Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Sarah Sproule

This is the final installment of our series, Faces of Farming: Exploring Urban Agriculture in New York City, where New York-based photojournalist Maggie Gorman will share photographs, stories and thoughts from her recent visits with people behind the farming scene throughout the five boroughs. In this series, she explores the identity of urban farming through a rich, youthful perspective – spotlighting New York City as a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement. This series is a part of our Urban Agriculture Project, which is aimed at connecting individuals, increasing farm based education and raising awareness through creativity, partnerships and research.


Sarah Sproule on the top of her rooftop in Manhattan.

How did you get started with all of this?

So, I remember the exact moment. I was at Union Square Greenmarket and I just finished up working at Colicchio & Sons as a line cook – before that I was a chef so I was always thinking of how to incorporate more local things into my diet. I knew all of these great farmers after a couple months of doing cooking demos at Union Square, like Rich from Lucky Dog and Kevin from S & SO Farms. I realized that for every dish, I would season it with a salt from the corner store. I just thought everything else – even the cooking fats and things like that, the sunflower oil from Cayuga – if we have cooking fat and all of these other basic ingredients, but don’t have sea salt then I’m just going to go out and do it. So, basically how I got started was with a five gallon bucket. I went to the beach with a Zipcar because I didn’t have a car back then. I just filled up a couple buckets and was going to see if this works. It’s not a big investment, you know, buckets are like $10 for 4 or whatever. Six weeks later, I actually let it evaporate in my friends apartment stairwell, going to the roof. After four weeks he called me and said that it wasn’t evaporating, it’s not happening. But, it’s ocean water, it has to make sea salt. So, after six weeks, he says that it’s crystallized, it’s ready so I said that I’m going over. It makes this beautiful sea salt, perfect little cubes and we gave it to family and friends to see what everyone thinks. After that, we started going to different beaches and then I started to realize that at every beach there was a different color, different flavor, different texture. The salt was different everywhere I went.

Basically, I didn’t start selling to the public until I partnered with a fishery because a Zipcar can only hold so much water. All of these sea salts were kind of off-color – you have French grey sea salt and salts that aren’t stark white and you don’t know why – so maybe if I partnered with a fishery that fishes thirty miles East of Montauk, I might be able to come up with a better product because my only ingredient was water. I went to two different fisheries and one of them didn’t think I was crazy. They said they they would bring be buckets the next week. I’m still really great friends with them and they’ve gotten my water for me for at least a year until I found my next source. Every time they would go out thirty miles East of Montauk, they would bring me back five gallon buckets, I’d meet them at market and get the water. Then, I’d bring it up here, which we walked up the stairs so you know sixteen floors up is an elevator but then you have to walk up two flights of stairs with like twenty buckets of water, which is really heavy.

I recently found a salt water well on Long Island, so I’m actually now pumping my salt water from there. It is a naturally occurring salt water aquifer, but it’s 250 feet deep. I pump the water up, but before I pump the water up it’s naturally filtered through sand, silt and clay. It’s basically untouched salt water. Every other company that I know of is pumping their water from the beach and I go to the beach during the summer and I’ve seen the difference between beach water making salt, salt water thirty miles East of Montauk and then the salt water aquifer. It’s obvious what’s more pure and what you would want to put in your mouth. So, yeah, that’s basically my story.

What’s your favorite part about gathering salt water?

It’s unique. You can make salt from three different ways. You can mine it, you can get it from the ocean and harvest it two different ways from that – you can either cook the ocean water or you can solar evaporate. The ocean is vast, it’s huge, but if you gather water from the beach it’s still going to take on the characteristics of where it comes from – the elements in the sand or if it’s a rocky beach or if there’s cliffs or a forest next to it. I’ve just been fascinated by all the differences, how it is different. The ocean is bigger than land mass on Earth, but yet it’s still segmented, it’s still different.

What is the most unique salt that you have came across?

There’s this pink salt from Australia. It’s actually from a pond in Australia that they pump the water from. The salt turns out pink naturally because of the different chemicals or elements in the water. I find that really interesting. Also, just getting more in depth with salt. Really, you’re just studying the water because that’s where the salt comes from, and when you cook the water to make the crystals, you can actually manipulate how the crystals look. I found when I’m doing the solar evaporated salt, the crystals look different according to the seasons. In spring and fall, the crystals will be a lot larger and cubed shape, which in nature salt is supposed to be a perfect cube. And then, in summer and winter, winter will be smaller crystals because it evaporates so quickly because of the lower humidity. In the summer, there is a higher humidity so the crystals are more flat. It just changes from the weather. That’s been the most fascinating part of it, that even though it comes from one ingredient, it can be manipulated because of man or nature.

Which season salt is the most interesting to you?

I love what happens in the fall because it’s the perfect weather, the salt isn’t going to evaporate as quickly. It’s actually my best harvest. The cubes are just perfect. They’re just perfect cubes. How does that happen? It’s just the weather. (Laughter)

I love the garden up here. Are you growing stuff for Urban Sproule?

Yeah, I’m growing some stuff up here that I want to play with. I want to do a tomato salt. I was talking to this chef, John Besh, he’s from Louisiana, but he has this chef box of special ingredients you can subscribe to and he really wants me to do a tomato salt. I want to use these tomatoes. I’ve tried all the herbs in my salt. I just like to have green things around, it’s just exciting.

What kind of herbs do you have growing?

I have lemon verbena in the corner. I have sage, rosemary, thyme, peppermint, chives, two different kinds of peppers, lavender, which is my favorite scent. A little bit of everything.

What are you looking forward to the most with infusing the salts?

My favorite infusion is the grilled ramp salt, which is super seasonal and obviously can’t grow ramps. It’s always something that I can’t get easily that I love the most. I’m working on a smoked salt because I’ve had a lot of smoked salts and they just don’t deliver the flavor that I like. So, I’m trying a couple of different methods. Even smoking the water before I evaporate. then, smoking the crystals. Just playing around with a couple different things.

Do you have a specific strategy or formula to develop different flavors and textures?

