Stone Church

——-

In the woods just out of the highway reach is a church

built by the struggles of the earth;
through water and times persistent roll
the stone was split and formed an arch,
and a prayer was set in the heart of this tiny heaven in the woods.

It is with grace we trust
that when our rock breaks
and the forms we have known shudder in the emptiness of uncertainty,
that struggle begets the re-creation of the soul.

The church is hidden
in heart and stone.
The prayers of love resound
in the light of every darkened wood.

——-

digger

Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.

Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Mirem Villamil

This is the third 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_8207 Mirem Villamil at P.S. 216 in Brooklyn, NY.

What is your favorite crop?

My favorite crop is usually whatever is just starting to ripen and you haven’t had it in a really long time and its perfect and its delicious. So, right now, I would have to say strawberries are up there. But, you know, a couple of weeks ago it was snap peas. And before that it was asparagus. In a few more weeks it’ll be something else. Everything just tastes really good when you get it at the right time.

What is your least favorite crop to grow?

Actually, I do have a very clear answer. It’s cardoons. Cardoons are huge, they’re beautiful but they’re enormous. They take up a huge amount of space and they’re spiny. And then when you harvest them nobody wants them. They take a lot of work to prepare and if you don’t prepare them right, they’re bitter. So, it’s kind of thankless – not growing cardoons anymore. Sad but true.

How long has this farm been here?

We started in October of 2010, so going on four years.

What are some of the programs you offer through the garden?

The bulk of our time is spent teaching the children who are at this school – at P.S. 216.  All of these kids come out twice a month for garden classes and for two periods a month, on the same day, for kitchen classes. Teaching is huge. We also offer professional development to teachers from all over the city. We do that for free. We do that on a fairly regular basis. We offer p-credit courses (professional credit courses) in the summer for teachers. And then there is extracurricular events and activities. There is a thriving after-school program. There are weekend events occasionally, community garden days, family events, family cooking nights … I run an apprentice program, there is a farm-stand. That pretty much covers our programming. We also have another site in East Harlem and I split my time so we do a lot. And we’re looking to do even more next year.

What is the hardest part about being an urban farm?

The hardest part, I would say, is the human aspect. In the beginning it was just finding cigarette buts and glass in the soil and things like that. And then it’s more –  I think being in the city and being such a special place – you would want the community to be more involved. And they are. And they are increasingly involved but it is definitely a challenge. People aren’t used to coming and hanging out in the garden or working in the garden, they need to be drawn in. We’re starting a chicken program now so we are really dependent on volunteers. We have a bunch of people signed up so we’re hoping that will be the gateway to more community involvement.

What is your favorite part about being an urban farm?

Here, the extraordinary thing is – having said that people aren’t used to coming in – we do have a lot of neighbors that drop in regularly. So we have a lot of people who are retired, from all ethnic backgrounds, who come in to just say hi or bring us coffee or bring us plants. We have a Chinese neighbor who is ninety-three years old who comes by all the time. He’ll come in with some plants and tuck them into the corner. There is a Sicilian neighbor, Tommasso, who brought us a lemon tree. My favorite part of this urban farm, in particular, is that it’s giving kids that awareness and that exposure to growing food. Do you see that enormous yellow butterfly?

Yeah.

One of the things that I love about the four years that we have been here is that in the beginning there was no life. Nothing. Not a fly, not an ant, not a worm, nothing. No birds. Nothing. Now there isn’t an inch of the garden that doesn’t have life in it. And now the butterflies are breeding in the garden, which is amazing. It doesn’t get any better than that. And I’m very chill about pests and pest control because we can afford to do that. I grow extra parsley for the Swallowtails because they have these beautiful caterpillars. The caterpillars only eat things that are in the parsley family.

What are some of your goals through education and teaching the kids?

