Posts tagged ‘urban farmers’

Urban Farm Builds Roots at Battery Park

© Photo by Margarida Correia. See caption at bottom of post.

The temporary one-acre urban farm that opened in April at the Battery is not so temporary anymore.  It will shift to a new location in the park when a planned bike path comes through in 2012, said Warrie Price, founder of the Battery Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to revitalizing the Battery at the tip of Manhattan.

“It’s been too much of a great positive thing for the neighborhood and for us as an organization,” she said as she made her rounds amid rows of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans and a riot of other crops on Saturday.

Since it opened, the farm has received a great deal of media attention with Inhabitat New York City naming it one of the city’s top five urban farms. It’s been a hit with neighborhood school children, Lower Manhattan residents and local community groups who “adopted” or planted half of the 100-plus vegetable beds.  It also drew hundreds of volunteers eager to help the Battery run the operation.

“This is a dream come true,” said the farm’s manager Camilla Hammer, as a bevy of volunteers swirled around her with shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows. (more…)


September 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm 1 comment

LOCAL FOOD News Roundup

Farmers Markets Grow Despite Bad Economy

If only the economy would grow as rapidly as the nation’s farmers markets.   The number of farmers markets operating throughout the country grew 17%, from 6,132 in 2010 to 7,175 this year.  The results were released in the USDA’s 2011 National Farmers Market Directory.

New York reported 520 markets, ranking second among the nation’s top 10 states with the most farmers markets.  California, with 729 markets, ranked first.

The market listings were submitted to the USDA by market managers on a voluntary, self-reported basis between April 18 and June 24, 2011, as part of the USDA’s annual outreach effort.

Alaska experienced the most growth.  It reported 35 farmers markets, up 46%.  Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, with 166, 130, and 80 markets, respectively, jumped 38%.

Mayor Bloomberg Signs Local Food Legislation

For the past two years the New York City Council has pushed to make more local food available to New Yorkers.  On Wednesday its efforts paid off:  Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed comprehensive legislation aimed at increasing the production and procurement of local and regional food. (more…)

August 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

Urban Farmers Here to Stay

©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.”

December 2, 2009 at 2:09 am 1 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

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sometimes there can be too much of good thing. As I mentioned in my last post, two weeks ago I bought a huge bunch of kale for $2 from an urban gardener in East New York, Brooklyn.  It was more than I could possibly eat in a week.  Jeanette Ware, the gardener, offered a suggestion:  “You can freeze it,” she said. 

“Freezing?  Now there’s an idea,” I thought. 

Jeanette explained that I should blanch the kale and then run it through cold water with ice.  I did exactly as she said, and it worked out well for me.  Today I ate the frozen kale, and it tasted as good as the fresh batch I’d eaten a week earlier.

Freezing will now be a solution whenever I waver about buying any of the bunched vegetables for fear that it will be too much.  I’m not sure that it would work as well for the more delicate leafy greens – like spinach or Swiss chard – or things like watercress and parsley.  I suppose I can give it a try, and if freezing freezes the life out of delicates greens, I guess there’s always the compost bin. 

[BTW, if anyone out there has any experience with freezing the delicate leafy stuff, please write in and let us know whether it works. I’d love to hear from you.]

July 16, 2008 at 2:09 am 2 comments

City Gardeners Grow for Themselves and Others

They’re tucked away in the city’s outer boroughs in places people barely notice – behind or between old buildings, in abandoned lots, or buttressed against the walls of elevated subways.  All together, 30 food-producing gardens – some as big as 2.5 acres – are bringing people together, providing produce-deficient neighborhoods with fresh veggies, and supplying local pantries and soup kitchens. 

