Urban agriculture in Red Hook, Brooklyn NY

STA72194I took opportunity to visit New York City while on my way to my friend Jessica in Ithaca. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to ‘go local’ because Mikey, a friend of her agreed to show me around. We went on bikes exploring Brooklyn, a great experience. I soon learned that you only have to remember one thing; you are on your own, there are no rules in urban jungle traffic.

We visited an urban farm in Southern Brooklyn, in the Red Hook neighborhood, a predominantly black and low income community. The Added Value farm is experiencing its third growing season. The farm is located on a run down playground, still visible as a grey spot on Google earth, but now a green oasis, with a small hoop house nursery and a composting section.

STA72196The playground is still there but most of it is covered, underneath 18 inches of rich compost soil. All vegetables you can imagine are growing here, except carrots which go too deep. The produce is sold at the weekly farmers market at the spot and serves a twenty member CSA. The farm now neighbors a gigantic new and heavily opposed IKEA outlet. The outlet symbolizes the start of gentrification of the neighborhood, of which we saw an example at the waterfront, where abandoned industry buildings have been converted into lofty apartments. As more white people move in, rents and living costs increase, which forces the current inhabitants to move to other, cheaper parts of the city.

 The controversy around the outlet is one of the factors influencing the struggle of the farm to reach out to its immediate neighborhood community Donna explained. She is one of the farm workers and kindly showed us around. Showing and explaining the farm to whoever passes by is an important aspect of the openness of the place; the gate is always open while work is going on. Without a programmatic structure such as the youth education program, it has been hard to reach the neighborhood. For many the farm is still a bridge too far in the daily struggle to make a living while on a totally different diet due to the lack of affordable fresh produce and lost cooking skills.  

STA72195Donna is one of 4 farm interns. We met the manager briefly on his way to a meeting. There are also 4 youth workers employed on the farm. One of them was working with a new group of teenagers from the Bronx, who were introducing themselves to each other at the start of their Summer Youth Intensives. Weeding, harvesting, learning about vegetables and composting. But it all starts at a very basic level. Because more than anything else, the farm program is trying to teach these kids a different set of values. Learning the benefit of working as a team. Learning that it is not about the show, wearing appropriate working clothes. Turning compost; doing the dirty jobs. Respect for each other and for every living creature. The value of sharing. The taste of fresh basil.

 The skeptics (see blog Han) or the question alone really, about whether or not urban agriculture can actually provide enough produce to feed an entire city is the narrow economist argument of linear industrial thinking. The remnant of a past modernist era which by default end up in cost efficiency, scale enlargement and mass production solutions. At the cost of soil fertility and hard working people, Marx already taught us in the 19th century. Urban agriculture is about so much more than “only” providing “a bit” of fresh and healthy food.