We have fairly ambitious goals. Our work is based on the belief that if a child knows where their food comes from, knows what effect that food has on their own bodies, on their families, on the community, on the environment – if that child feels competent to grow and prepare food – then you’re giving them a transformative power. And the ultimate goal is for our students to grow up and be educated consumers who will work actively to transform the food system, which as you probably know by now, is pretty badly broken in this country. I think we are hoping to have a transformative effect on individual students, on the community, by creating more demand for fresh produce and a higher level of acceptance. And we’re certainly hoping to impact school lunch in a number of ways and ultimately change policy in New York City so that we’re creating positive change in the food system, at least locally. In larger terms, become a demonstration or a model for other cities that are doing the same thing. Basically, I came to this knowing that the food system and our health care system are very badly damaged with the hope that educating children will lay the foundation for creating a more lasting, more complete change in the future. So wish us luck.

What is some advice you can give?

Start small and don’t ever finish. Um, meaning that if you’re going to start a garden don’t be too ambitious in the beginning. It’s actually enough to start with a small area and figure that out, get it under control and then add to it if you want to. A garden is never done, done. So if you except that from the beginning it saves a lot of frustration. And also you can just dive in and try something and if it doesn’t work, you know, do it differently next time. Gardening is very forgiving in that sense, especially if you’re not growing for market. Growing for market is not very forgiving. But starting a garden, getting things rolling, it takes on a momentum and life of its own and people do come in and support you.

How does this garden stay funded?

There are two separate budgets. One is capital expenditures. So things that are one time expenses for building, for infrastructure. And that is public funding because we are on public land and because there is public funding available for programs like this. The other category is operating expenses. And operating expenses are funded through individual donations, through grants and through fundraising events. We have a full-time development director who works out of our office in DUMBO and spends all her time fundraising. We don’t charge for any of our services right now. We don’t charge the people that we serve. And I don’t think we will, meaning professional development or teaching. It’s kind of an interesting model.

What inspires you on a day-to-day basis and in the long run?

Really every time you see a child enjoying something that was grown in the garden, it’s inspiring. And the first time that they pull a carrot is always wonderful, that never gets old. Just watching a kid pull a carrot out of the ground and be amazed is just endlessly satisfying – fulfilling. And seeing fifth graders who are completely used to picking leaves and eating leaves from the garden and who ask their parents for fresh vegetable, that is sort of what it’s about. And there are many other levels of satisfaction. Seeing butterflies in the garden makes me happy, especially so many. And every time something flowers for the first time or produces a fruit for the first time. Just the phenomenal growth that you get in the spring time here. I’m Puerto Rican so in Puerto Rico there are seasons – hurricane season, guava season. Everything grows a lot all the time, but its not comparable to that sort of transformation that happens in the spring here.

Whats the difference between a tomato that you get from a grocery store in January and a tomato that you harvest yourself in season?

Well, I have to say that you can get very good tomatoes now year round. I mean tasty tomatoes that are gown in greenhouses or hydroponically or what have you. They’re flavorful. They’re extremely expensive. But I think you have to look at the context. I think you enjoy tomatoes more when they are in season because you haven’t eaten tomatoes from the plant in so long. And also because a fresh tomato has this musky-ness – this musky tomato aura – that no supermarket tomato is ever going to have. And then here in particular, because we grow maybe fifty different kinds of tomatoes, every tomato is a surprise. You know, it’s unpredictable. Where as if you get a package of grape tomatoes from the grocery store, you pretty much know what they’re going to taste like. If you get it out of the garden, every one is going to have a slightly different flavor. And an amazing flavor. Then you can also grow your favorites – Sun Gold, Green Zebra, Chocolate Stripe is a really good one. There is Sweet Beverly. All the different colors and shapes and sizes. So in terms of what distinguishes a garden picked tomato, one thing is the context and the other is thing is being able to appreciate that diversity. We actually get tired of tomatoes. By the end of the season we are done with tomatoes. We have no issues with making sauce, canning them, just putting them away because we are done. We’ve eaten so many tomatoes.

What is your definition of creativity?

