When Sean and Stacey McNicholl decided they wanted to start a farm in their hometown of Upper Darby, they had little money and limited options.
So they made an unconventional choice and leased a greenhouse — in a cemetery, of all places. So far, they’ve made it work.
Born and raised in the bustling Delaware County town, the couple saw an opportunity to create an urban farm, a place they could grow all the fruit, vegetables, and flowers they could cram into a greenhouse that’s a couple of thousand square feet. They had visions of selling their fresh produce to locals while teaching basics of food production and gardening to folks who were interested.
“It felt important to do it here" in Upper Darby, said Stacey McNicholl, 32, who had been farming with her husband for eight years, first in their backyard, then in Broomall, Chadds Ford, and elsewhere in Upper Darby. “There are very few farms on this side of Delaware County.”
Success wasn’t a given, but the McNicholls took the risk. In January, they signed a five-year lease with historic Arlington Cemetery, a 130-acre burial ground recognized by the National Park Service as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In April, the couple officially opened GreenHorn Gardens in an airy, geometric greenhouse fitted with thousands of panes of glass.
They approached cemetery management about transforming the greenhouse. For years, the 80-year-old structure had mostly remained vacant except for holidays, when employees would sell poinsettias at Christmas and flowers for Mother’s Day.
“We just had this asset sitting there, so they approached me," said Gary Buss, president and chief executive of Arlington Cemetery. He was quickly sold on the idea.
“I think their passion and expertise is great," he said, noting that the McNicholls were able to find a site to build their dream while revitalizing the greenhouse. “It’s kind of a win-win.”
Word is spreading of the McNicholls’ venture.
“It is still brand-new,” said Sean McNicholl, 34. “But I think it’s starting to snowball now.”
Every Friday to Sunday, they hold their farmers market at the cemetery, selling tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, microgreens, and an assortment of other vegetables and flowers. They donate unsold produce to local food banks and churches.
In 2018, the U.S. Census recorded the poverty rate in Upper Darby at 14.2%, compared with the national average of 12.3% in the same year. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 69,000 people in Delaware County, or 12.3%, reported themselves as food insecure, according to Feed America. It is the county with the third-highest rate of food insecurity in the Pennsylvania metro area, after Philadelphia and Montgomery.
The McNicholls, in an effort to broaden their consumer base, say they plan to accept food stamps soon.
The couple have also hosted workshops and started a community garden for the students of nearby Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School. Stacey McNicholl noticed that some kids who visited the greenhouse had clearly never seen a large garden.
“Education is definitely really important to us," she said. “The kids feel that they at least now know how to provide for themselves, even in a small way.”
Like many other urban farmers, the McNicholls have made social consciousness a part of their business, emphasizing education, self-sufficiency, and charitable giving.
“This is a passion for us and we want to do it where we’re from," Sean McNicholl said.
He can credit his and Stacey’s social-media advertising for GreenHorn’s growing acclaim in Upper Darby.
Another formidable force: Upper Darby residents, a chatty bunch quick to take to social media (a vibrant Upper Darby-centric Facebook group boasts more than 6,200 members), where they’re unafraid to laud — or skewer — what’s happening in town.
“Upper Darby is about word of mouth," said Katie Ford, a lifelong resident who regularly shops at GreenHorn Gardens and has become friends with the McNicholls.
The McNicholls have been warmly received. And it helps that they’re born-and-bred Upper Darbyites.