Inter-State Inspiration from NYC’s Rooftop Gardens

Annie Novak and Ben Flanner, the original co-founders of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm.

This past October, I joined a group of government officials from Delaware, including their Secretary of Agriculture and representatives from the offices of the governor and the mayor of Wilmington, for an information-gathering tour of several farms in Brooklyn. 

Fueled by apple cider and donuts from the Union Square Greenmarket, our leader and tour organizer, Leigh Merinoff of AgroLiving, a suburban homesteader who works with Heifer International and other organizations to change the way we farm, welcomed us aboard a bus and we set off across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Delaware delegates, who are looking to start their own such operations (prompted partly by Merinoff’s urging), view New York as a leader in the areas of city farming and urban food entrepreneurship. As such, representatives from GrowNYC and New York State Ag and Markets were on hand. The Delaware contingent wanted to see these Big Apple ventures firsthand and have a chance to ask how they were launched, how they pay for themselves and how they touch the city around them. Also in our group were employees of Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House, a nonprofit organization that provides services such as GED preparation and affordable childcare to local communities aiming to achieve self-sufficiency and independence.

Our first stop was the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm located atop an old Greenpoint warehouse. Annie Novak, the resident farmer, welcomed us in the indoor space downstairs where the weekly market takes place. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, owned by the production studio Broadway Stages, supplies a CSA program and a farmers’ market, and also provides local restaurants with som of their produce.

Novak pointed out that the CSA pays all growing costs, and suggested this as a good model for like-minded farms in Delaware to follow.  Several times a week, Eagle Street offers educational workshops to second graders, programming that is possible through partnership with Growing Chef, which teaches younger generations about the soil to kitchen journey of the fruits and vegetables they eat (or should be eating!) and it also opens its doors and market on many Sundays.

We gasped as we stepped out onto the 200,000 pounds of rooftop soil, a green space high above street level juxtaposed with the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. We roamed freely amongst the mustard greens and eggplant, the herbs and peppers.  A few school groups were on site, delighted at the chicken coup and curious about what was growing and what it would taste like.  “Walk like farmers!” Novak hollered to a group of leaving kids.  “Can’t drag your feet here,” she explained to us.  After some exploration, it was time for our tour to leave for our next stop.

In the shadow of the mammoth IKEA in Red Hook lays the Added Value Farm. Our tour guide, Ian Marvy, the co-founder and executive director, warned us that they had been hit hard by the previous night’s hailstorm — suffering a $15,000 loss — and that the farm was not looking as attractive as normally.  As a result, the space wasn’t nearly as green as Eagle Street, but one could tell that it did indeed thrive.  Located in a former concrete baseball diamond, the farm site serves as a metaphor for what can grow unexpectedly in an impoverished area.  One member of our tour pointed out that the thought of eating something that grew from asphalt did not exactly sound appealing.  Ian explained that nobody is pretending that the produce is coming from some pastoral setting upstate.  For some, the appeal is the “Wow!” factor that comes from knowing that something edible and delicious grew from such unique circumstances.  But for neighbors and passersby this plot also serves as a sort of living, breathing public service announcement for eating fresh produce. And beyond feeding folks, the farm supplies a CSA, on-site farmers market and five Red Hook restaurants.

The folks from the West End Neighborhood House were particularly interested in Added Value, as it leans heavily on local adolescent as both volunteers and paid staff. The farm offers two programs for teens to get involved, put a few dollars in their pocket and uncountable skills in their repertoire.  Marvy pointed out that the elderly generation had been particularly keen from the start; lining up when word spread that fresh produce would be available.  In an area with many Latino residents, Marvy explained that the kids found joy likening certain produce to what they had known and loved back home, and when something looks familiar, one is more inclined to eat it! After checking out some pumpkins and a small compost center, we made a lunch stop before rushing to our last stop of the day: East New York Farms!

If it can be said that Eagle Street is aimed towards childhood development, and Added Value is geared towards youth empowerment, then East New York Farms! hopes to engage youth an adult involvement.  Our time here was short but equally as powerful as our other visits.  East New York Farms! grows in what was once the site of a housing development.  The mayoral representative from Willmington was interested in how they had acquired the land.  We were informed that the City wanted the land to be converted into useful space, and what could be a more useful than a community farm? So the city now leases the space to the farm for a nominal fee.  “But isn’t there the fear of lead paint contamination in the soil?” one person asked.  The answer to this was that the soil had been tested and was perfectly safe.  We did a quick meander through the rows of produce, before stopping to check out the on-site farmers’ market.  Locals had flocked to the stand for fresh produce.  As one shopper put it, the fresh and affordable food was much appreciated in a neighborhood that lacked such options.  The farm is very much an intergenerational gathering spot for the neighborhood.  Upon our departure, we received a cookbook with recipes featuring the produce grown at the farm, reflecting the ethnic palates of those who consumed it.  The NY Department of Youth and Community Development and several grants fund the farm.  Like Added Value, they offer youth training and involvement positions, and recently 100 individuals had applied for 25 positions.

As we climbed back on the bus, the group reflected on our tour and what had been observed and learned.  Believe it or not, there is a world outside of New York City where farmers’ markets are rare, schools like the Growing Green Charter Schools are unheard of, and the thought of growing a pumpkin in an asphalt baseball diamond would garner eye rolls.  However, after looking around the bus and hearing the chatter, I got the feeling that the others were thinking that us New Yorkers were on to something.  What seemed unconventional could be profitable, both economically and emotionally.  At the end of the day, I asked my initially skeptical seatmate if she thought this could work in Delaware, “Oh, yeah, absolutely!” she told me.  New York, I think we’ve convinced them.

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With an affinity for making lists (complete with check boxes), a history of smuggling goat cheese into college cafeterias and a never ending obsession to perfect her pie crust, it was only natural that Michaela Johnson would find her way into the position of planning and executing events for a food magazine.