I have two different methods – wet and dry infusion – which I kind of just made up. I do a squid ink salt and I’ve done a maple (syrup) salt, and those are wet infusions so the water actually evaporates with these ingredients in them. You see a lot of salt where they just stir the powders in or whatever. I actually want the infused flavors to be crystallized in the water, so it’s not just on the outside. And then, the dry infusions are basically with tomatoes or herbs or anything like that, they’re just sun dried and pulverized and stirred into the salt before they crystallize. I look at every ingredient different. I know how the salt works now so I treat them all individually.

What’s the most difficult part about being in an urban environment?

Well, I started this as a hobby. The building manager is friends with my husband, they were in Afghanistan together. I wasn’t planning on being on a rooftop, but I remember Matt (the building manager) asked me, ‘How’s the salt going?’ Everyone knew that I was dabbling in it. I told him that it was good and I was actually looking for more space, I was looking in Brooklyn at little farms. The next day he text my husband and said that he might have an idea. Then we came up here. I wasn’t trying to be a rooftop farm at all. I was just looking for space. I came up here and I was done. It was a great space so we’ll just make it work. And, it’s definitely the traffic, which is probably the response from everyone. Then, it’s also that I had to build up and not out. I have a new location in Long Island and I was able to spread the salt out on the same level. Here, I need to build up because I need to maximize the space. I have 525 evaporation trays in there (Manhattan rooftop). Out in Long Island, I only have 144, but they’re four foot by five foot, all harvested at once. Here, you have to rotate everything because the sun is the most important component. It’s actually a lot more work here to do fifteen pounds than it is to do one-thousand pounds out in Long Island. I might want to do another rooftop out here, but that’s kind of nuts. (Laughter)

What’s the best part about being in an urban environment?

I think just the people that are here. I love the people that I know in Long Island, but the people here, they’re just completely different sets of entities. Here, everyone is super well-connected and you always know someone that works somewhere that is interested in salt. Like you. You just graduated, you know Derek from Eat Local NY, you’re going to be doing this series and a gallery thing. Everybody has ten billion things going on. That’s what I like the most.

Do you see yourself staying in this building for awhile?

Yeah, definitely. This is where I started so I definitely want this to represent my flagship. I’ll show you around the corner how I first started. I didn’t have this greenhouse at first. I had this four foot tall rolling ‘greenhouse’ with fourteen trays in it. That’s how I started and it’s just worked out. I like the space. I’m enjoying it.

How long does it take for salt water to evaporate?

Here, about three to four weeks. And in Long Island, I don’t know yet. Because it’s set up differently it might be two to three weeks, a little bit faster.

When did you finalize the space in Long Island?

I signed the lease at the end of April. The construction is taking a long time because I had some guys put up a greenhouse that’s 120 feet by 35 feet. And, I’m working out of these thousand gallon tanks. Everything out there is much bigger, but it’s the same concept. The evaporation trays here are plastic, but out there they are – like I said, 4 foot by 5 foot – stainless steel. They’re being built by a ship builder so everything is handmade, really different. It’s just taking a lot longer than I thought, but since I can trace a person back to everything inside of the greenhouse, I feel good about it.

How do you find people using your salts?

I think a lot of people use the infused salts as a garnishing salt. And, also my price point has been higher because I can only harvest twenty pounds a month. One of my goals, when I get out in Long Island and get production growing, I can actually lower my price and people can look at it on a shelf and say, ‘Why not?’ instead of ,’Oh, I don’t know.’ I hope it becomes more of an everyday salt rather than just a garnishing salt, but I think people are really interested in the fact that you can infuse this salt with super interesting ingredients. I did a lot of retail online and then I did retail to a couple different stores in the city in Brooklyn. And then, I actually love working with restaurants. It’s not where I make the most amount of money at all. I work with the Water Club on the East River, Monument Lane, Back Forty West with Peter Hoffman and then Pacifico’s, which is a brand new restaurant in Brooklyn. It’s been fun.

Where do you see the future of urban farming?

I think it’s going to become more streamlined. In the beginning, it was more whimsical because it was a struggle. Even what I’m doing now, people ask why don’t you come to my rooftop or why don’t you do this or that, it’s not so weird. When I was looking out in Long Island, everyone would look at me so strange. What are you talking about? Especially people like me, and I think you’re the same way, we’re put in the city and we love the city, but we also love to look at green. I love to grow things. When you get desperate enough, you look for a solution, and I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger. I hope moire buildings adopt the whole green space idea because there are thousands of rooftops here that could actually be growing things. Not even for production for farming, but for employees and showing them you don;t have to stand on the sidewalk to take your breaks. You can come to the rooftop and look at a tree. (Laughter)

What’s one thing you want people to know about salt?

Actually where it comes from. I wish people knew that. When I was doing research about this, there wasn’t a lot that I was getting from the Internet or books or anything. It’s a regulated industry, but they regulate it in a way – if you read through, it’s called the Kodak standard for salt making – it doesn’t give you comfort to put it in your mouth. They’re basically saying if you put it in a jar you need to label it salt. And, if you make salt, it needs to be at least 97% sodium chloride, which that’s what salt is, that is the element. After that, if you’re saying it needs to be at least 97% sodium chloride, which it already is, you’re saying that most companies put in additives, which is true. They don’t even have to list that they beach the salt with chlorine and all of these different chemicals that you’re putting on your breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s just like not knowing where your water comes from, it’s that prevalent in your life. You shouldn’t just be thinking about where your kale is from, you should be thinking about where your salt is from.

What is your definition of creativity?

I know a lot of creative people, but the ones that actually make it into a business or make a difference with it are he people that no matter how crazy they feel, they keep pushing towards their creativity. That’s kind of what I’ve done. This is kind of a crazy concept, but I just kept doing it, having enough confidence to talk about it. To be like this is how I’m creative, this is how I want to portray it and I want to tell a bunch of people about it. When I first started, I knew it was a cool concept but I was just too inside of it. I was kind of nervous to talk about what I’m doing, I don’t know how to talk about it, and then you just get used to it. Why would I be embarrassed about my own creativity? It’s part of who you are.

