Urban Farmers Here to Stay

December 2, 2009 at 2:09 am 1 comment

©Margarida Correia. Karen Washington, founder of the Garden of Happiness in the Bronx, insists that urban farmers are here to stay.

Skeptics call it a fad, but Karen Washington insists otherwise.  “Urban farming,” says the ardent Bronx gardener, “is here to stay.”

With New York City each year turning in bigger and bigger harvests, Washington may be right.  Community gardens throughout the city had waiting lists.  Meanwhile, scores of volunteers lined up each Sunday to plant, harvest, weed and water herbs and vegetables on a 6,000-square-foot rooftop farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

New York City may soon even have an official farm school.  Ever since she returned from a six-month farm apprenticeship program in Santa Cruz, Calif., Washington could not get the idea of a “farm school” out of her head.  Now she’s working with Just Food — a local food advocacy group — to launch the school so that urban growers “won’t have to go to California” to learn farming skills.  The school — set to open in the Spring of 2010 — will provide decentralized classroom instruction at community gardens throughout the city as well as the New York and Brooklyn botanical gardens.

“This is a labor of love of all the gardening groups in the city,” said Washington of the new school.

The longtime gardener founded the15,000-square-foot Garden of Happiness in the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx in 1988.  The garden is part of La Familia Verde, a five-garden food growing coalition that sold $4,000 worth of produce at its weekly farmers market this year.  Washington is the farm manager of the market.

“All of the community gardens and urban farms are my favorite,” said Washington, as she sat at a table in the Garden of Happiness, the resident cat, Compost, tagging along behind her. “I like them all the same.”

Washington had to be diplomatic.  She was recently named president of the New York City Community Gardens Coalition and to the board of the New York Botanical Garden, an honor that she — “a little girl from the projects” — still finds hard to believe.

Even though community gardens like the Garden of Happiness have “been put to rest” or tucked in for the winter with compost and cover crops, Washington has been as active as ever.  She recently returned from a trip to Detroit where, at the invitation of Just Food, she toured the city’s projects and met and consulted with greening groups there.  Detroit’s burned-down buildings and battered homes reminded her of the devastation of the Lower East Side in the late 60s and 70s.  Though saddened by the devastation, she took heart in the resiliency of the people.

“People,” she said, “are taking back the land and bringing back food,” despite the difficulties and the lack of support for gardening groups in Detroit.

“We’re building bridges across state lines and bringing the movement closer among community gardens and urban farms,” said Washington.

She’s working hard too to strengthen ties within New York City gardening groups.  Earlier this year, she worked with a group of urban gardeners to open Finca del Sur, a one-acre farm in the South Bronx, where she now also gardens.

“The soil,” she recalled of the new urban farm, “was as hard as a rock.  From that brittle soil, though, the gardeners coaxed a rich bounty of collards, eggplant, tomatoes and other crops — enough to sell at the farmers market and donate to local food co-ops and pantries.

Washington has big plans for next year.  In addition to opening her beloved farm school, she is planning a conference for black urban farmers in February. As president of the New York City Community Gardens Coalition, she will also be focusing on extending a 10-year gardening agreement with the city, which expires in 2010.  The agreement gives community gardens certain protections against potential developers, including a review and hearing process should community gardens become development targets.

“We want to make sure our gardens are protected and preserved,” Washington said.

The threats sometimes are more immediate.  Washington spotted a hawk and followed it as it soared across the sky.  She didn’t want it coming anywhere near the chickens, which pecked on scraps in the garden beds.

Hawks are chased away at the Garden of Happiness.  Children, though, are embraced.

Washington understands that preserving gardens means getting youth involved, particularly as older gardeners retire.  She reveres “the elders” — those who were growing food in the city long before it became fashionable.  It’s time, she said, the city’s longtime gardening warriors get the recognition they deserve.

“People have been doing this for years,” she said.  “It’s not a new yuppy thing.”

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Entry filed under: City Farmers, Community Gardens, Local Food Production, Urban Agriculture. Tags: , , , , .

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