[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Urban Farmers' Crops Go From Vacant Lot to Market

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Mon May 12 15:08:17 EDT 2008

Urban Farmers' Crops Go From Vacant Lot to Market
Published: May 7, 2008

IN the shadows of the elevated tracks toward the end of the No. 3 line in 
East New York, Brooklyn, with an April chill still in the air, Denniston and 
Marlene Wilks gently pulled clusters of slender green shoots from the earth, 
revealing a blush of tiny red shallots at the base.
"Dennis used to keep them big, and people didn't buy them," Mrs. Wilks said. 
"They love to buy scallions."
Growing up in rural Jamaica, the Wilkses helped their families raise crops 
like sugar cane, coffee and yams, and take them to market. Now, in Brooklyn, 
they are farmers once again, catering to their neighbors' tastes: for 
scallions, for bitter melons like those from the West Indies and East Asia 
and for cilantro for Latin-American dinner tables.
"We never dreamed of it," said Mr. Wilks, nor did his relatives in Jamaica. 
"They are totally astonished when you tell them that you farm and go to the 
For years, New Yorkers have grown basil, tomatoes and greens in window 
boxes, backyard plots and community gardens. But more and more New Yorkers 
like the Wilkses are raising fruits and vegetables, and not just to feed 
their families but to sell to people on their block.
This urban agriculture movement has grown even more vigorously elsewhere. 
Hundreds of farmers are at work in Detroit, Milwaukee, Oakland and other 
areas that, like East New York, have low-income residents, high rates of 
obesity and diabetes, limited sources of fresh produce and available, 
undeveloped land.
Local officials and nonprofit groups have been providing land, training and 
financial encouragement. But the impetus, in almost every case, has come 
from the farmers, who often till when their day jobs are done, overcoming 
peculiarly urban obstacles.
The Wilkses' return to farming began in 1990 when their daughter planted a 
watermelon in their backyard. Before long, Mrs. Wilks, an administrator in 
the city's Department of Education, was digging in the yard after work. Once 
their ambition outgrew their yard, she and Mr. Wilks, a city surveyor, along 
with other gardening neighbors, received permission to use a vacant lot 
across from a garment factory at the end of their block.
They cleared it of trash and tested its soil with help from GreenThumb, a 
Parks Department gardening program. They found traces of lead, so to ensure 
their food's safety, they built raised beds of compost. (Heavy metals are 
common contaminants in city soil because of vehicle exhaust and remnants of 
old construction. Some studies have found that such ground can be cultivated 
as long as the pH is kept neutral.)
They wanted their crops to be organic, a commitment they shared with many 
other farmers in this grimy landscape. They planted some marigolds to deter 
squirrels; they have not had rat problems, which can plague urban gardens; 
and they abandoned crops, like corn, that could attract rodents. They put up 
fences to thwart other pests - thieves and vandals - and posted signs to let 
people know that this was a garden and no longer a dump.
There were also benefits to farming in the city. The Wilkses took advantage 
of city composting programs, trucking home decomposed leaves from the 
Starrett City development in Brooklyn and ZooDoo from the Bronx Zoo's manure 
composting program. They got free seedlings from GreenThumb and took courses 
on growing and selling food from the City Farms project at the local 
nonprofit Just Food.
"The city really has been good to us," Mrs. Wilks said. "All of the property 
we work on, it's city property."
The Wilkses now cultivate plots at four sites in East New York, paying as 
little as $2 a bed (usually 4 feet by 8 feet) in addition to modest 
membership fees. Last year the couple sold $3,116 in produce at a market run 
by the community group East New York Farms, more than any of their 
Florence Russell is looking forward to this year's offerings. On a recent 
Saturday she watched from the end of Alabama Avenue as gardeners worked 
compost into beds at Hands and Hearts Garden, one of the sites where the 
Wilkses keep beds, along with 24 other growers. Fresh greens, she said, 
would be a welcome alternative to tough collards from the local grocery.
"This is something good happening here," Ms. Russell said.
The city's cultivators are a varied lot. The high school students at the 
Added Value community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, last year supplied Italian 
arugula, Asian greens and heirloom tomatoes to three restaurants, a 
community-supported agriculture buying club and two farmers' markets.
In the South Bronx a group of gardens called La Familia Verde started a 
farmers' market in 2003 to sell surpluses of herbs like papalo and the 
Caribbean green callaloo.
At a less established operation, the Brooklyn Rescue Mission's Bed-Stuy 
Farm, mission staff members began growing produce in the vacant lot behind 
their food pantry in 2004, and ended up with a surplus last year. So they 
enlisted their teenage volunteers to run a sidewalk farm stand selling 
collards, tomatoes and figs; this year they plan to open a full farmers' 
The city's success with urban farming will receive international attention 
on Saturday when, during an 11-day conference in New York, 60 delegates from 
the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development are scheduled to 
visit Hands and Hearts, the Bed-Stuy Farm and two traditional community 
gardens in Brooklyn.
There was not always so much enthusiasm for city farming, though.
John Ameroso, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent who has worked with 
local farmers and gardeners for 32 years, said that when he first suggested 
urban farm stands in the early 1990s, city environmental officials dismissed 
the idea. " 'Oh, you could never grow enough stuff with the urban markets, " he said he was told. ' "That can't be done. You have to have farmers.' "
But local officials have come around.
