Archive for September, 2010

I love that it is only 6 o’clock on a Tuesday and I am already in my NYC apartment (and by my I mean the friend’s studio I am crashing), listening to John Coltrane and cooking up some Cuban food.  Back in my D.C. nine to five days I would have just been wrapping up at work, not due home — and nowhere near dinner being ready — for another two hours.  Now I’m home, showered, errands run, and am about to sit down to eat with a glass of wine.  Man, it’s good to be a farmer. 🙂

So far I have worked with some great people and accomplished three major things I didn’t expect to do in the middle of Brooklyn.  I am going to keep the suspense running though and only post one of those three things at a time.  So today, here’s the first dope thing I’ve learned to do in BK:

Beekeeping:  Working with Bees & Honey – I never imagined I’d find myself right across from a corner store, in an empty lot-turned-garden, in east Brooklyn, wearing a beekeeper’s netted hat, jumpsuit and elbow-length gloves.  But that’s where I found myself today while learning how to tend to a beehive with thousands of bees in it.  Here’s my mini-lesson on beekeeping: Bees take pollen from flowers to make honey inside their beehive, they build that beehive using beeswax, they usually find their own natural structure to build within (logs, tree trunks, etc) but beekeepers can build or buy boxes for them to build their honeycombs in.  They build, they make honey, we check up on them (to ensure the Queen Bee is happy and healthy) and then harvest honey!  You only need a few things to check the hive: protective gear (because you will be chillin’ with literally thousands of bees swarming around you); a smoker, which is just a device that blows a little smoke into the hive to calm the bees down while you mess with their home (smoke makes them think there is a fire and so they go into “save mode” and start eating as much honey as they can which gives them a kind of food coma…like it’s Thanksgiving); and finally a tool that helps you pry open the hive and pull out the honeycomb frames (because those bees are serious about sealing up their honey).

Easy peasy!  Who knew you could have 70,000 bees as pets and make your own honey right in the city?

SLIDESHOW >>> Check Out the Photos!!

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If I were to say the word ‘gardener’ what mental image would pop into your head?  Maybe an elderly person or a Susie homemaker of sorts?  Well today that stereotype is breaking down with the growing “local/organic food movement”; more and more young people and urban hipsters (think plaid, tight jeans, and bicycles) are beginning to grow their own food, build their own local food systems and advocate for healthy, organically grown food.  So now the word ‘gardener’ or ‘urban farmer’ may make you think of that young Midwestern dude turned New York hipster, or the blond-haired, blue-eyed young Susie homemaker with tattoos down her arm.  This is all wonderful for our generation and for the future of our food system, but in my intimate exploration of this movement I can see one glaring problem.

Where are all the brown folk?  And the poor folk?  It’s obvious to me that there are key people being left out (people that are getting the short end of the stick in our food system with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and absolutely zero Whole Foods in their neighborhoods, much less any decent grocery stores).

Brown people and poor people are not showing up in your mental images of urban farming, gardening or composting.  Yet it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not taking part in that lifestyle.  I think there are a few factors at work with this problem.

For one, people forget that growing food and reusing waste is more a part of many Indigenous, African, Caribbean, and Latin American cultures than it is of the everyday urban American culture.  This trend is new to many city or suburban-dwelling Americans of this generation, while other cultures have already been living sustainably.  In my work with East New York Farms! in east Brooklyn I am seeing that the predominant populations of Afro-Caribbean and Latino Americans have been growing food on empty lots of the neighborhood or in their backyards for decades. They have more community gardens than anywhere else in New York and  are introducing crops from their native countries, teaching youth to get involved and eating healthily.  Yet when reading about the food movement in New York, I could barely find any information on this beautiful and diverse community-driven effort.  If these small efforts were given more attention, I think the faces representing the local food movement could be very different.

