Posts tagged ‘Queens County Farm Museum’

Urbanites Scratch Itch to Farm

No one knows exactly why.  It might be the start of a new farming season, or a yearning perhaps to go back to basics and a do-it-yourself, grow-it-yourself culture.

Whatever it is, many urbanites are flocking to gardens and farms to tend to the crops now springing from the earth.  At the Queens County Farm Museum, a 47-acre working historical farm in Floral Park, Queens, volunteers show up regularly to help out on Tuesdays and Sundays, the farm’s two volunteer work days.

“It varies from week to week,” said the farm’s Director of Agriculture Kennon Kay, with anywhere from two to 10 people helping out on volunteer days.  Some drop in for a few hours, while others work the entire day.  Most volunteers, says Kennon, are from Queens, as public transportation to the farm from other boroughs is difficult.

Fortunately, for New Yorkers bitten by the farm bug, there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities to work on farms, all within city limits.   New York’s two rooftop farms, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and the recently opened Brooklyn Grange, host hundreds of volunteers.  Eagle Street has a schedule of open farm days, and Brooklyn Grange e-mails volunteers when it needs help.

In addition, botanical gardens in each of the boroughs recruit volunteers to help with planting, propagating, pruning and other gardening chores.  The Brooklyn Botanical Garden offers a BUG (Brooklyn Urban Gardener) certificate program, an eight-week course of interconnected workshops that covers the basics of urban gardening.  Certified BUG volunteers are dispatched to schools, senior centers, community gardens and other places throughout the city to work on greening projects.

Volunteers with basic gardening knowledge can also participate in the New York Botanical Garden’s all-star gardening group, the Bronx Green-Up.  The garden pros need help with the care and maintenance of community gardens throughout the Bronx.

There’s even a Facebook group for New Yorkers looking to relieve their itch to farm.  Get Dirty NYC provides updates on volunteer opportunities at New York City’s urban farms.

New Yorkers who want to venture outside the city and work on rural farms can find opportunities without traveling too far.  At Sylvester Manor, a 243-acre farm on Shelter Island — cradled between the North and South Fork of  Long Island — volunteers can work one or two days or for longer periods of time.   There’s only one catch:  volunteers are expected to sing as they work, as the New York Times describes here.  The owner of the farm was awarded a fellowship a few years ago to study the work songs of farmers from around the world, and he now builds on that learning experience by instilling “songing” in the fields.

Songing isn’t your thing?  Don’t give up.  The article lists a few places in New Jersey, New York and Vermont that welcome volunteers.

June 9, 2010 at 2:51 am Leave a comment

Wrap-up of a Year’s Worth of Blogging: Power of the People and a Politician Propel New York Local Food Movement in 2009

Sheer public support for local food and small farms made 2009 a banner year for New York City locavores.  Farmers markets and community gardens flourished, and new urban farms emerged, including the city’s first rooftop farm — a 6,000-square-foot site that drew scores of eager volunteers each Sunday throughout the 2009 growing season.

The local food movement had the power of the people behind it, and gained extra momentum, thanks to the power of a colorful and forceful politician:  Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

“New York City must be front and center in the international debate over food,” Stringer told some 1,000 foodies at a conference earlier this month at New York University.  He proposed forming a New York City Department of Food and Markets that would report directly to the mayor and pushed for a more regional food supply system.

“Food policy will be a top priority for my office,” he rallied the crowd of urban gardeners, nutritionists, chefs, teachers, civic leaders, community activists and others with a stake in food and farm policy.

The conference, which sold out within hours of its announcement, came only days after New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn launched “FoodWorks New York,” an initiative to analyze the city’s food system and tap its potential to create jobs by working with local farmers.

New York locavores found more than champions in positions to shake things up.  They also discovered what could turn out to be a symbol for their movement:  the city’s heirloom apple, the Newtown-Pippin.  The green-yellow apples originated on a farm in Maspeth, Queens, in the 1700s and became popular throughout the country.  Now a campaign is underway to reintroduce the apple tree in parks and gardens citywide and even name the Newtown-Pippin the city’s official apple.