Maggie Gorman is a New York-based photojournalist. Follow her on Instagram.

Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Clare Sullivan

This is the fourteenth installment of our series, Faces of Farming: Exploring Urban Agriculture in New York City, where New York-based photojournalist Maggie Gorman will share photographs, stories and thoughts from her recent visits with people behind the farming scene throughout the five boroughs. In this series, she explores the identity of urban farming through a rich, youthful perspective – spotlighting New York City as a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement. This series is a part of our Urban Agriculture Project, which is aimed at connecting individuals, increasing farm based education and raising awareness through creativity, partnerships and research.

IMG_8356Clare Sullivan at Feedback Farms in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

What is your favorite crop to grow?

I really love to grow tomatoes just because there is so much variety and they are so beautiful. (Daughter: I like to grow kale!) Why do you like to grow kale? (Daughter: I like to plant kale and flowers!) Is that because you like to eat kale? (Daughter: Yeah!) I like to grow tomatoes because I like to eat tomatoes too. And, tomatoes are one of the crops that taste so much better when they’re fresh and fresh picked than when you get them from the super market where they’ve been picked green and have sat forever. They are not the easiest crop to grow, I’ll say that. They are a big part of our production – we grow usually about twenty kinds all heirlooms all different colors all sizes. They are super high maintenance, we have to tend to them.

I was going to ask what is the most difficult crop to grow or hardest to maintain, but it sounds like tomatoes.

I would say tomatoes is one of the most difficult crops to grow (Daughter: Or the flowers are the difficult thing to grow!) Flowers are also difficult to grow. (Daughter: Or kale is difficult) Kale is pretty easy. You spend all this time managing them and keeping them disease free but… who can turn down a basket of these beautiful jewels. (Daughter: They’re pink and orange and red and yellow.)

What are some of the programs that you offer at the farm?

We are a production oriented farm so we grow for market. We do a lot of tours with schools groups, interested people. We’ve evolved a little bit. This year we are working with The Doe Fund. They have four very large shelters in the city and they’re coming up with these green social enterprises to train people so they can have a regular income and transition out of the shelter system. (Daughter: Look, mommy, my hand print!). I can see it. That’s kind of our main program this year. We are working with crews from The Doe Fund and we are doing training. Hopefully, giving them skills that are applicable to a kitchen, nurseries, urban farming. They also are interested in it as an education and therapeutic thing – even if it doesn’t provide job training. It has a big psychological benefit.

Last year, and were doing it again this year, we ran a working share CSA. We had people make a commitment to work a couple hours on the farm. In exchange for that labor, they got a CSA basket. We worked with a core group of people.  And, so by the end we had a really skilled labor force. We’ve had a research component. There’s not a lot of best practices. Where we’ve done crop trials and different styles of raised beds and container growing so we’ve had that as a big part of our programming too. Both doing that research, then analyzing the results, sharing them with other people.

Where are some of your other sites?

This site is in Bushwick. Our first site was on the edge of several neighborhoods – Gowanus, Prospect Heights, Boerum Hills, near the new Barclays Center. We have another site in Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy border and then we have worked with a restaurant in Carroll Gardens. It’s a little kitchen garden that they use.

What is the biggest setback about being an urban farm?

There is a couple things that are challenging. We are not a rooftop farm so we grow on the ground. Our site in Gowanus, there used to be a lead smelter there and the houses on that site got burnt down… thick layer of mulch. So, I think soil is a big constraint. Really limited in the amount of space. The private land owner that had given us access to the site wanted to develop it, but of course, it takes a ton of work. So, there is a big labor component and you can’t choose land based upon ideal agricultural characteristics, you kind of just have to take what you can find.

What’s your favorite part about being in an urban environment?

You have such great access to markets and people. It’s so easy to interface with people. Infinite opportunities for outreach and education. But, our first year we delivered only on foot and to restaurants within three blocks. There are huge benefits.

Where do you deliver your produce now?

Some of the produce has gone to the kitchen at the shelter. Then, we sell to a number of different restaurants and markets. And, I can give you the names of a bunch of those. This season our main client has been Rucola, which is a small, local – they buy a lot of local produce – kind of seasonal menu, Italian restaurant in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. We also sell to Nightingale9, which is in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, they have a pretty seasonal menu and they’re a Vietnamese restaurant. We sell to Greene Grape Provisions, which is market, specialty grocery store in Fort Greene in Brooklyn. And, we sell to Brooklyn Martyr, which is a little specialty grocery store in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. We’ve had on-site markets, a more typical farmers market in the past, but we didn’t do it so much this season.

Is there a reason for that?

Well, you know, it has a little bit to do with that move that I had mentioned. At our first location, we were in this really prime real-estate area and it had great foot traffic. This site (in Bushwick) is a little more off the beaten path. And, it was new this year. It’s in the first year at that site so we were setting up and got started a little bit late. The other place that a lot of our produce goes to is our working share CSA program. So, a lot of like a typical community supported agriculture in that we give whatever is available when it’s available to people that commit to the program and they get this basket of goods. There is no fee, they just commit to doing a certain amount of work up front on the farm. So, that’s the other primary place that our produce goes to. We’re very small so we can’t have a ton of baskets, but we did about a dozen last year and this year had been really fun.

I love the website. Is there a story behind it? 

Our team has a number of software developers on it. So, our website is under construction right now, although it doesn’t say that. It has been for three months or so, which is silly because we have all these professional website developers on our team. (Laughter) So, what we put up was a time-lapse. We did that on our first season that was transforming this first space that we had from vacant lots – it had been empty since 1979 – into a farm. I think that video was over about four months. We put up a camera and then edited all the snapshots together. It was amazing to see how productive that space became in such a short amount of time.

What is the difference between a tomato that you buy from the supermarket in January and a tomato that you harvest from your farm in season? 

We, and lots of other small-scale producers, grow varieties that you’ll never find in the supermarket because they don’t ship well. So, that tomato that you get in the winter probably comes from California, maybe Southern Florida. And, they can only grow certain varieties that can be picked green and then ripen and then shipped. We can grow all different types of specialty varieties that have to be picked by hand and transported really carefully. You get varieties that have a lot more flavor and that are grown for things like taste (Laughter) rather than yield or shipping quality.

