Monday, April 4, 2011

A report from an NYC urban agriculture conference

Our food is grown on industrial farming operations, generally far from where they are finally eaten. They’re extensively processed, turned from their original forms into a host of food products. Potatoes, corn, pigs, wheat, leafy greens pass through factory portals and emerge in our supermarkets and restaurants. That’s the mainstream American food paradigm. It’s an effort to imagine a different way. Go back a few decades. Back in World Wars One and Two, Americans were urged to produce much of their own food in Victory Gardens.

There’s a new interest in growing food in our community or relatively nearby. An urban agriculture conference organized by the Horticultural Society of NYC in March asked how we city residents connect with our food. Panelists included: Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the Greenhorns; Christina Grace, Urban Food Systems Program, NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets; Jeremy Smith, author of Growing a Garden City; Keith Stewart, of Keith's Farm, and author of It's a Long Road to a Tomato; and Karen Washington, of the NYC Community Garden Coalition.

When Karen Washington, president of the NYC Community Garden Coalition, got started 25 years ago, there were about 15,000 vacant lots in the City. Many New Yorkers who couldn’t move out of neighborhoods troubled by crack, crime, police brutality, and lack of affordable housing had no choice but try to improve their neighborhoods. Since most community gardens are on City property, gardening is inherently political. “Urban agriculture is the new civil rights movement,” said Washington. While urban agriculture (UA) can’t produce more than a small fraction of the City’s food, it is a valuable educational component, reminding New Yorkers of all those who grow, process and transport food, usually out of our attention. If agricultural use of land is temporary and not secure, food grown on it can’t properly be called sustainable. Washington hoped that urban agriculture can be both inclusive and innovative, transcending the standard raised-bed community garden to spread to roof gardens, church garden projects, and gardening in front and back yards. We need to get more youth, especially youth of color, involved. A greater partnership between urban consumers and rural farmers is needed.

Keith Stewart raises vegetables and herbs for the Union Square green market, on a 14 acre organic farm in Orange County, NY. Keith has written a book about his 25 years of farming, and has appeared on many radio and TV programs. He reported a steady increase in the number of applicants for interns on his farm, and interest in both local and urban agriculture within NYC. He also pointed out that there’s no way that the City can produce more than a tiny fraction of its food – increased production from the surrounding region is central to any pragmatic urban agriculture discussion.

Jane Hodge of Just Food described Farm School NYC, the new school of urban agriculture. Just Food, if you don’t know, has helped start 80 community supported agriculture programs around the City, and a project linking locally grown food to 44 City food pantries and soup kitchens. Its City Farm program trains community gardeners to teach workshops and get out of the garden to interact with the surrounding neighborhood.

In the first year of the Farm School program, students take 15 core courses.  In the second year, students will focus on either teaching, advocacy, urban agriculture, or enterprise development, through classes and a lengthy apprenticeship. Demand for training is high. For its 2011 pilot year, there were over 200 applicants for the 20 official spaces in the part time certificate program. Over half of the applicants have been women, a large number in their 20s and 30s, over half from Brooklyn, over half white. The School hopes to put course content online – a very prudent move, considering that the courses are already taking place, and can easily be made available online for what seems to be a large number of eager students with a modest investment in video editor staff time. USDA gave them funding for three years of operations.

Severine von Tscharner Fleming of the Greenhorns strives to "recruit, promote and support" the rising number of young people becoming new farmers. The group produces a weekly radio show (it’s easy to listen to podcasts while conducting farm chores), a blog, a wiki-based resource guide for beginning farmers, a GIS-based mapping project, and dozens of mixers and educational events for young farmers all around the country. Their graphic style is heavy on whimsical hand drawn illustrations, but Greenhorns is serious about helping small farmers succeed as individual businesses, and as a unified political interest group.

The enterprise model of the small vegetable farm is a good entry point for beginning farmers because of limited initial costs, said Severine. Since new farmers have to make do with very old equipment and limited budgets, innovation is needed. One new farming technique is recycling plastic beer cups, abundant at college campuses, into seed starting containers. Greenhorns brought farmers and MIT engineers together in the FarmHack project. As a co-founder of the National Young Farmers Conference, Severine is helping develop a policy platform for young farmers to be released soon - along with their video documentary. (Here’s the trailer.)