Holly Leicht, an associate assistant commissioner at the city's Department 
of Housing Preservation and Development, helped provide two half-acre 
parcels of city land last year. One became Hands and Hearts and the other is 
in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn.
The Red Hook farm began in 2003 when the Parks Department gave the youth 
group Added Value permission to use an abandoned three-acre asphalt ball 
field. The group started with two raised beds, built a hoop house where it 
could start seeds, then laid down an acre of compost two feet deep on top of 
the asphalt. Last year the young farmers sold more than $25,000 in goods.
Urban agriculture has been an even larger undertaking in other cities, 
particularly those with weaker real estate markets and a declining 
In Detroit, where locals refer to stretches of the city as urban prairie, 
food gardens are scattered through backyards, schoolyards and even more 
unlikely spots, including the floor of an abandoned roofless furniture 
factory and a vacant lot owned by a local order of Catholic friars. The 
number of gardens has grown to nearly 450 since the Garden Resource Program 
Collaborative began coordinating them in 2003.
The gardeners grow much of the food for themselves, but they have also 
organized a co-op, Grown in Detroit, to sell their surplus peas, onions, 
yams and greens. From farm stands in health center parking lots and at a 
prime booth in Eastern Market, the city's chaotic maze of wholesalers and 
local farmers, gardeners lure customers to take their first bite of a garlic 
scape, or compare their young spinach with that in a Del Monte box down the 
aisle. Next year two and a half acres that were waist high with weeds last 
summer will be set aside for market-bound produce.
City Slicker Farms in West Oakland, Calif., started in 2001 with a 
quarter-acre garden and a farm stand selling neighborhood favorites like 
collards and mustard greens. It has since persuaded local elementary 
students to volunteer and gotten owners of five additional vacant lots to 
let it grow food on their land.
Some operations have figured out how to make real money.
On a fringe of Philadelphia, a nonprofit demonstration project used densely 
planted rows in a half-acre plot and generated $67,000 from high-value crops 
like lettuces, carrots and radishes.
In Milwaukee, the nonprofit Growing Power operates a one-acre farm crammed 
with plastic greenhouses, compost piles, do-it-yourself contraptions, 
tilapia tanks and pens full of hens, ducks and goats - and grossed over 
$220,000 last year from the sale of lettuces, winter greens, sprouts and 
fish to local restaurants and consumers.
One key to financial success is having customers with the wherewithal to buy 
your goods. In New York, Bob Lewis, the head of the city office for the 
state Department of Agriculture and Markets, helped make this happen by 
getting 21 farmers at 16 sites approved to accept checks from the Farmers' 
Market Nutrition Program, a supplement to the Women, Infants and Children 
(WIC) and senior nutrition programs.
Sarita Daftary, the program director for East New York Farms, estimates that 
about 60 percent of the market's gross revenue came from the farmers' market 
checks. And by the end of this year, changes to WIC will give city residents 
another $14 million specifically for fresh fruits and vegetables.
But land and demand are not all that successful farmers need. They have to 
know how to run a business or a farm.
So Growing Power, the Milwaukee group, offers several training sessions each 
year, and Just Food's City Farms project holds an annual series of workshops 
on running farm stands.
For more formal training there is the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable 
Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Founded in 1967, 
the center runs a six-month course for 39 students each year on its two 
Patricia Allen, the center's executive director, said roughly three-fourths 
of her students today were interested in urban growing.
"We're not looking at a back-to-the-land movement in any sense," she said.
Just ask Karen Washington. She began growing food in 1985, after a city 
program offering a house with a yard lured her, then a single mother of two, 
to the South Bronx from Harlem.
Though she works as a physical therapist, Ms. Washington always knew she had 
another calling. "When I was a little kid I used to watch the farm report," 
she said. "I always wanted to grow and be a farmer."
Wary of chemicals and their effect on her health, Ms. Washington was 
determined to farm organically. She learned how to deter pests with mild 
soapy sprays and marigolds, encourage natural pest killers like ladybugs, 
and turn food scraps into fertile compost. As her skills grew, so did her 
ambitions. First she helped turn a vacant lot on her block into the Garden 
of Happiness. Then she helped defend local gardens from developers, and 
later persuaded the resulting coalition, La Familia Verde, to run a farm 
stand and test the waters for a farmers' market.
"It's not about making money," Ms. Washington said. "We're selling so that 
people in our neighborhood have good quality. There's no Whole Foods in my 
Like many markets that sell neighborhood produce, La Familia Verde's has 
attracted upstate farmers who did not venture into these areas until the 
locals showed them there was a market. The professionals do not compete with 
the amateurs though; they sell crops like corn and apples.
All this has not quenched Ms. Washington's agricultural ambitions. In April 
she took a six-month leave from her job and headed to the Center for 
Agroecology with two other city growers. She said she hoped to take notes 
and start an urban farm school in New York.
With that in place, Ms. Washington said, the possibilities could be endless.
"So that the next time we ask a kid where a tomato comes from," she said, 
"he won't have to say a supermarket. He can say, Here's an urban farm, and 
here is where I'm growing that tomato that you're talking about. How great 
is that?" 

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