What led you to urban agriculture? 

Well, I work with Columbia’s Earth Institute. I work at the center called the Agriculture and Food Security Center. It used to be called Tropical Agriculture and World Environment Center. For me, I work on agriculture all the time, but often in the tropics, places that are far away from here. I was really looking for a way to do things closer to home. And, I think other people in our group had worked on small farms throughout the Northeast and different urban agriculture projects in the city like Eagle Street Farm, Bronx Children’s Garden. We had all been involved in different ways in agriculture and wanted to get involved in something that was local and that was taking advantage of these vacant spaces we were seeing in the community.

Is that where the whole research component comes from?

Yeah, that definitely. That’s kind of my background. And, also, when we were starting the project we found that there just wasn’t information out there. You know, there’s all kinds of information to guide small scale farms or small scale organic farms, but a lot of it – a lot of it is applicable to urban agriculture – there wasn’t a lot of it to say, ‘Oh, these are the best types of beds, these are the best varieties for urban production.’ So, that was something we really wanted to include in Feedback Farms.

We have a few different things. Because we work with a lot of software people, they were really interested in doing some remote monitoring and seeing if they could use sensors, like moisture sensors and temperature sensors, to integrate them into the production and improve the production that way. That’s sort of one track, the software development side of things. And then, we’ve also done these research trials to evaluate bed kind, varieties and production practices.

We have one published paper that I can send you guys if you’d like to see it. We have a paper published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. It was published a couple months ago. That one is looking at different bed designs and different varieties of a pepper, kale and tomato variety. That was a pretty big project. And then, we have a couple smaller projects that were easier to integrate into the farm that we’ll hopefully publish in the upcoming year. We’re looking at planting density, we’ve looked at longer term management for raised beds, we’re really interested in looking at rainwater harvesting and whether any contaminants get into the soil through that. We’ve also worked with a researcher from New Paltz on heavy metal contamination.

What is your definition of creativity?

(Long pause) Making something new. A space where people can brainstorm, try things out.

How do you apply creativity to your project at Feedback Farms?

Well, it’s a really new project and I think we’ve tried to do a lot of different things with people that have very different backgrounds and different interests. So, that’s why we have all these different pieces of research and technology and vegetable production. I don’t know any that aren’t, but I think it’s safe to say that any urban agriculture has really strong community involvement just because it fits right into, it’s integrated right into where all of these other people are living and interacting with the space.

One of the things we have been really happy with has been our working share program because people always want to volunteer and it was a way that we could get people to commit to volunteering more than one time. And, we could really have a skilled labor force. It was also a nice way to give people a basket of produce. Otherwise, people have all different types of models for having their volunteers pay to work on the farm. They pay and get a farm tour then they volunteer for the day. People are exploring a lot of different models in the city. I think that’s one creative thing. It took us a couple seasons to figure out but we’re really happy with it and the way it worked out through interacting with the community of people that wanted to work with us.

Where do you see the future of urban agriculture?

I think there is tons of potential, especially for the social benefits, the community benefits of having those opportunities for kids to learn about science, people to get better access to local produce. I think there is a lot more research that needs to be done on the actual environmental benefits and the actual best practices for growing. It’s really growing and there is tons of interest and it would be really great if that translated into more science happening in those spaces. Whether it’s citizen science, which is kind of what we did, or lots of schools should integrate it into their programs.

Maggie Gorman is a New York-based photojournalist. Follow her on Instagram.

Clare Sullivan has a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, with a focus on environmental science and policy. Her work includes assessing land use land cover changes, developing indicators for monitoring environmental sustainability, and evaluating the potential of incentives programs to enhance ecosystem services and benefit local communities. She has worked on projects with the National Park Service in the US, the CGIAR system in the Peruvian Andes and Amazon Basin, and with UNEP in Haiti.

Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Lise Serrell & Rebecca Wolf

This is the thirteenth installment of our series, Faces of Farming: Exploring Urban Agriculture in New York City, where New York-based photojournalist Maggie Gorman will share photographs, stories and thoughts from her recent visits with people behind the farming scene throughout the five boroughs. In this series, she explores the identity of urban farming through a rich, youthful perspective – spotlighting New York City as a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement. This series is a part of our Urban Agriculture Project, which is aimed at connecting individuals, increasing farm based education and raising awareness through creativity, partnerships and research.


Lise Serrell & Rebecca Wolf at Queens Botanical Garden’s Urban Farm Project.

What is your definition of creativity?

Lise Serrell: Wow, I’d have to think about that for awhile. My definition of creativity? Um… can you give me some kind of context?

Sure. (Laughter) How do you express your creativity through farming?

Rebecca Wolf: That’s more structured.

Lise Serrell: I would say in a number of different ways. I think that farming and gardening allows a lot of rigidity. At the beginning of the season you have this master plan that you’re working from, that you’ve worked on all winter. And then, spring comes, and that sort of becomes guidelines. And from that basic map, that’s where you’re allowed to be creative. Where you can be like, ‘Oh, wow, that crop failed,’ or ‘This went gangbusters.’ So, I can switch things up from there where all of a sudden you’re doing the math where it’s like if this takes twenty days then that means I can put this in there and I can fit that there.

More to come…

Maggie Gorman is a New York-based photojournalist. Follow her on Instagram.

Queens Botanical Garden’s Urban Farm is an exciting partnership with the NYC Department of Sanitation Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling (BWPRR). Part of the NYC Compost Project’s Local Organics Recovery Program, the farm was developed to show the link between food waste and food production.  Organic debris generated on the farm and at the Garden will be turned into finished compost and used to nurture the soil. Food scraps from Queens Botanical Garden and the neighboring community will be incorporated into the composting system to diversify the nutrient content of the finished material and provide residents with an easy food scrap drop-off opportunity at Queens Botanical Garden.

Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Gil Lopez

This is the twelfth installment of our series, Faces of Farming: Exploring Urban Agriculture in New York City, where New York-based photojournalist Maggie Gorman will share photographs, stories and thoughts from her recent visits with people behind the farming scene throughout the five boroughs. In this series, she explores the identity of urban farming through a rich, youthful perspective – spotlighting New York City as a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement. This series is a part of our Urban Agriculture Project, which is aimed at connecting individuals, increasing farm based education and raising awareness through creativity, partnerships and research.


Gil Lopez at Smiling Hogshead Ranch.

What’s your favorite crop to grow?

My favorite crop is the one that’s producing right now. It always changes. I really like berries. I love blueberries, strawberries, currants. I need to get some gooseberries in here. Juneberries. I like berries a lot. Raspberries and blackberries.

What is your least favorite crop to grow or hardest to maintain?

You know what? I don’t really do that much maintenance. I’m like the puppet master here. I just kind of promote the shit out of work days and get volunteers here. I organize our members and I make sure that someone’s in charge of making sure we have a planting plan and someone’s in charge of making sure stuff gets weeded and watered, but I don’t actually do that much farming as it were. But, I think compost is one of the most difficult things to maintain.

How so?

It’s heavy. It requires a lot of back-breaking work. It’s never done. There is no off-season for compost, compost happens even in the winter time. If you don’t stay on top of it, it starts to stink and attract pests. It’s also one of the most rewarding crops when it’s done properly and you have the right amount of people and care given to it.

What led you to urban agriculture?

I had a Bachelors Degree in Landscape Architecture, and I was a little bit frustrated with the focus on aesthetic ornamental landscapes that were being installed. The whole idea that you need to use petrochemicals to create fertilizers and insecticides and herbicides and fungicides. As well as putting so much water, which was a dwindling resource in Florida where I was practicing at the time on these crops that had no yield. And, on top of that, you have all of these landscape industry workers who are getting paid just above poverty rate wages to really work in really harsh, hot humid conditions doing heavy lifting and really back-breaking work to maintain these quite beautiful, but very unproductive and futile landscapes for people who often times didn’t even live there – who just came to enjoy it and wanted ti to be summer time all year round.

As a rejection of that idea, I began moving more in this direction. I started getting into permaculture. I started getting into the urban agriculture stuff. And just trying to figure out what technologies are appropriate for shifting landscapes as we move into a different era. We’re a very rich country, but there are so many people living in poverty, we really have to lead by example both by reducing the amount that we consume but also increasing the amount that we produce. I would love for this urban agriculture movement and guerrilla gardening movement to really galvanize a shift from a nation of consumers to a nation of producers.

What’s your definition of creativity?

That’s a hard question. I think creativity is something that is innate within all of us and it’s something we have to discover. I think self discovery is the first step to creativity. And individual creativity is very powerful and the easiest form of creativity. Collaborative creativity is much more rare. A lot of times working together with people to create something can lead to this high-mind, lowest common denominator way of thinking. Creativity definitely needs to be in place whenever your doing urban agriculture because you have to work around a lot of very strict rules and a lot of very hard to work with facts of life. Take the Red Hook Urban Farm, for example, they’re on top of what used to be a basketball court. They had to bring in soil and basically just build a farm on top of asphalt. The person that saw a bunch of basketball courts and a fence and said ‘oh, that could be an urban farm,’ that’s a creative genius, you know. And, it’s not something that is difficult really. It just takes a certain thing to tap into and to look at things in a different light.

What’s the difference in a tomato that you buy at a supermarket in January and a tomato that you harvest from your farm in season?

Well, the consumer experience is one. Just going to a grocery store and picking a tomato from a pile of tomatoes and paying the cash register or cash register attendant for it is a completely different experience than either starting a seed and growing a small seedling or going and purchasing a seedling and putting that into the ground and caring for it, babying it and watching it grow, making sure that pests aren’t on it, watering it, just giving it love. The love and attention that you give to a plant – you end up eating that, you end up taking that back into your body. Without getting too philosophical about it, the difference is huge. It’s absolutely so enormous that people have written books about it.

Tomatoland is a wonderful book that goes into great detail about the amount of chemicals and factory farming. And, basically modern day slave labor that goes into it. And, the picking of tomatoes and the hybridization of tomatoes that can last through the whole process of being picked and stacked in these big containers by farm workers, dumped into a truck and traveled hundreds of miles to a processing center to get dumped out and sorted through and gassed so that they become red and then packaged again and redistributed. And then separated out in other boxes and redistributed to grocery stores, then handled by your grocer and put out on the shelves for you to come and pick. That’s a lot different voyage than a tomato has been raised with love and then picked by your hand and then sliced by your hand or just popped into your mouth and eaten of out your hand. It’s impossible to explain the difference between those two, they’re so vastly different.

I completely agree. Where do you see the movement of urban agriculture in New York City heading towards?

I see the corporate citizens of the Earth, the multi-national corporation trying to get their hands in it. I see them wanted to sponsor a lot more of the established urban agriculture things going on. And, that could be a good or a bad thing. I won’t go into that. I also see a shift in the way that urban agriculture is understood. Right now, I think currently, the understanding of urban agriculture is just what everyone understands as agriculture – a row crop production farm in miniature, posted up in the middle of an urban grid somewhere or in a school in an urban setting. Maybe on top of a roof, maybe if someone gets a lot of money and can afford to do that. So, I see there being a shift from that to more of an understanding that urban agriculture and what agricultural product is is not limited by herbs and garden variety type vegetables.

I think we’re going to look a lot more closely at what I’ve been calling and dubbing the urban ecotones. The interstitial places between our residential, industrial and commercial areas. The spaces between, underneath and on top of our buildings and our infrastructure like our streets, our waterways, our railroad and subway infrastructures. Looking very closely at what now is called food waste that comes from our kitchens and understanding that waste is a completely human idea and reformulating the idea and recognizing that food scraps from kitchens are resources and separating them our and not giving them to landfills. Or, giving them up so easily to farms upstate or in other places and using them locally to build our local soils. And, really looking at the resources that we have here in the cities that we currently, often times, deem as waste – waste water, food waste. We have so many things that we basically throw away or just don’t know how to deal with.

