Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Urban Agriculture: A trip to the big city

Yesterday was jam packed with activities, but none of them required me getting my hands dirty. In the morning we hosted a group of local teachers. We gave them a tour of the gardens pointing out all our sustainable practices and gave them a hand-out, we created it on a rainy day, that included the definition of sustainable and pro's and con's of conventional, organic, and sustainable agriculture. The groups aim was to somehow incorporate agriculture into the curriculum at school.

After concluding the tour we hurried to grab some lunch before making the long trek to New York City.
Added Value, Red Hook, Brooklyn

Entering New York City the landscape suddenly seemed devoid of color. The sky was as gray as the buildings looming over us. Only a few hours earlier my scenery was green and lush, and now it feels like I have suddenly stepped into a black and white film. Its hard to imagine that I lived here a year ago.
Added Value, Red Hook, Brooklyn

The first urban farm we visited was Added Value in Red Hook. We were told to meet by the Ikea. So we follow the signs for Ikea on the road. After left turns and right turns and u-turns, we finally see the monolithic yellow and blue building come into sight. On our right, a garden appears out of nowhere. Entering the chain link fence, its former purpose as a park is still evident. Asphalt peeks out where soil is not laid and there is a batting cage in the far right corner.

We meet with the Added Value crew by the baseball diamond and sit in a circle. Ian Marvy, Co-Founder and Executive Director, gives us a little history of Red Hook and of how this place came to be and what its all about. To quickly sum it up, Added Value is a farm/park/youth program/CSA/market. As Marvy put it, "they aim to affect the teens' mind, heart, and hands." The teens are not the only beneficiaries though, at their market on the weekends they accept FMNP coupons and have an EBT device allowing them to accept credit cards and federal benefits.

The teen leaders gave us a tour of the farm and I was very impressed with their knowledge of farming. They built their raised beds with compost and had drip tape in the rows to directly water the roots and prevent runoff. Their compost system included wind rows, bins, and vermi-composting. People from the community could drop-off food scraps in one of the compost barrels, add a handful of wood chips, and give the handle a few spins to mix it. They also collected compost from restaurants that they sell their produce to.

The types and varieties of produce were impressive; tomatoes, okra, collards, corn, melons, salad mixes, herbs, peppers, cucumbers, squash, to name a few.

I could see how easy it would be to drown out the sounds of trucks and horns, to erase the piercing image of Swedish consumerism, and focus on the contrast of soil and greenery. A slice of paradise carved out in an unlikely place.

Our second urban farm visit presented us with another vista, the East River and Empire State building. Walking up the stairs of a non-descript warehouse you would never guess the roof was housing a farm. We met with the energetic Annie Novak, one of the founding farmers, for a tour of Eagle Street Roof Top Farm, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Eagle Street Roof Top Farm, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

The 6,000 square foot green roof farm was started in 2009 and produces food for restaurants, CSA members, and their own farm market open on Sundays. Growing on a roof with limited space presents a lot of challenges. It is much harder than growing on land or asphalt even because weight is a concern. The growing medium is comprised of compost, rock particulate, and shale. The beds have a soil depth of 4 to 7 inches. The plants looked a little stunted which is not surprising given the conditions, no wind breaks and shallow soil depth.

The roof top also boasts a modest flock of chickens and four bee hives. Novak recounted how one time the chickens, spooked because of rabbit, flew the coop. The image of chickens flying off the roof and into traffic below is both comic and terrifying, for the cars in the street below that is.

My overall honest impression of the farm was that, while I loved the idea of growing food in cities and even more so on a roof, it is not an equivalent substitute for growing on soil. There are varieties that just cannot grow in those conditions and those that do may not reach their full potential. The CSA share was very small, the share of vegetables is what I would basically eat for snack or lunch, a handful of tomatoes, cilantro, some cut lettuce. I also wondered about fertility of the soil. But considering the constraints, I applaud her effort. And I imagine the CSA members support her cause regardless if they receive bounty in return.

Farming is part science, part intuition and the rest is trial and error. I look forward to seeing how the rooftop farm progresses over the next few years.

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