Last weekend I visited two city farms in East New York, Brooklyn:  United Community Centers Garden, a half-acre garden founded in 1994 and the slightly larger Hands and Heart Garden, which opened last year.  I set out to find and meet some of the resident gardeners and farmers.  I was lucky.  It was Saturday, one of two days the gardeners hold a small farmers market. Some produced enough to sell and earn good money at the market.  Others cultivated a few plots just for themselves, with one woman harvesting enough vegetables that she no longer needed to shop at supermarkets. I’d like to introduce you to three of the urban gardeners I met that day: 

Selling for the Community



United Community Centers Garden is part of a coalition of gardens that makes up East New York Farms! in Brooklyn.

United Community Centers Garden is part of a coalition of gardens that makes up East New York Farms! in Brooklyn.

Jeanette Ware had a table with a good selection of nice-looking produce – string beans, cucumbers, scallions, garlic, sweet onions – purple, white and yellow – and bins of collards and kale.  At Hands and Heart, she and her husband, James, also grow mustard and turnip greens, ochre, carrots and lettuce. She sells her produce, she said, “for the community,” noting that fresh vegetables were hard to find by in East New York.  People had to take buses to supermarkets and most of the produce there, she pointed out, “has chemicals.”  Everything she had, she said with pride, was organic, grown with nothing but compost and rainwater. 




I bought the kale – an oversized bunch that filled the bag – for $2.  Jeanette was a good businesswoman, encouraging me to visit the market again and to take orders for my friends.  Given the amount of kale I received, I probably would do just that on my next visit.      

Jeanette told me how to get to Hands and Heart, a 15-minute walk from the market, where her husband was working.  “He’ll show you where we picked everything,” she said. 

No Kind of Cides

James, her husband, had just closed the gate to the ½-acre farm, when I arrived.  I introduced myself.  “I was hoping you could show me around,” I said. “I hope you’re not too busy.”

“No,” said James, who sounded and looked like Morgan Freeman, “I’m not too busy.” 

James pointed to the two rows he and his wife planted.  They were green and vibrant, packed with a rich mix of crops, from peppers to garlic and mustard greens.  Two women a few rows over quietly tended their crops. 



James Ware, a gardener at Hands and Heart Farm, prides himself in growing organic produce.

James Ware, a gardener at Hands and Heart Farm, prides himself in growing organic produce.

James and Jeannette were among the inaugural gardeners at Hands and Heart, which opened last year.  They had a bountiful harvest, so much so that they decided to double what they planted, using all the space that was available to them.  James was stunned, he said, when he learned that he made a little over $2,000 selling his crops at the market.





“Hopefully next time we doubled what we did last year,” he mused.

The prospect of extra cash is not what originally attracted James to the urban farm.  He was simply looking for something to do, “not realizing that it was going to evolve into this,” said the soft-spoken retiree. 

James, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, grew up on a farm and dabbled in farming as a kid but hated it.  It wasn’t until years later that he began to enjoy it, and ever since he’s returned to his roots in farming at Hands and Heart he’s “happy, happy, happy.”

Like Jeanette, James prides himself that everything he and his wife grow is organic.  “No pesticides, no insecticides,” he said with a pause, “no kind of cides.”

My Little Therapy

I met Joyce Dixon at United Community Centers Garden, where I was snatching photos for my blog.  She told me not to take pictures of her two small plots, because she said they “don’t look too good,” not like the verdant rows of callaloo – a Jamaican vegetable in the spinach family – tended by another gardener. 



Joyce Dixon sees vegetable gardening as “her little therapy.”

Joyce Dixon sees vegetable gardening as “her little therapy.”

Joyce hobbled about on her metal cane, using it to hold down overgrown plants and uncover hidden squash.  She pulled a handful of purslane – a leaf vegetable – from her plot, and proudly showed it to me, explaining it can be cooked or used in salads.  “It’s good for the memory,” she said.





Joyce, a longtime resident of East New York, grew up on a farm in Jamaica.  She doesn’t spend nearly as much time as she once used to on her two plots.  These days, she’s there just once a week.  “It’s my little therapy,” she said.  “It’s my passion.”

July 12, 2008 at 2:12 am 6 comments

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