I think that if we can realize that nature has wonderful ways of dealing with these things and mimic that. Biomimicry is a big thing nowadays, I’m enamored with the idea of biomimicry, but sometimes, often times, it gets so technological. We want to reproduce the way that this insect does this thing so we use all of our technology that we know how to do it. I think a really great thing about urban agriculture is that we’re mimicking what – not necessarily what nature does, I mean humans are a part of nature but we have such a big brain that we are changing nature – but we’ve been agrarian for a long time. We rely on a small percentage of the population to feed us. I think that as we look at our agrarian roots and understand this biomimcry idea and we apply it to our cities that we can build buildings that mimic our agrarian roots and can be very productive in ways that a lot of people don’t really understand right now. There is a few forward thinkers, some urban designers, landscape architects, architects and philosophers and futurists who have envisioned buildings that can be really productive. And, infrastructure pieces like railways that can also double as productive things. I think a lot of those high-minded ideas are going to be brought very much closer to the ground and shot down because of the costs that they have, but implemented in very grassroots ways. People are going to be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a really awesome idea. I don’t have the money to do that. How can I do that? I’m just going to McGiver it. I’m going to use a tin can and a milk crate and some string and we’re going to set it up so it gets plenty of sun exposure. And we’re going to do this to a whole building and it’s going to be the next thing and somebody’s going to figure out how to improve on that.’

If you’ve heard of Window Farms, this is a project that a permaculturist that got her certificate in like 2010 just decided that she was going to make a hydroponic system in the window of her Brooklyn apartment. And she’s not going to grow enough food to feed herself, but she’s going to grow some food. And it’s become a movement. On top of doing that, she built a website that allowed people to talk about how they’re doing this and she created this, what she calls, R&DIY. So, research and develop it yourself. I think that there’s a lot of gravity in that. There’s a lot of wight to that. And, as people become more interested in their food systems and as people begin to talk amongst each other through vast gulps of space through the Internet and collaborate on building better systems, we’re going to shift the way that cities eat.

How do you think supermarkets, like Whole Foods, impact the food movement?

Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Natural Frontiers… all of these grocery stores, especially the big ones. The big national ones like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, in particular, they can do several different things. they bring a lot of awareness to average consumer about what it is we’re eating. They also work against that goal by being deemed as ‘Whole Paycheck’ or too expensive for the average consumer. So, there’s a push and a pull there. There is a Whole Foods that just opened up in Brooklyn that actually has a green roof on top of their building and they sell produce from the green roof. It’s a green roof, but it’s a greenhouse on top of their roof, which is different than a green roof. I’m sorry, it’s a hydroponic greenhouse on top of their facility, which is not a green roof. So, especially in these urban areas where the ideas are ripe and the consumer market is there, a company like Whole Foods can push forward. But, as they go into areas where people don’t have the same paychecks or mentality, there can be a backlash against that whole idea and the movement can be stifled completely. Whole Foods is wonderful for one demographic and planting your own garden is wonderful for a different demographic. There has to be multi-pronged approaches. Whole Foods, unfortunately, is about as close as it gets to a top-down approach for the organic movement. Often times top-down approaches do not work for people that are trying to organize on grassroots levels. To get people who are generally held down and oppressed by the top to understand whats going on. So, I don;t really shop at Whole Foods. I’m not a huge fan. I know people making amazing products that are sold at Whole Foods and I think that’s awesome. There’s definitely multiple sides to that coin other than the ones that I’ve just pointed out.

Yeah, there is kind of a hierarchy of who gets to eat what.


What kind of programs do you offer through Smiling Hogshead Ranch?

We have just work days where we do the mundane. Filling up our water tanks, and watering and weeding and planting and clearing out beds of weeds and planting more beds. We have edible fruit tree and shrub care work days once a month. Our educational workshops where people can come in and help us take care of our fruit trees and shrubs. And, learn about the different things. Every month there’s different things that need to be done. We have to add fertilizer this month, we have to check for infestations of disease or insects this month, we have to look for other sorts of disease or fungal infections, we have to prune, some months we just have to water the mess out of them, when it;s harvest time we have to make sure that we’re educating people around here. Like, ‘This is not a green apple, you don’t pick it when it’s green, you have to wait for it to ripen.’ Or else all of our fruit will just end up gone before it’s even ripe.

We’ve has herbal tea making workshops. We have work days with our compost. I’ve taught people about mycelium, mushrooms, fungi… how to grow them both to eat, for edible purposes, and also how to inoculate them onto your ground so that you can start cleaning up these urban soils and toxins in these soils with the mushrooms. We’ve had construction days where we’ve had people out with some power tools and we’ve had a little bit of fun with that. We’ve had arts and crafts in the garden where we make signs. We made a wind chime over there. Painting things and just getting crafty in general in the garden. There’s just a whole gamut of things. We hope to build a stage in the back and let people sing up online to use the stage for an hour or two increments and just have a public stage. We offer yoga every other weekend. It’s a donation based class. You bring your own mat and we have it outside in a shady area on top of the mulch. All sorts of stuff.

What’s your favorite activity to do in this space?

Lay in my hammock. Is that considered an activity? (Laughter)

How do you maintain an organic garden?

With lots of help. Lots and lots of help. We have a planting plan. We have a rotation plan. So, every year we rotate our crops out so that we’re not exhausting our soil. We have fallowed beds each year. We use green manures. We have cover crops that we turn into our soil as green manures. You stay on top of your pests, you look at what’s happening. Integrated pest management. We mechanically remove pests and we use some organic based solutions to manage some of the pests. We intercrop a lot. there’s not nay bed out here that has one thing in it, except for maybe our garlic, which grows over the winter and actually had a bunch of cover crop in it as well. We’ve removed most of the cover crop, but… Intercropping is really important. We build compost. We have community compost collections that we take from the community, the food scraps and we turn them into healthy soils. We use the compost to fertilize our fruit trees and shrubs and all of our beds. We try to stay on top of weeding.