Without a doubt, 2009 gave the local food movement a big boost.  Here’s a look back at some blog posts that chronicle turning points for advocates of a more localized food system:

  • Report Champions Local Farmers:  Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer releases a report calling for a “radical overhaul” of New York City’s food system.  The report makes several recommendations that would make it easier for local farmers to sell their produce in New York City, including requiring government food buyers to purchase a certain percentage of their food from farmers in the city’s foodshed.
  • New York Urban Farmers Draw Large Crowd:  A panel discussion on urban farming draws a huge crowd of local food enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. Participants hear from a Brooklyn-based indoor grower of wheatgrass and sprouts who “moved his farm to the city” from upstate New York “to be closer to his customers.”  A few weeks later, the keynote speaker at a conference on community supported agriculture — upstate farmer Cheryl Rogowski — noted that “farmers are rock stars” and that “it’s never been a more challenging or exciting time to be farmers than now.”  Not so fast, I say, in this post.  An unrepentant doubting Thomas, I question what many are calling a U.S. “food revolution.”
  • Farmers in Training:  This post profiles Michael Grady Robertson, the farm supervisor of the Queens County Farm Museum, and the opportunities the farm provides for breaking in would-be farmers.
  • Battalion of Volunteer Bee Keepers Invade City Parks and Gardens:  Local papers and blogs (including this one) covered efforts to legalize beekeeping in New York City.  Less well-covered was the Great Pollinator Project, a citywide effort to better understand and raise awareness of the importance of city bees.  The blog post describes my participation in the project.
  • The Greening of City Rooftops:  Farming on rooftops may become a hot new trend in New York City.  The post reflects on the development of green roofs in the last two years and where they’re likely to go. In this post, urban farming leaps ahead with visionary Dr. Dickson Despommier’s notion of a “vertical farm,” one in which crops grow indoors in multi-story buildings.
  • Phoenix Community Gardens Brings Neighbors Together:  This account of a refurbished community garden in Brooklyn peers into the lives of the people who garden there.  There are other posts on urban gardeners, including this one about Karen Washington, founder of the Garden of Happiness, and this one about Abu Talib, director of Taqwa Community Garden.  There’s also an account here of “wild man” Joe Gonzalez, a backyard gardener and community leader.
  • What Price Milk?:  The troubles facing today’s dairy farms recall the 1930s when dairymen were getting a raw deal on the price of milk.  They, too, we going bankrupt, even as consumer milk prices were going through the roof.  The turbulent time in New York milk history is documented in the online exhibit New York Bounty describes in the post.
  • Visions of Urban Farmland for the Grand Concourse: A proposal to transform the Grand Concourse, a nine-lane motorway in the Bronx, into four miles of contiguous urban farmland won second place in a global competition to remake the 100-year-old thoroughfare.  Farming inspired other artists in 2009.  In September, artist Leah Gauthier celebrated the close of a five-borough micro-farm installation consisting of modest growing spaces donated by New Yorkers.  In return for the spaces, Gauthier became a “sharecropper,” paying donors with a portion of the produce she grew on individual locations for the season.  It’s the ultimate high-concept art project.
  • The Nature Nut: I introduced former organic farmer and certified holistic health counselor Susana Correia as New York Bounty’s resident expert on organic farming and nutrition counseling.  The “Nature Nut” received and answered several questions throughout the year, and is waiting for more.  Have questions about what to grow in your community garden or your roof or terrace or even in your kitchen?  Questions about nutrition?  Try asking the Nature Nut.  She’ll know.

It’s been challenging keeping up with all that’s happening in urban agriculture in New York City, but I’ve had quite a bit of fun.  One day, though, was the highlight of the year – the day my blog got noticed.  In April, New York Bounty was listed in the information section of the Manhattan User’s Guide, a daily e-mail that keeps readers on top of the city.  Here’s how MUG described New York Bounty:  “With refreshingly few bells and whistles, thoughtful commentary on food, health, and the environment, particularly the ways in which urbanites are trying to reconnect with the good earth.”

The praise sent me over the moon — at least for a day or two.  It’s going to be hard to live up to the description, but I’m sure going to try, every single day of 2010 and beyond…

Happy New Year, everyone!

December 31, 2009 at 3:32 am 1 comment

Staten Island Breaks Ground for Farming Project

Staten Island now has one too:  a working farm.  On Friday, at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, city and state officials broke ground for a two-acre organic farm that will feed the hungry in the city’s richest borough.

The new farm, which is expected to produce 9,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables annually, joins a growing number of urban farms and community gardens in the city.  It will be among the city’s largest urban agricultural producers.

New York State Assemblyman Matthew Titone, a board member of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, had long tinkered with the idea of honoring Snug Harbor’s agricultural past.  The 83-acre site had once been a farm and a nursing home for retired sailors. What’s more, the borough had been a farming hub, with as many as 300 farms in 1900, according to the New York Food Museum.

“Staten Island was the largest agricultural community south of Westchester,” said Assemblyman Titone, adding that the last commercial farm closed as late as 1979.  “Why not,” he thought, “bring farming back to Staten Island?”

