Posts Tagged ‘land use’

This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.


The Queens County Farm Museum lies a few miles South of Little Neck Bay, occupying forty-seven acres in the Northeastern section of Queens, New York.  It is the largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland in New York City.  The farm dates back to 1697, when the Adriance family began farming on the parcel they would own throughout five generations, for over a hundred years.  New York State bought the land in 1926, to grow fruits and vegetables for the rehabilitation of patients at the Creedmoor State Hospital.  In 1975, New York State Senator Frank Padavan wrote the legislation that transferred ownership from the state to the New York City Department of Parks and protected the site from future development.  Today, the Queens County Farm Museum is still owned by the Department of Parks, and is operated by the Colonial Farmhouse Restoration Society of Bellerose, which seeks to preserve the historical buildings and stories of the land from the 1930s.  As a New York City Landmark, the Farm Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places, and provides many educational programs, public events, and services.  More than 500,000 people visit the site each year.

At thirty-three years of age, Michael Robertson is the first farmer to cultivate the land of the Farm Museum in over fifty years.  Originally from a suburb of Kansas City, MO, he studied philosophy in Boston, and spent time on a farm in Guatemala before returning to the States to begin farming in Texas.  Most recently, he worked as an apprentice at Hawthorne Valley, a 400-acre biodynamic farm in upstate New York.  Just last year, realizing he wanted to farm and live in New York City (if at all possible), Michael rather fortunately happened upon the website of the Queens County Farm Museum.  He called to ask if the Museum might be interested in hiring a farmer and converting the property back into a working farm.  The answer was yes.

Of the forty-seven acres of the Queens County Farm Museum, about seven are occupied by visitor attractions: historic buildings, the Amazing Maize Maze, and a pumpkin patch planted for Pick-Your-Own-Pumpkin weekends in October.  Another twenty-five acres are brush and woods, overgrown with decades of unfettered, invasive plants.  Michael is currently cultivating one of the remaining fifteen acres – with the help of compost from the city – and plans to expand this space in the near future.  While approaching the farm with a knowledge and understanding of the biodynamic methods of Hawthorne Valley, and of the sustainable practices of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, Michael must take baby steps towards the reestablishment of a real working farm on the Queens property.

The Farm Museum has existed primarily as a historic landmark for the past thirty years.  The Colonial Farmhouse Restoration Society has kept sheep and goats at the farm for the purpose of seasonal events and festival entertainment.  While the individuals running the museum are receptive to the idea of converting the land into a working farm, many of them have little or no experience in productive agriculture.  “In my work here, I have to be flexible to accommodate the needs of education and entertainment,” Michael explained.  There will certainly be a period of adjustment as current priorities (three or four busloads of visiting children per day, a non-organic corn maize, animals for petting, and historic preservation) coordinate with the needs and requirements of sustainable agricultural production.

If all goes well, Michael will sell his produce at the Union Square Greenmarket throughout the coming fall and winter.  While the Farm Museum depends largely upon grants and education programs, Michael hopes the farm will one day be not only environmentally but financially sustainable.  Over the next few years, he will assess the potential for cultivation on the acres currently overgrown with woodland and brush.  He hopes to farm about eight to ten acres, to raise animals for fiber on the cleared pasture, and eventually to start up a micro-dairy.  He has little doubt about the healthy local market for fresh produce.  Michael already delivers fresh vegetables to a few restaurants in his neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and eventually he would like to organize Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership for the farm, while continuing to sell at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. 

Michael estimates he might eventually supply a CSA of two hundred members, though increasing production to this level will of course require hands and arms besides his own.  He imagines creating a sort of miniature CRAFT program for Long Island.  CRAFT, or the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, is a cooperative effort of organic and biodynamic farms in the Hudson Valley, the Berkshires, and Pioneer Valley, organized to enhance educational opportunities for farm apprentices.  While the creation of a similar program, to connect the farmers in Long Island, is a long way off, Michael will certainly be using what community support and knowledge he can gather, as he is the only farm in the city larger than an acre or two.

Not that farming in New York City is lonely.  “Most people decide where to live based upon proximity to family and friends – based upon community,” he said.  “My community is here.  I didn’t feel I should have to isolate myself, to be a farmer.”  While he has a lot of work ahead of him, the Queens County Farm Museum does allow a farmer the best of both worlds.  Michael, as he’d hoped, is able to cultivate true farmland and still live within his own urban community.

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Last weekend, a few close friends of mine who care about where their food comes from, and appreciate those who produce the food they enjoy, voiced their curiosity as to whether the whole “local food thing” was just another diet fad. 

These friends, Bekah and Raphi, are a couple in their twenties living in Berkeley, working in music and magazines.  And it’s not as though I hadn’t heard the same type of curiosity before, but I sort of let my heart sink below my pelvis, sitting there in their conversation.  There are many occasions when I must explain how I feel about sustainable agriculture and regional food systems, and how wonderful and important I feel it is to support them.  But I realized I’d rarely had to explain my total confidence and trust that I will be able to (not to mention, must) devote the rest of my life to work that is based upon these convictions.

