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.