The recession and growing lines at food pantries plus healthy food initiatives coming from both Albany and First Lady Michelle Obama made the moment right for a new farm, said Assemblyman Titone.  He collaborated with other city and state leaders and representatives of Snug Harbor to get the pilot farming project off the ground.

The farm will work closely with two Staten Island-based social service organizations that feed the hungry:  the Staten Island Coalition of Feeding Ministries and Project Hospitality.  It will also coordinate with African Refuge, a non-profit that assists Liberian refugees.  In exchange for produce, the organizations will provide volunteers to plant and harvest fruit and vegetables at the farm.

The two-acre farm will include a nursery that will grow trees, shrubs, and grape plants for a planned one-third acre demonstration vineyard.   It will also include a compost demonstration site.

In time, the farm plans to develop a farmers market, with profits reinvested into the farm.  While the details have not been worked out, the goal is to have a farming venture with 50 percent of the produce going to food pantries and the remainder to a for-profit farmer’s market, said Assemblyman Titone.

The Staten Island farm will be comparable in some ways to the 47-acre Queens County Farm Museum, which began cultivating land in 2008 for the purpose of selling organic produce locally.  The Queens County Farm, like its Staten Island counterpart, cultivates two acres.  It also raises livestock, which the Staten Island farming project doesn’t.

As generous as two acres are in a cramped city, the Staten Island farm still doesn’t match some of the city’s largest community gardens. Bissel Garden in the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx is two-and-a-half acres, while the Added Value Community Farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn is three acres.

The Staten Island farming project might catch up however.  Assemblyman Titone noted that the two-acre plot at Snug Harbor is a pilot program.  If successful, he said, they would look to set up other plots throughout Staten Island.

“Why can’t the farm be spread out?” he asked.

November 10, 2009 at 2:35 am Leave a comment

Farmers in Training

Sheep graze in orchard of 47-acre Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park, Queens.

Sheep graze in orchard of 47-acre Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park, Queens.

It was mid-August, just weeks before the peak tomato harvesting season, when I visited Michael Grady Robertson last year at the Queens County Farm Museum, a 47-acre working historical farm in Floral Park, Queens.  Robertson was bracing for a bumper crop.  He expected to harvest more than 1,000 pounds of tomatoes a week. 

Dressed in a snug T-shirt and jeans, his hair cropped tight, he almost passed for James Dean.  He strode along the penthouse-size pens of pigs, goats and sheep, reflecting on the goals he sought to achieve as the farm’s recently hired full-time supervisor.  Aside from increasing agricultural production, he wanted to implement the highest standards of organic farming practices for fields and livestock and create an environment where animals could be “happiest and healthiest in.”  In addition, he wanted to become a long-term resource for people who wanted to transition into farming from city jobs.

“I want to be here years and years and years,” said the Kansas City native, a resident of Green Point, Brooklyn.

For Robertson, 33, a philosophy major from Boston University, the position at the Queens County Farm Museum was the culmination of a string of volunteer jobs and apprenticeships on farms in the U.S. and abroad, including a nine-month “labor of love” in a rural community in Guatemala. 

“It’s by far the most rewarding,” said Robertson of his job as farm supervisor. 

Robertson followed the path that many recent college grads are taking to explore their vocation for farming.  Many are working as summer interns or apprentices on farms, some even dropping out of school to work as farmhands. 

According to the Northeast Small Farm Institute, a non-profit that runs an apprenticeship and other programs for aspiring farmers, the number of young adults applying for farm apprenticeships is on the rise.  Last year, 60 people applied to the institute’s NEWOOF apprenticeship program, up from 36 the previous year.

Having learned the ropes of organic farming, Robertson is now at a point where he can train and educate others.  Soon after he joined the farm in February 2008, he hired a farm assistant, Keha McIlwaine, a Bed-Stuy resident originally from Utah who one day would like to have her own farm.  McIlwaine, 26, plants, harvests, weeds, irrigates and does all the “basic farming things.” She dropped out of college when she realized that she wanted to study agriculture and the school didn’t offer any courses.  Since then, she’s been “learning farming by doing it.”

“All young people thought they were growing up at the end of the world,” she said reflecting on the issues that influenced her generation.  “We were looking for alternative ways of doing things.” With farming, people can put lost skills and knowledge to use, so that “everyone knows how to shear a sheep or plant a garden,” she said. “We’ve lost so much of that common knowledge.”