Also, the mainstream media, as usual, tends to cover more of the trendy, mainstream pockets of progressive movements and leaves out those that may be a bit more hidden, a bit more of a patchwork, or – to be frank – are led by brown people.  This is an unfortunate truth and while it is of course not always the case, it proves true the majority of the time.  In my search for articles and blog posts about urban farms sprouting up across this country, I am always happy to see the projects led by minorities getting a bit of coverage here and there, but they are few and far between.  The majority are just covering innovative growing ideas and new projects that are wonderful but will only benefit those that can afford to shop at the Whole Foods around the corner.  We are not seeing enough media coverage on the projects that are focused on growing food for those that only have liquor stores and 7-Elevens on the corner.

Finally, the last problem is that there are just not enough brown and poor people involved in these projects.  The lack of attention given to the agriculturally-focused communities of color is definitely to blame for the lack of people in that community getting involved. Would you want to join a movement that seemed like it was only for people that were unlike yourself??  I think another reason the food and urban farming movement is lacking brown faces is because this work has a long association with working for the benefit of white folks.  Malik Yakini, the Director of the Black Food Security Network in Detroit, says it best:

“One of the challenges of organizing African-Americans for this work is that many of our people associate agriculture with enriching someone else … slavery and sharecropping enriched whites with our labor,” he said. “What [we need to do] is reframe agriculture for African Americans as an act of self-determination and empowerment.”

We need more visions of brown people farming.  This doesn’t mean others’ work in this movement is pointless, but when it comes to changing our food system, the people most impacted need to be leading the charge.  So if you are a person of color or of a certain economic class in this movement, spread your message far and wide to inspire others like you.  If you are not, then – as I once heard Malik say –  your goal in this movement should be to work yourself out of a job and empower those communities you are working in to take over and lead the way to a just and healthy food system.

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I said goodbye to West Virginia after 6 wonderful weeks and, after getting stranded at the train station out there,  the next leg of my adventure started by hitching a ride back to D.C., and then hopping a bus for $9.50 to my next stop: New York City.

Just a slight change of scenery.

Arriving in NYC was surreal.  Once you’re in this city, you’re undeniably in this city.  One hint is all the effing people.  I am always blown away by how this city functions and runs non-stop with so many people  living in it.  It’s fascinating. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, constant activity on the streets, and dope street performers in the subway stations.

Another clue upon my arrival that I was far from the apple orchards of West Virginia were things like finding myself on a bench next to a crazy Rastafarian preaching to no one, seeing a man carrying a live turtle onto the subway, and having my waitress at a sushi restaurant apologize for the delay but she was “just feeling loopy from the five saki shots” she had just taken.  These things can only happen together in the span of 24 hours in New York!

I have been discovering the hidden gems of the city though and I am in love with these neighborhoods already.  In an effort to get in as much varied farming experience as possible before the growing season ends for the year, I came here to learn and work with a few different urban farms in Brooklyn for the next two months.

One farm, run by Added-Value, is in a neighborhood of Brooklyn called Red Hook, which used to be the main shipping port for New York.  This farm takes up about 3 acres directly across from the city’s giant Ikea, and is growing amazing produce for a local market, CSA and brings in local high school kids for youth empowerment and education.

Another farm is in a very low-income neighborhood of Brooklyn called East New York. East New York Farms! has a strong community and youth-focused program with a community-run market, educational workshops and support for the 60 community gardeners in the neighborhood (more than any neighborhood in all of NYC).  This is where I will be spending the majority of my time!

The last farm I will be working with is called Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and is in a yuppy/hipster neighborhood of Brooklyn called Greenpoint. They are setting a good example of green roofing though and are growing food for some local restaurants and local community members. They also have an educational program as well, and the sweetest view of the city I have seen yet.

I will miss the quiet and beauty of the country, but so far I am already finding that peace and serenity by doing yoga in the park in the middle of Manhattan with hundreds of new yorkers, and finding beauty in the  farmer’s markets of Harlem, the cultural festivals of Brooklyn, and the youth gardens of East New York.

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