationally and internationally, has so many major issues with it — social justice issues, labor issues, the way the land is used, the way animals, plants, the earth is treated — just saying, ‘OK, that’s awful, so the individual person should take on the responsibility of producing your own food,’ I don’t think that’s the answer, and I don’t think that’s realistic for a lot of people,” she said. “Those of us who are drawn to this… we can promote it with a joy, and share why we love to do this with people who are interested.

“People will be more drawn to growing food and cultivating things in a way that is healthier for people and the land if they see it as accessible, possible and enjoyable.”

On July 11, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding toured Wild Field Urban Farm as part of the commonwealth’s “Urban Ag Week” celebration. While on the farm, Ciner shared an edible flower with the agriculture secretary — a Nasturtium. She shared the same flower with a JET 24/FOX 66 reporter. The petals are bland, albeit a touch on the sweet and fruity side. But the bulb itself was drastically different — spicy. Ciner said it tastes like black pepper, but it also had an acidic quality more like a jalapeno than a peppercorn. The flowers are often served in salads. To sum it up, it was an experience, and likely it is better as an ingredient than served alone.

Ciner shows off a handful of what was picked the morning of July 14 — okra and carrots.

The agriculture secretary was just one of many visitors that have toured the farm.

“I feel like I spend a lot of my time talking to people, giving tours and doing workshops. I’m trying to share things that I’ve learned and experienced, and hopefully encouraging other people to grow more food, source more local food, get to know farmers, think of where their food comes from, and get to know plants,” Ciner said.

The knowledge she shares is knowledge that she’s either learned along the way or that someone else has shared with her.

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“For many years, I was just sort of wandering around and seeing how other people were doing it and deciding if I wanted to do it or not, and people just welcomed me onto their farm or their community garden or homestead or whatever,” she said. “I feel extremely grateful and blessed for what people have invested in me for me to be able to grow and be part of this type of work. I’m trying to live that and offer it back as much as I can.”