Another occasion came, however, early this week, when a man whom I very much admire, who is acting to support local farmers in the most creative and permanent of ways, responded to my enthusiasm for his work with the eyes of a starving poet, suddenly inspired.  “Are there other people your age, who are actually considering regional food systems, as a field in which to work?  A goal upon which to focus their lives?”

Well, the fact is: Yes.  There are many of us.  For now, we are committed teenage gardeners, tireless volunteers, students doing related research, young farmers with the valuable gift of land of our own, and small business entrepreneurs.  We are learning how to mend the broken web of our current food system, a web upon whose strength we believe our future depends.  I learn something every day, maybe every hour, that assures me we are neither misleading ourselves, nor misdirecting our future.   My reasoning follows, and is based (finally!) not in the East, nor the West, but across the country, and around the world.

Of course, I must start where I (most recently) started.  This January in Berkeley, the first page in my little notebook had a list written, of several Bay Area organizations involved in urban agriculture.  I outlined several of these organizations in the essay New Yorkana, and their directors and offices were the first names and addresses I learned in California.  Little by little, one name linked to another.  A friend in Cartography class recommended I meet Nathan, a Ph.D Candidate in Geography, who’s doing a project similar to Diggable Cities in Portland, and who told me to contact Alethea, a close friend of another classmate and landscape architect, Nadine.  Alethea’s thesis work was for People’s Grocery, but she is now working with Sibella at SAGE (formerly of CUESA).  Sibella put me in contact with Eric (at Food First), who informed me of the HOPE collaborative.  My City Planning professor, Fred, put me in touch with Heather, whose thesis was an Oakland Food System Assessment.  Everyone knows Severine, who in ten minutes’ time, while biking me to her office from the Cheeseboard, rattled off a list of contacts that included David Ralston of CEDA, Raquel Pinderhughes of the Ecology Center, and Amy Franceschini of Future Farmers.  Severine is making a film about young farmers (you may have seen her quoted in the recent NYTimes Fashion Article), and attending her fundraiser/dinner party meant meeting dozens of youthful growers, working land no more than an afternoon’s drive away from San Francisco.  Through a brief internship at BALLE, I had learned of and joined the COMFOOD listserve, and as I began research on urban agriculture for my courses here, Severine reminded me to post a query on COMFOOD.  Enter the rest of the country.   Suddenly I came in touch with such a number of urban agriculture projects that listing them now might remind you of Michael Pollan’s list of Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread ingredients.  I filled in multiple excel sheets (god help your pen-and-paper author: she uses the computer too often now) with lists of inspiring projects and names and contacts, all within a day.

But of course, the devil has still to be advocated.  For it’s not entirely surprising that there are local food enthusiasts across the country, and even supporters of urban agriculture in particular.  Working towards a regional food system has its perks (good food, to be specific), and it’s become a popular and trendy effort to support.  Many “urban agriculture” projects are just plots in which optimistic, political vegetarians plant their hopes and dreams.  And many of the people I’ve met and spoken to could still wind up in obscure non-profits, going nowhere and constantly fundraising for a goal that has gone out of style. 

Idealist organizations and activists, however, aren’t all that’s out there.  Communities like Troy Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, and Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illiniois; demonstration farms like Somerton Tanks in Philadelphia; and urban food production and distribution like that coordinated by 47th Ave Farm in Portland: entire cities are focusing their development upon human and environmental health, and thus farms, CSAs, gardening education programs, and foods produced by their residents.  The American Planning Association adopted a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning in 2007.  Centers of research like Public Health Law and Policy are publishing guides like How to Create and Implement Healthy General Plans that include “Nutrition” elements, outlining the need to assess “Access to Healthy Foods,” “Number of Fast Food Restaurants and Offsite Liquor Retailers,” “Local Agricultural Resources,” and “Food Distribution” (as related to local produce).  The planning policy goals include “Providing safe, convenient access to healthy foods for all residents,” by identifying sites for farmers’ markets, linking efforts to preserve local farmland with the development of diverse markets for local produce, and encouraging farmers’ markets to accept credit and food stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. 

This sort of planning is just one field into which the “local food thing” has been incorporated.  It isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t just excitement, or hype, or marketing, for a trend that will fade out in a few years.  It is realistic, practical preparation for the future we recognize is not just not our children’s, but our own.

 The permanence of the movement to support local systems – and it will always be a movement, it will never stop moving – is apparent too in the variety of forms in 

which it has taken root.  College kids often consider eating locally grown and organic foods as a socially responsible diet, something they’ve learned through reading Michael Pollan’s book.  But our grandparents are reminded of the age of Victory Gardens during WWI, when the gardening of 20 million Americans produced nearly 40% of the produce consumed nationally.  Many families in the South already have gardens and mini farms incorporated into their housing lots and city neighborhoods, and consider growing their own food an element of their heritage, part of a tradition of cultivation.  Many Native American communities have worked for decades to preserve their culinary traditions through growing food for themselves.  And immigrant communities across the nation attempt to preserve the home-country flavors of their cooking by growing the foods that they know mustn’t be genetically-modified or processed or shipped overseas. 

All of that is in the  US.  And whether we are growing our own food or supporting our  regional small farmers, ours are all merely preliminary steps towards the sort of food sovereignty movements underway in South America, Central America, Africa, and India.  The Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil has supporters worldwide, much like Via Campesina, an International Peasant Movement stretching across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  The Fairtrade Certified cooperatives in the Americas and Africa present only a sampling of the small farmers who have come together to ensure just compensation for their work.  In 2007, in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali, the Forum for Food Sovereignty brought together nearly 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peasants and family farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers and environmental and urban movements.  All these came together to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty.

So, yes: there are people my age (and older) who are considering regional food systems as a field in which to work, and who regard eating locally to be slightly more than a diet fad.  We are no longer – we never were, really – just idealist students, determined activists, gardeners waiting to be forced off vacant land, and small farmers soon to go out of business.  We have a future to look forward to.  And we have developed a movement that will not go static.  The strength of our local webs will recede no longer, but will grow, till little webs string ‘round the world.

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It took a crisis in Cuba for urban agriculture to take over.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off nearly all agricultural imports to Cuba, including pesticides, fertilizers, farming equipment, and food.  Not only did organic farming increase, by necessity, but Cubans began cultivating a significant percentage of their food in urban areas.  The government encouraged them to do so.  And in 1998, the city farms in Havana alone produced an estimated 541,000 tons of food for local consumption.  These included 8,000 officially recognized production units cultivated by over 30,000 people.  The population of Havana is 2.2 million.  Today, some neighborhoods in the city produce 30 percent of their own subsistence needs.[1] 


A significant growth in urban agriculture in the US is worth considering for several reasons.  For one thing, such cultivation would be small-scale, and thus would encourage local consumption (the most local, from one’s own garden).  But urban food production would also contribute to community food security, would rescue biodiversity, provide local jobs, create a complete cycle of nutrients and waste, aesthetically improve urban spaces, and increase the freshness and variety of the ingredients in the urban diet.  Increasing a community’s food security would ultimately mean creating a strong, regionally based food system that wouldn’t rely upon imports, or foods that could be prevented from reaching people in times of war or crisis.  Plant biodiversity would thrive as people learned to grow the specific varieties of foods native to their land, varieties that are everywhere disappearing as cities expand and farms consolidate.  Such biodiversity would mean too a greater variety of foods and nutrients, which would contribute immensely to the health of those who ate them.  The complete recycling of nutrients and waste within single households would have an immense, positive environmental impact on food-producing communities.  And, urban spaces could be so much more beautiful!

The next question then is how we in the US might cause a bit of an agricultural revolution in our country akin to that which the end of trade with the Soviet Union caused in Cuba. 

pict5585.jpgWorking at Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn has been a personal (tiny) contribution of mine to the growth of urban agriculture in New York.  The hundreds of community gardens throughout the five boroughs are consistently inspirational.  Just Food trains community members to start up “City Farms” throughout the New York area.  And the people working them, and eating the produce they’ve grown themselves, understand the value and joy of providing even a small portion of their own daily sustenance. 

As for California, I’m gradually acquainting myself with the various organizations at work to increase food production in the Bay Area.  Spiral Gardens runs a Community Farm in South Berkeley, producing food for volunteers as well as low-income seniors in a nearby housing complex.  City Slicker Farms helps low-income West Oakland residents build and maintain backyard vegetable gardens.  Beyond supporting and operating four productive gardens in North and West Oakland, People’s Grocery is collaborating with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center (SAGE) to increase food cultivation in their recently opened 15-acre Agriculture Park in Sunol, which will grow fresh produce for West Oakland residents.  SAGE has developed an “Agricultural Parks Toolkit” as a “comprehensive guide for public and private landowners who want to establish agriculture as a valued urban-edge amenity.”  UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development has been working with SAGE to develop a policy framework for “New Ruralism,” a concept meant to strengthen the emerging synergy between the new urbanism/smart growth movement and the sustainable agriculture/regional food systems movement.  The Alemany Farm cultivates food on four and a half productive acres, right in the city of San Francisco. 

pict5591.jpgFor a personal take on these efforts…your author here is still a student.  So for the moment, three UC Berkeley courses are contributing to the urban ag vision.  Land Use Controls” is supplying an understanding of the complex laws and organization behind zoning, subdividing, property taxation, and the influences of infrastructure on land use.  Cartographic Representation” is providing skills with which to artistically, persuasively map out what could really happen on urban territory.  And “Urban Forestry” is lending a little more hands-on knowledge about what urban growth actually requires.  Meanwhile, I’ll be eating foods every day that are all grown quite nearby.  Altogether, that’s a personal start.

And this is personal stuff, urbanites.  It’s your property, your garden, your hands in the dirt.  You yourself might never grow enough to supply even an entire meal, but you can contribute to a change in the food system, one that would immensely benefit your community and it’s local health, economy, and security.  Call me crazy, but I believe those are the areas that currently concern our population the most.


Also, my friend Adam Brock recently wrote a (more detailed, less Annie-style-sentimental) four-part series entitled “Why Cityfarming?”  Check it out.


[1] Murphy, Catherine.  Development Report No.12: Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.  1999. 

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