Operating year-round and employing dozens of youth from the surrounding low-income neighborhood, the Red Hook Community Farm produces more than three dozen different crops over the course of the year.
Unlike, the tonier Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope and
The thriving farm in such an unlikely setting is the brainchild of Michael Hurwitz and Ian Marvy, who are both in their early 30s. In previous jobs with social service organizations in Red Hook, they grew frustrated watching the system let so many talented lives go to waste. They worked with kids who had been in juvenile detention facilities and were now on their own, with no support system and little incentive to improve their lives. To help fill that void, Marvy and Hurwitz in the spring of 2000 co-founded a non-profit group called Added Value, which aims to foster “capacity development.” They decided that starting a sustainable urban agriculture enterprise could not only help provide job training to local young people, it could also benefit the community at large.
A year after its founding, Added Value had an opportunity to put its ideals into action. When the neighborhood’s only supermarket closed its doors in May of 2001, the organization responded within a month by opening a twice-a-week farmers market, which sells produce from the Red Hook farm as well as other fruits and vegetables from upstate and Long Island orchards, farms and dairies. The farmers market was an immediate success and has since become a hub of neighborhood activity.
2.75-acre asphalt lot in Red Hook occupied by the farm has been owned and
operated for the past 80 years by the New York City Parks Department as a
24-hour football and baseball field for three shifts of
The program has received several high-profile grants over the years including a Con Edison Green grant and an Echoing Green grant. And in the summer of 2004, Added Value and the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s urban agriculture program won a $112,000 federal grant to expand job training programs at the Red Hook Community Farm. Some granting agencies have been skeptical about the value of job training in urban agriculture, but Marvy insists it is a career with a solid future. Proceeds from the farm, in the meantime, are helping support the Added Value program as a whole.
Soil Nutrients From the Bronx Zoo
At this point in the non-profit’s development, one-third
of the asphalt lot is covered with about 15 inches of soil
that is rich in nutrients, courtesy of the Bronx Zoo. Root
crops don’t do well here, and its hard to keep the thin
layer of soil moist at the height of summer. But there are not many other
constraints on what can be grown on this
Over 40 crops thrive here: tomatoes, eggplants, basil, leafy greens, wild Italian arugula, heirloom greens, and corn, to name a few.
This past spring, the strawberry bushes grew to two-feet tall and yielded incredible harvests. Other crops are planted in special media, such as lettuces grown in woodchips.
The farm also produces a mix of
traditional northern Mexican crops such as pepiche, papalo, and vertilaga.
A giant variety of the zucchini, or what the Caribbeans in the
neighborhood refer to as ‘yardlongs,’ grow a yard long even in
During the main growing seasons from spring through fall, the Red Hook farm yields enough fruits and vegetables to sustain two farmers markets per week, a neighborhood Community Supported Agriculture network, and direct deliveries to three local organic restaurants by hand truck multiple times per week.
The farm produces greens straight
through the winter. Farm workers cover the soil with Reemay garden
blankets, and top that with 5 ml. plastic sheeting stretched over small
hoops. Thanks to the regularly scheduled snowfalls that mark a typical
Questions About Toxic Hazards
Questions About Toxic Hazards
In response to those concerned about vegetables growing on or near asphalt, Marvy assures doubters that first of all, “New York City does not have much of a lead problem.” Second, a cap over the land can be very helpful in an industrial district. The land had served as a ball field for over 80 years but before that it was a rail switching yard for the shipping industry.
As far as oil in the asphalt, Marvy adds, “Most contaminants don’t leach up, they leach down.” Most of the plants on the farm have roots that are 5 inches or less, whereas the soil is over a foot and a half deep. In addition, farm managers test the soil periodically to monitor any potential hazards.
Marvy and Hurwitz also realize the importance of
nurturing their workforce. They offer their teenage employees decent
paying jobs and promote those who do well to take on greater
responsibilities, showing them, in real terms, that their labor is
redeeming on political, educational, environmental, nutritional, and
Eventually, Marvy would like to see the entire lot covered with two feet of soil. Visitors would be standing on earth the moment they crossed the farm's threshold. The asphalt would no longer be visible. As the farm grows, Marvy would like to put other sustainable technologies to work, such as a bio-digester that could convert food waste into methane fuel and compost. He also envisions “rainwater harvesting on a big scale, aquaponic systems, and a chicken run nurturing 100 chickens. If we wanted, we could do herbs and flowers everywhere, and use tractors and front-end loaders,” planting and harvesting at a fast pace and making the most income per square foot of land, says Marvy.
Maximizing output, however, is not the ultimate goal of Added Value. The organization’s intent is to change the world one neighborhood at a time. In that respect, Red Hook is part of a growing “food justice” movement.
“We are part of a growing food justice movement,” says Marvy. As he recently described the food justice movement, it promotes development of a locally based food system that “involves local people from seed to sale. It educates, organizes and mobilizes new social relations around food. It touches hands, hearts and pockets."
That is what Red Hook Community Farm is accomplishing. People and the food they grow are nurturing one another. Dozens of young people from the community have earned money and respect on the farm while producing a beneficial product that meets a local need. Community residents, kids at nearby schools, and neighboring restaurants all reap the benefit in the form of nutritious, fresh, produce that is truly locally grown.
Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef