October 2005 – Is sustainable agriculture a sensible career choice for inner-city young people in 21st Century New York City? Ian Marvy, co-founder and director of Added Value and its Red Hook Community Farm, is accustomed to the question. It is regularly posed by the foundations and government agencies that underwrite the non-profit organization’s job-training programs, and Marvy is ready with a reply.
“If we’re doing the work that we’re supposed to be doing, which is not only growing food but also expanding people’s access to safe, healthy and affordable food, and teaching them to understand their food choices as a political, social-justice act, then yes, I think it’s a viable career choice,” Marvy says.
Beyond specific job skills, the Red Hook Community Farm job program seeks to instill values that will shape the outlook of the young people who pass through the farm in whatever fields they chose. “I’m not trying to grow farmers nor am I trying to grow market managers nor computer programmers,” Marvy explains. “I’m trying to grow a generation of young people who understand sustainability and have tools and skills that can help them create a more sustainable world, young people who have a concept of themselves as a part of a community of concerned citizens that wants to make that happen.”
Economic Return from ‘Waste Harvesting’
A number of projects on the farm illustrate larger principles that could have wider application. For example, the farm is now planning a “food-waste harvesting” project that will generate an economic return even while reducing the community’s use of petroleum fuels. “It will provide an education about renewable energy and resource stewardship through urban agriculture,” says Marvy.
“Our goal is to have a medium-scale composting facility, which will lessen the impact on the waste side of the food system. The community’s food waste won’t have to get trucked out to Virginia, where a lot of New York City waste goes,” he explains.
“By using a bio-digester and generating power, we could take our farm off the electricity grid. And we could feed the waste from the bio-digester to our worm population, and the worm castings then lessens our reliance on importing organic fertilizer, a high-grade nutrient additive that we have to bring in to our farm,” he says.
The farm is a training facility and demonstration project, but Added Value is determined to show that the farm is economically viable by keeping track of inputs and harvests, and doing square-foot analyses of economic returns.
According to Marvy, the Cornell University Cooperative Extension has estimated that the farm in Red Hook can gross at least $5 a square foot from tomatoes. The return per square foot planted in collards might be less but it might be more for quick-growing baby arugula. The bottom line is, Red Hook Community Farm can, in fact, make money that will support Added Value’s broader goals.
Marvy has set ambitious goals for revenue from the farm. This year it will bring in $8,000 from sales, which represents a little under 5 percent of the program’s total $180,000 budget, he says. “We think we can generate $75,000 a year within three years.”
– Mark Thompson