Oh gosh, that is a hard one. I have not thought about that. I actually had a full-time career as a set designer before I became a gardener so I am a creative professional in that sense. And I’ve always worried much more about the difference between art for art sake versus functionality. I’ve always been much more on the side of doing aesthetic problem solving rather than expressing a vision – a personal vision. And I don’t have very much patience with people who are all about expressing a personal vision. I mean it’s not very well, but if it’s public art or if you’re taking up my time or my visual field I want it to be actually meaningful. So that doesn’t say anything about what I think creativity is …

You can say anything. You don’t have to have an answer. That would be creative. What are all of these green things that are crawling all over me? Should I be afraid of them?

They’re mostly aphids.

What we haven’t really talked about is the idea of food access and food justice. That certainly is one of the major things that is broken in our food system. I’d like to think that an edible education – apart from this garden being gorgeous and it being a wonderful experience for the kids and it being personally significant for them – I think it’s a political act. I think growing your own food is a political act. Cooking is starting to become a political act. When you are cook you are resisting the marketing pressure and the lifestyle distortions that everyone experiences in the city. So our hope is for edible education to become just as universal as physical education has been. That was not a given not so long ago. My closing comment would be that growing your own food is a political act.

And where do you stand?

Part of our vision is that good food is a right, not a privilege. And a lot of where we’ve wound up has happened because of policy so that policy needs to swing back. The farm subsidies have really distorted our whole food culture by making it really cheap to eat meat, to eat corn-based products. So if we can shift policy back the other way. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about behavior change and habit formation and all of this. And it is really obvious that the whole question of obesity in this country is not so much an issue of personal responsibility as it is of policy and corporate responsibility and also education. But it can be shifted back with not too much trouble. And also it’s not worth demonizing the big food companies because their goal is to not actually kill people, their goal is to sell. But at the same time, we cant really let them get away with the things that they do in order to sell.

I’m totally with you on that.

Especially marketing to kids. It’s crazy.

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

Mirem Villamil graduated from Yale University. She is the Garden Manager at Edible Schoolyard NYC.

 

What You Give

——-

Let me rest, Sweet Love,
for a moment here in your eyes;
in this place of truth
where letting go is the easiest thing in the world for me to do.

I know we’ve just met, but I also know I have been here before.

When I was a child and sitting in windowsills
with doves
above the streets of New York City,
and speaking with each other through smiles, silence and singing,
in the only language I knew then and that we shared.

And again in the garden
where I have felt no worry against my pride as a grown man
to wander the days barefoot and dirty
doing what I need to do’
what I want to do.

The path in your eyes has taken me far away
but your kiss brings me back;
back to this world
where as much as we need to let go, and step back, and walk away sometimes
it is also where we need to be to do our work.

As we are the ones who can share with all things
what the love inside can do.

——-

digger

Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.

 

Stephanie Sinclair on Hunger in America: The City

I recently interviewed three photographers who covered hunger in America for the feature “The New Face of Hunger” in the August issue of National Geographic magazine. They explored what it looks like for individuals and families to be food insecure in urban, suburban, and rural areas of our country.

Stephanie Sinclair photographed families in the Bronx, New York, who are classified as “food insecure”—meaning they need assistance, either from government programs and/or food banks to get the food they need. She talks about some of her experiences in the video and conversation below.

Picture of George Christou with his children outside while it is dark outside in New York City, waiting to get food from one of the services that provides free food

George Christou, 68, spends most of his days escorting his four children to local soup kitchens or fast food restaurants to save money, eating few meals at home.

COBURN DUKEHART: So can you tell me a little bit about this story? How did you end up working in the Bronx for this particular piece?

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: So my editor, Susan Welchman, called and asked if I was available. It was a chance to work with Amy [Toensing] and Kitra [Cahana], which was fun—it’s always fun to work on a combined project, because you’re always working a little solo.

They wanted me to do something in an urban setting. So we looked at Baltimore and Philadelphia, but I was interested in doing it in the Bronx for a couple of reasons. One, because I live in New York and I spend so much time traveling and working on assignment that I don’t really spend a lot of time there. Also, I knew that there was a food insecurity issue in the Bronx—it’s got the highest rate of food insecurity of any other county in the nation.

COBURN: What was your level of knowledge about food insecurity in America, and did you have any notions about what you might find on this assignment?