We organize large and small work days to get people out here. Sometimes it’s just a group of two or three of us, sometimes it’s just one person walking through weeding where we can. And, sometimes, you know, we have a work day and twenty people show up and we knock out seven beds and we clear a whole new area and we eradicate mugwort and we go crazy, but that organization takes work too. We have to put it out on the social networks, we have to create events on Facebook and put it on our calendars and Tweet about it. Create fun little pictures and post them on Instagram and tell people to show up on this certain day at this certain time and create meetup events for seven different meetup groups and hope that somebody shows up.

What’s unique about Smiling Hogshead Ranch?

I think Smiling Hogshead Ranch is unique because it’s on railroad property. It’s not unique, but we started as a squatter garden and that’s something that is very much – that has deep roots in New York City – but that whole mentality had been dormant since about the mid to late seventies. Since the creation of GreenThumb. GreenThumb has made it a lot easier to start community gardens in New York City. And Green Thumb grew out of a group called Green Guerrillas, which was an amazing group that was reclaiming spaces, particularly in lower Manhattan and Harlem. The struggle to maintain those spaces over time led to the city advocating for those spaces in creation of GreenThumb. GreenThumb has gone through several struggles, particularly with the Giuliani administration several years back. But really, it’s been a wonderful thing for the city. It’s made it a lot easier for people to start community gardens, especially on city-owned property. I think Smiling Hogshead Ranch – because we’re not on city owned property – did not have the blessing of GreenThumb unless we were to have the blessing of the property owner, which we did not have to begin with. So, we really started as a renegade, guerrilla, squatter – whatever you want to call it – informal garden. And, that was kind of unique for the day we started in 2011.

A lot of stuff has been starting since then. 596 Acres is a group online that maps publicly owned open space and encourages people to organize around those spaces and get a key from the government agency that manages them and start a community initiative, whether it be a meeting space, a garden or whatever it is in those spaces. We formed at the same time that they formed, essentially. there’s been a lot of these things snowballing in the last few years since we’ve been in existence.

Another thing is – I don’t know exactly how unique this is but – the leadership here is kind of visionary. I won’t really elaborate on that because I’m blowing smoke up my own tail, but I do have a master plan for this space. And, it’s not your typical urban agriculture setup. I really do plan on changing the idea of urban agriculture and I won’t go into too much detail about that. One, just not to let the cat out of the bag, but two, just to not have people asking me, ‘When are you going to do this?’ or ‘When are you going to do that?’ I don’t want to set myself up for falls.

I don’t have anymore questions. I think we’ve covered a lot, but if there is anything else you would like to add…?

I’m just going to go for a little while. Is that okay? You can pick out whatever you’d like. So, Smiling Hogshead Ranch is a informal garden that was founded in 2011. We’re working towards a formal arrangement with the property owner. We hope that that comes soon. the reason that we are working towards that is so we can partner, on a more formal basis, with schools like the one next door to us. And, non-profit groups that work locally. Right now, we can’t do that because technically anyone that comes on site is trespassing.

Guerrilla gardening and urban agriculture are very interesting ways to accomplish a couple of things. Food justice is often an issue. Environmental justice is often an issue in many urban area. Guerrilla gardening is a form of non-traditional direct action. We are creating a world, we’re creating a reality that we want to see and we’re doing it in a way that does not conform with the current rules in place. But, as we’re doing this we’re shedding light on possibilities. And we’re showing administrators, law makers, property owners, whoever it is – people in position of power – what can be. And, if it’s allowed to continue, it’s successful. Guerrilla gardening can work in many different ways to accomplish these ends. I encourage people to look into doing some guerrilla gardening. Some of the things that you want to do if you’re considering becoming a guerrilla gardener is to find out who owns the property. If the property is owned by your neighbors, it might be more harmful to your community than it is helpful. If guerrilla gardening is outlawed in your area, you might want to consider doing it at night. In New York City, people are encouraged to become tree stewards of street trees. People are encourage to maintain small plots and encouraged to get involved and create GreenThumb gardens in city owned properties. So, it’s not outlawed here in the city, but a lot of places it is. In fact, in some places the cities or homeowners associations have essentially put rules or laws in place where you can’t garden in your own front yard. So, gardening in our own front yard, having an edible productive garden in your own front yard, is actually a form of direct action in some cases. And, I encourage that as well. It doesn’t have to be on public property, it can be on your own front yard in some cases. If your homeowners association or city government does not allow productive landscapes in public view, whether it’s your property or not, I encourage you to go out and fight those laws by doing exactly what you’re not supposed to be doing. And, if you get in trouble, I encourage you to cause a stink about it. Contact your local press, contact national press, your story will be picked up. There’s people who are ready to fight for you as well and to lend a voice towards that cause. that said, there are lots of other issues on this Earth, in this nation, that need addressing. So, direct action everywhere.

Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Anna Scott Ellis & Josie Connell

This is the eleventh installment of our series, Faces of Farming: Exploring Urban Agriculture in New York City, where New York-based photojournalist Maggie Gorman will share photographs, stories and thoughts from her recent visits with people behind the farming scene throughout the five boroughs. In this series, she explores the identity of urban farming through a rich, youthful perspective – spotlighting New York City as a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement. This series is a part of our Urban Agriculture Project, which is aimed at connecting individuals, increasing farm based education and raising awareness through creativity, partnerships and research.


Josie Connell and Anna Scott Ellis at Battery Urban Farm in Manhattan.

So, you were talking about giving the whole information spiel. 

Anna Scott Ellis: Yes. You asked if we were a public space. So, we are a project of the Battery Conservancy, that is a non-profit that works with the Parks Department to maintain Battery Park. And, one of the projects that they have is the farm here, Battery Urban Farm. Since we’re in a public space, we are open to the public during the work day. So, people can come in, they can walk around see what we’re growing and they also have public programs for them to participate in. We work with a lot of schools. We have a program where kids can come with their teachers – like Alana is right now – and they can work in their own space. They decide what is planted there, how they grow, what they grow, what they do with the food, when they come, what the classes are doing back at school related to their work on the farm. It’s all up to them.