Jeremy Smith came in from Missoula, Montana to plug his new book, Growing a Garden City. Urban agriculture projects can catalyze both personal and civic transformation, says Smith. His book offers fifteen first-person stories making the case from the vantage point of farmers and community garden members, a low-income senior and troubled teen, a foodie, and a food bank officer, accompanied by seven sections explaining the working of student farms, community gardens, community supported agriculture (CSA), community education, farm work therapy, and community outreach.

The local food movement, despite recent rapid growth, is just getting started, added Smith, predicting that communities will have much greater direct support from agriculture in the future. He started with an extremely safe argument: with one in three kids in poor health by age 18, we’ve got to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. For earlier grades, good starting points are setting up more school trips to visit working farms, and more school gardens. Sending troubled youth to community farming programs, where they’re paid $8 an hour to learn how to grow food, costs far less than sending them to detention homes – and yields more direct and indirect benefits. Since the produce from these projects are sold at a deep discount to food banks or seniors on fixed incomes, they don’t compete either with standard farmers markets targeting middle class customers, or Whole Foods-type stores.

Community agriculture projects present an opportunity for religious institutions to sponsor gardening projects. Organizing stakeholders starts by helping people to sort out the answers to very basic questions: what they can contribute, and what do they need? “The local food movement can fix many of society’s problems, including poverty, addiction and sense of disconnectedness,” concluded Smith.

Christina Grace of NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets pointed to the potential for creating more green jobs through urban food production. One of the leading exponents of UA is Will Allen’s Growing Power project, based in central Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In Buffalo, NY, farming within city limits has been allowed by city officials. Buffalo is the third poorest city in the country. 75% of the residents of its city center are black. A 2009 survey conducted by GrowNYC identified nearly 500 NYC community gardens. However, since NYC open space is in relatively short supply, the examples of Buffalo and Milwaukee provide valuable starting points but can only go so far in suggesting the future of agriculture within the City. Grace reviewed some of the most notable urban agriculture sites.

• Not far from the 30-acre Queens County Farm, is John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens, with an agriculture program that dates back to WWI.  

The Garden of Happiness in the Bronx is popular neighborhood gathering spot, with bees and chickens as well as vegetables.

• In the East New York Farm, under a highway overpass, Caribbean immigrants farm plots of land.
The Bed-Stuy Farm, the regional training partner of Growing Power, grows vegetables behind the Brooklyn Rescue Mission for its food pantry recipients.

Added Value turned a baseball field in Red Hook, Brooklyn into a community farm in 2003. Added Value works with New York City schools to provide hands-on farm-based learning to over 1200 students each year. Produce goes to a neighborhood CSA, a farmer’s market, and local restaurants; and runs an extensive community composting program.

Grow to Learn is the City’s new initiative to start school gardens.

The Eagle Street Farm has 6,000 s.f. of vegetable garden on a Greenpoint rooftop. Brooklyn Grange, in Long Island City Queens, has a 40,000 s.f. roof.

Where can newly trained farmers go, Graced wondered? Perhaps to one of the very few big open areas left in the City, like Floyd Bennett Field, NYC’s first municipal airport.

Figuring out next steps: twenty questions

The presenters covered a lot of ground, so to speak.  How do we connect the dots, and identify possibilities, obstacles and fixes? Here's a number of questions to fill our the next steps in our inquiry.  Please add your answers, responses, and more questions in the comments section.

- The Farm School is certainly an attractive training program with strong demand.  Where do the students trained in the Farm School go after graduation?

- With only twenty in the program now, what is the expected maximum number of students the program can sustainably train each year? Are there other training programs that are comparable?

- How many agriculture related job openings are there now in NYC? What are agricultural business opportunities not yet widespread in NYC which could reasonably be encouraged?

- Given that limited number of actual openings, is this program overly idealistic, with limited options for its graduates?  If more options need to be developed for Farm School graduates, what might they be?
- Are there existing proposals to incentivize and encourage growth of NYC agriculture related jobs?

- Given that social services groups and nonprofits can create valuable community agriculture programs, why are there so few of them? How can successful models for such programs be shared with the nonprofit community?

- Given the challenging funding environment, how can these groups create and staff more community agriculture projects?

- What kind of skills and training would those groups and individuals need?

