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A Farm Grows In Brooklyn

Gillian M. Kalson Jun 10, 2007

By Gillian M. Kalson

New York City’s asphalt will soon be sprouting leafy lettuce greens and feeding itself, according to Ian Marvy, cofounder of Brooklyn’s Red Hook Farm. The farm grows and sells more than 40 crops while educating people about organic produce and the effect agriculture has on the environment.

In April 2001 Red Hook Farm took root in an abandoned 2.75-acre Parks Department playground at the intersection of Beard and Columbia Street. “Nobody could believe that we asked the city for three acres of land and they said, sure, go ahead,” says Marvy.

Local farm communities like Red Hook Farm are practicing sustainable agricultural techniques and eliminating some of the factors that contribute to global warming. Modern agriculture depends upon non-renewable fossil fuels and synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers that erode natural resources faster than the land can replace them. Modern agriculture also consumes water at unsustainable levels.

The farm practices crop rotation, which replenishes soil and interrupts pest reproductive cycles, decreasing the need for chemical sprays. Crops are planted together for mutual growth benefits. Cilantro and marigolds, for instance, are natural pest inhibitors while garlic and strawberries nourish each other.

Imitating a traditional Iroquois practice called “three-sister planting,” the farm plants corn, beans and squash together. The beans fix nitrogen into the soil that corn depletes while the corn’s stalk enables the bean plant to grow upward. Squash keeps both hydrated.

“What’s even cooler is that corn, beans and squash are a complete protein and have all 16 amino acids together — you actually get a complete meal!” says Marvy.

By using no-till or low-till farming, which doesn’t involve tearing up the ground to plant seeds, the farm eliminates or reduces the need for fuel-guzzling farm vehicles and allows soil to replenish its nutrient value undisturbed. Locally-grown produce also eliminates the need for heavy transport, further reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

As part of the Farm’s Youth Empowerment program, teenagers learn about health, nutrition and sustainable farming methods and then are offered jobs working throughout the school year and over the summer. “There’s a 50 percent adult Black unemployment rate. I mean, any chance any kid of color can get in this city to work is significant,” said Marvy. The average annual income in the Red Hook houses for a family is $14,000. At minimum wage — currently $7.15 an hour — a teenager working 25 hours a week for seven weeks can earn between $1,200 and $1,300 — almost 10 percent of his or her family’s annual income.

There are other benefits of having a farm in your backyard. “My mother loves it because I bring vegetables home in the summer,” says Maxine Dean, a high school senior. “She loves that, because she doesn’t have to go to the supermarket – I can just bring it to her fresh.”

Jasmine Willis, a sophomore, added, “Plus you know who’s growing your food.”