To Robertson’s deep satisfaction, the farm is quickly becoming a “go to” place for urbanites who want to learn about organic farming or think they might want to farm.  Robertson reports that people — restaurateurs especially — often approach him for opportunities to work or volunteer on the farm to “see what it takes” — physically, intellectually, financially, and emotionally — to be a farmer.   

As farm production expands, Robertson hopes to have a small seasonal apprentice-like program. “I would like to expand to the point where I need three, four, five dedicated people who want to do this with their life,” he said. 

Competition for choice farm apprenticeships is as fierce as the battle to be the next Apprentice or American Idol. McIlwaine lined up several farming gigs through Willing Workers on Organic Farms – WOOF – an international organization that gives participants room and board on organic farms in exchange for their help.  After “woofing” for a while, she worked on farms in Vermont, California, Spain and Argentina. 

Her experiences helped her confirm her life’s calling.  “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said of farming. 

Neither can Robertson. When I left him that mid-August day, he was planning ahead, thinking way beyond the upcoming tomato season.  He stood in a field of mixed crops, – the “night shades” – tomatoes, peppers and eggplants – plucking hot peppers into a white bucket.  The peppers fell in one by one under a gentle noonday sun. 

“We’ll hang them in one of the wings of the greenhouse to dry,” Robertson said holding out the bucket.  “We’ll have dried hot peppers to sell at the Greenmarket.”

May 28, 2009 at 1:32 am 1 comment

New York Urban Farmers Draw Large Crowd

It’s better to grow things in the ground, rather than on the roofs of buildings.  Bee hives, on the other hand, are best kept on roofs rather than in gardens on the ground.  These were some of the takeaways for the large crowd of people who attended a panel discussion last Saturday with four urban farmers in New York City.  The discussion was part of the “Educated Eater” seminar series organized by Greenmarket, the farmers market program of the Council on the Environment of New York City. 

Stewart Borowsky, a former upstate farmer who grows wheatgrass and sprouts in an indoor space in Brooklyn, showed off slides of his new “grow room” featuring reflective walls and irrigation nozzles that he custom-designed and built himself.  Borowsky has been selling at the Greenmarket at Union Square since 1994.  He “moved his farm to the city,” he said, “to be closer to his customers.”

The other farmers shared equally interesting tidbits with the crowd.  Kansas City native Michael Robertson came to New York last year to become the agricultural supervisor of the Queens County Farm Museum, a 47-acre farm in Floral Park, Queens.  David Graves, founder of jam and jelly company Berkshire Berries, became one of the city’s earliest producers of rooftop honey when he set up his first hive in a clandestine city rooftop 12 years ago. And Declan Walsh, a chicken farmer who sells eggs in Red Hook, started raising chickens to teach and have fun with his kids. 

“All my chickens are virgins,” Walsh joked, explaining that New York City prohibits residents from keeping roosters. 

While four urban farmers hardly make for an urban farming renaissance, they do speak to nascent agricultural stirrings in a growing number of New Yorkers.  Take the people who packed the meeting room at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan last Saturday.  They were eager to start farmers markets in their neighborhoods, build relationships with urban farmers and generally expand local food production through community gardens, rooftop gardening and other means.  One woman with urban agriculture experience started a consulting business to help urbanites grow food in window boxes, balconies, fire escapes and other city spaces.  She handed out her business cards.  Two young women in their 20s sought advice from Borowsky on how they might start their own wheatgrass and sprout business in the city.  Yet another participant — a robust barrel-chested man with a raw food lifestyle — showed off the sprouts he grew indoors.  The sprouts he harvested were passed around in a white bucket. 

Urban agriculture is feeding and employing people worldwide, said moderator Michael Hurwitz, director of Greenmarket and co-founder of Added Value, a 2.75-acre community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  He cited statistics, saying that 35,000 acres of land in urban areas produced 3.4 million tons of food, employing 200 million people and feeding 800 million urban dwellers worldwide.  The stats were for 2002.

Will urban agriculture take off in New York?  It’s hard to tell, but early signs of an agricultural awakening are budding in spots around the city.  The Queens County Farm Museum, for example, is shaking off years of slumber as it ramps up agricultural production.  While the farm dates back to the Dutch settlers and has been continuously cultivated, its production level is nowhere near the level of its heyday in the 1920s.  Robertson was brought on board to reclaim some of the farm’s former glory, using sustainable farming practices.  In November, he started selling produce from the farm at the Greenmarket at Union Square and is working on a pilot CSA program with 10 – 20 members.  

“We want to transform it to a sustainable working farm for the future,” said Robertson of what was once one of the leading truck farms in New York City. 

March 7, 2009 at 2:33 pm 2 comments


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