Josie Connell: That space is like their school garden. So, this space back here is divided up into ten different schools. Each one has a certain number of plots and that’s like their school garden. So they come here and plant – like Anna was saying – they plant what they want and treat it as if it were their own at their own school.

Anna Scott Ellis: But then they have access to communal tools and those sort of things.

Josie Connell: And help from us if they need it.

Anna Scott Ellis: And then the rest of the farm is where we do our Student Farmer Program. So that’s 1st graders that sign up to come for weekly classes. They come every single week for their school year and they do planting, weeding, all of that sort of work on the farm. And then we do more formal lessons. So for any given class we could sit down and talk about a farm related concept. It could be pollinators or it could be food miles, and read a story, somehow interact and have a discussion about that topic. And then they go do work on the farm related to it and they always get to eat something. Then we also have fields trips – so those are groups any age pre-k through high school – that come for a one-off visit. And very similar, we’ll have lessons, read a story, have a discussion in the beginning, going and doing work on the farm. And that definitely is dictated by the age. So, pre-k, they’re planting large seeds that they don’t drop all over the ground and high schoolers can use big tools and do all the same work we would do. And then they also eat something at the end of every class.

What kind of food do they eat? 

Anna Scott Ellis: Well, right now we’ve been having lots of radishes and turnips and baby kale. Tons of herbs like mint. We’re doing a lot of lemon sorrel, the kids really love that. Now we’re getting the snow peas are just coming in. And, we just got tomatoes and eggplant and peppers in the ground this week. Sweet potatoes. Summer things are beginning to get kind of ready. (Laughter)

What is your favorite crop?

Anna Scott Ellis: Arugula might be my favorite because you eat it all the time, but I like sweet potatoes more. But then it’s just one harvest and that’s all you get so it’s a little bit less long term, less sustaining.

What is the most popular crop? 

Anna Scott Ellis: So, with the kids? Probably the Hakurei turnips. Because it’s something that they’ve never heard of before. They’ve never seen before. So it has that novelty factor. And also they’re really sweet and crunchy and kind of juicy.

Josie Connell: They’re a small, white salad turnip. So, they’re not really spicy and they don’t taste strong like cabbage. You know, some big turnips taste really strong. They’re sweet and a mild flavor. And they’re really pretty. And they’re a little bit bigger than a radish.

Anna Scott Ellis: And they’re surprised that they like it. They see it and they’re like what is this going to be like.

Josie Connell: Yeah, exactly. And they pull it out of the ground. It’s not just a leaf that you snip off, you pull the thing out of the ground and it’s covered in dirt and you wash it off and you take a bite. So it’s surprising for them.

Anna Scott Ellis: They love snow peas, they love carrots, but these are sorts of foods that they have already or when they come to the farm for the first time we’re like ‘well, what do you think we’re going to have growing here,’ and everyone’s always says carrots. And they’re so excited about the carrots and they’re like ‘Meh, whatever, carrots.’ (Laughter) Because that’s the most kid accessible vegetable, that’s what they’re fed all the time. Mint! Kids love to eat mint, which is so weird.

What kinds of herbs are you growing?

Josie Connell: Tons, tons.

Anna Scott Ellis: We do a lot of herbs because it’s something that is very sensory. You can have them smell them.

Josie Connell: They have different textures. Do you want me to list them?


Josie Connell: We grow all the different herbs that you would imagine eating. So, we grow perennial herbs like sage, thyme, chives, lemon balm, lavender, rosemary. And then we have tarragon, chamomile, basil…

Anna Scott Ellis: Cilantro, parsley

Josie Connell: Did I say oregano?

Anna Scott Ellis: Lemon verbena, lemongrass…

Josie Connell: Stevia, which isn’t really an herb, but we treat it like one.

You grow stevia? 

Josie Connell: Yeah, if you taste it – we will show you – but if you taste a leaf it’s very sweet and also has a little bit of that fake sugar taste. That aspartame…

Anna Scott Ellis: Yeah, bitter. The kids love it. It’s so gross.

Josie Connell: It’s so crazy. But it’s really crazy because you put the leaf on your tongue and it’s so sweet.

Anna Scott Ellis: It’s one of those things that I always model for the kids. Like ‘Okay, now we’re going to taste,’ and I eat it. It’s one of those things that I eat and I’m like, ‘Pthu!’

Josie Connell: But the herbs are great because – Anna was saying they taste every time they come, the kids come – and so we don’t have a stove or electricity and we can’t have an open flame because it’s a park. All of the food that’s served on the farm is raw. One of the fun things to make raw is pesto because pesto is a raw sauce anyway. You don’t have to make it just with basil, you can make it with any of the herbs we listed and they do. So, they’ll pick a variety of herbs and make it.

Anna Scott Ellis: We’ve done kale, sage, chive, which is a big favorite. And that’s just because that’s all there was.

Josie Connell: Yeah, but it works well and it’s interesting and flavorful.

Do you usually eat the food that grows here? 

Anna Scott Ellis: Yeah, so with the classes that come weekly, the 1st graders that come every single week, we always at the end of their season cook something together. So, we’ll make a salad and a pesto to eat with crackers or something. And some sort of iced tea. We make a whole meal to eat together. And we do cooking with the field trips that come in during the summer because then we have so much food and want the kids to enjoy it as much as possible.

What is your definition of creativity? 

Anna Scott Ellis: That is such a tough question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot actually, lately. I think it has to do with problem solving. So, seeing some sort of problem and not necessarily in a completely negative way, but then being able to find a solution in it. See something good in that problem and how to make it better. So, creating something good that might not be, something you want to have.

Do you apply that to your work here at the farm? 

Anna Scott Ellis: I guess we kind of do because all we’re ever doing is problem solving. (Laughter) Where should this go, when why, who should do it, what fits best, what’s the answer. Yeah.

What is your definition of creativity? 

Josie Connell: It’s a really good question. I think mine might be constantly thinking of things in different ways. I think problem solving is part of that. So, looking at anything – whether it’s a question or a plant or a person or an idea – and looking at it in more than one way.

More dialogue coming soon…