- What are the agricultural products that can be grown in NYC and the surrounding region that can profitably compete with those products grown elsewhere  by standard industrial farm methods?

- Does anyone have data on the amounts and types of agricultural goods imported into NY State, and which could be partly replaced by goods grown on New York City or State farms?
- What proportion of NYC’s food requirements be met by urban agriculture?

- Recognizing that urban agriculture can supply only a small fraction of NYC’s food needs (whatever that fraction turns out to be), how can its potential as an educational process and cultural change agent be maximized?

- How can urban agriculture increase the connection between New Yorkers and farming within New York State and the surrounding region?

- How can we increase the amount of NYC’s food that is produced within New York State farms?

- What are ways to rent, lease or transfer farmable property to third party organizations which can represent and train farmers who can't afford their own property?

- How might such organizations collect and distribute such produce in ways that don't conflict with existing green markets, while meeting real market needs?

- What are the obstacles to recruiting more State residents to being productively occupied, full or part time, in food production?

- What do the recent food policy reports produced by Speaker Quinn's and Borough President Stringer's office have to say about the above questions?

- Why did no one, during the entire conference, say that the rising price of oil would make long distance transportation of agricultural goods by truck increasingly expensive, and render NYC increasingly vulnerable to fuel price and supply disruptions?

Isn't the latter a more compelling reason to rapidly scale up urban and regional agriculture than mild-mannered appeals to better nutrition?  (The remedy to fuel depletion is not more domestic oil drilling, which can only marginally increase supplies, but by reducing the amount of fuel used in food production.  Hence, more local and regional agriculture.) 

Raising this issue would allow boosters of local food and UA would be able to say not only that their practices would give New Yorkers healthier, more nutritious food, but would become inevitable within the next few years and needed to be scaled up rapidly as a matter of national and municipal food security.

What other questions should we be asking? Do you have some answers, or responses? Don't be shy now.


  1. Oil is certainly a relevant part of the picture. It is consumed heavily in both food production and food transportation.

    Consuming as much food as possible from both the near region, as well as the city itself can make incremental steps towards less reliance and consumption of fuels in the process.

  2. The question(s) raised in the examples above are interesting vignettes of locally-based ag-related economic development. One needs to look at the effort as one of "..what kind of food do we need for a healthy city/region and how best to access it?" By addressing this questions, we can better find links in our use (diet, consumption, food policy) and our supply, some of which may come from nearby. Focusing on the city at the expense of the region (here to Albany, Montauk to South jersey) prevents a full and complete resolution of NYC food needs. Wed-based resources (NY MarketMaker, etc.) can serve as a resource, as can organization of Coop Extension resources and producer groups ready and willing to provide for City residents.

  3. I think the conversation is limited by the money-paradigm and the constant reminder to provide profit/cost/money value limits us in expanding both the conversation and getting down into the dirt. As the fuel goes, so will the money system. We're watching the dollar's sharp demise as it is. Isn't it amazing that none of the talking economist heads mentioned peak oil and the sharp spike in crude price as a precipitating factor in the 2008 crash? Well it's about to happen again. The whole thing is kept together with spit & bandaids. Fiat currency and the reign of banks and wall st is a very elaborate pyramid scheme. They convince an entire nation that small businesses cannot survive without credit/debt and
    they blackmail the gov't into a bailout. Why should we continue to my participate in their destructive self-promoting program? They need us and our cash to operate, not the other way around. My point is: guerrilla gardening. On any spit of land available. Square foot gardens, food forests, get the homeless vets gardening. I'm willing to set up some kind of dvd-viewing event where we watch Jeoff Lawson's Soils dvd or the Food Forests dvd for free to anyone and everyone and set em loose growing and tending to food, let the rest of the people fret about how they're gonna make money from it, at least these people will be producing food. It would be nice to get tools and seeds donated, but the depleted nyc soils can be remediated with compost and there's plenty of food scraps to go around. Why isn't the parks dept collecting food scraps for compost? They should be shamed into doing so. Anyway, I have more to say about this. Growing food organically and locally IS a political act. It's a revolutionary act and as such escapes the tyranny of the current economic model and should be discussed on a platform that breaks those binding chains. Too much metaphor? Let's remember Abby Hoffman, steal this abandoned plot of land.