Red Hook Community Farm

Cultivating a Former Parking Lot in Brooklyn October 2005 – If you are looking for it, the 12-foot tall corn stalks and bales of hay strewn about give it away. If you are not looking for it and have no idea that a farm grows in Brooklyn, it is almost invisible. But there is a farm here, and it would be shame to miss it. It is an astonishing enterprise – not only for its culture-shock value but also for the service it provides to its immediate community. The farm is located in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, surrounded by a 25-foot tall chain-link fence. It occupies an old asphalt playing field under the jurisdiction of the New York City Parks Department. 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.

photos by Jill Slater

Red Hook Community Farm 580 Columbia Street Brooklyn, New York map

    Changing the World One Neighborhood at a Time With Sustainable Urban Agriculture     Ian Marvy discusses urban farming career prospects

Unlike, the tonier Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, or the recently gentrified neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill, Red Hook historically was an industrial area, dominated by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and isolated from public transportation. Many of its streets are treeless and the average income for a family of four is $14,000. 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. The young people who work on the farm and for the non-profit gain technical skills in fields ranging from crop rotations to Web publishing while learning to connect with the wider world as urban farming entrepreneurs. Along with earning an income for themselves, one of the teen coordinators working for Added Value said, employees also gain a new-found sense of empowerment from producing “an end product that nourishes our body and helps generate a local economy.” The 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 Brooklyn ’s waterfront dock-workers. Last year, Added Value arranged a deal with the Parks Department to turn it into a working farm that would employ youth from the surrounding low-income neighborhood of Red Hook, educate school kids on sustainable food-growing practices, and produce food. 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 Brooklyn 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 Brooklyn . The managers of the Added Value farm employ polycultural farming techniques. For instance, they plant squash, beans and corn in close proximity, in keeping with the ancient intercropping technique known to some Native Americans as Hodne Shone, the Three Sisters. The three crops create a synergy for one another. The beans grow up the corn stalk, while the squash leaves provide ground cover and keep moisture in the soil. It is a good life lesson for the kids who work here, says Marvy. They learn that it is possible to maximize use of space and increase output, “and all the while, nurture the earth.” Some plants are cultivated on the farm not for harvest and sale but to illustrate a point. A patch of organic cotton, for example, is grown for display and educational purposes only. Visiting school children plant wheat in the fall, then come back periodically to see how it grows at various stages of development. Then they harvest it, thresh it, grind it, do a whole-wheat versus white lesson, and finally, make one little tortilla. Marvy also likes to grow sugar snap peas on the farm because their sweetness easily turns his 2nd graders on to healthy snacks. 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 Brooklyn winter, almost no watering is necessary during this time of year.

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. red-hook-farm-2 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. Ian Marvy was not raised on a farm, nor does he have vast farming experience. But he grew up with a garden behind his family’s home in what Marvy lovingly referred to as a ghetto in Minneapolis. Others on the Added Value staff are experienced in organic agriculture and the Red Hook farmers have still other experts at their disposal, ready to offer advice. If blight strikes a crop, or another problem arises, there is always someone to call for a solution. 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 economic levels.

Ambitious Expansion Plans

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.

– Jill Slater