STEPHANIE: Well, I definitely know that the wealth disparity in the U.S. is extreme, so I wasn’t surprised to see what I did in the Bronx. I wish I had been, but our country has such an inequality of wealth and disparity in jobs and wages.

Also New York rent is notoriously, ridiculously high—I found that most of the rents were around $1,500 [per month.] So if you make minimum wage, you’re already struggling to make ends meet. It’s just very unforgiving.

I found the people to be very resourceful, which was good, but I also found them to be very proud and very much more ashamed than I anticipated.

Picture of people lining up to collect food through an assistance program put on by City Harvest

People line up in the cold to pick up free fresh produce at the St. Mary’s Park Community Center in the Bronx.

COBURN: You’ve worked all over the world, but have you done a story like this in America before, or was this new for you?

STEPHANIE: It’s been a while since I’ve done a story like this in the U.S. I used to be a newspaper photographer. I worked for the Chicago Tribune and other papers around the country, and I’ve lived in Detroit and worked in Detroit, so I’ve definitely seen families in poor situations in the U.S.

But what’s interesting is I did a project a few years ago on malnutrition in India, and it was about farmworkers, and how food is grown there. They don’t feed their kids the right foods [nutritionally], because they make more money selling it. And then to see what’s happening with farm subsidies here, and that we’re not taking care of our own people and they’re eating the wrong foods too, it’s really interesting, because India is still a developing country, and we are supposed to be the most prosperous country. So to see that we have the same problems—that was more astonishing.

COBURN: So tell me about the families that you worked with on this assignment. What was your experience working with them?

STEPHANIE: I worked with two families, and I met them through an amazing organization called “Part of the Solution”. They are a nonprofit in the Bronx, and they have a food pantry and a soup kitchen diner, and what I really liked about them is they treat people with dignity. Their dining room is very much set up as a restaurant, so people don’t have to feel ashamed to come in there. People serve them. They look them in the eyes. That was really nice.

And the food pantry is set up with good healthy food. So they have a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruits, and they very much believed in the story we were working on and were very helpful in finding our subjects for the story.

One of the people I photographed was a man named George. I met him in the dining hall, and he was there with his young son, Alexander, who was 4. George is 68 years old, and he has four kids. He wears a nice jacket, and he looks like he really tries to take care of himself.

And I really wanted to kind of break some of the stereotypes with my part of the project. I wasn’t focused on people who were homeless. As a photographer, we have to communicate visually, so I was trying to break some of those stereotypes.

So I asked if I could follow him around for the story, and he was very enthusiastic. He was once a street vendor but then could not afford to have the license, so he got shut down. And since he has all these kids, he just felt it was easier to take his Social Security and take care of [them.] His wife has some issues and can’t do it.

They spend most of their time going from soup kitchen to soup kitchen, and he feeds his kids that way. And even his older kids are so used to it that they go without him. And I wondered what it must be like to be those kids. When are they going to look back and think about how they had dinner with their families?

Picture of a man playing with his son at the dinner table

George Christou has lived in the Bronx for over 30 years. His only income is what he receives through social security, so he relies on local soup kitchens to help feed his family.

COBURN: So was their situation surprising to you? Because I think one of the preconceptions some people may have, is that food-insecure people might be lazy, or they’re not working hard enough to get food—and clearly, he is working very hard to make sure that his family has enough to eat.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I was surprised at how difficult it can be, Like one of the times he was out getting food, it was at seven o’clock in the morning. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and it was raining, and there were probably 30 to 40 people in line at this pantry, and they had to wait in the rain. And then they finally opened the doors at 9:15, and they started giving the food out at 10:00. So it’s three hours, it’s 2-1/2 hours of standing in the rain, and it was cold. So it’s not like you just show up and don’t have to worry about it.

It’s definitely an effort, and he has mapped out where all the free meals are in the area. So that was surprising. I didn’t realize that the food situation was so bad for some people that they not only had one meal a day, or a couple meals a week, provided by somebody, but they really went from place to place to place to get all of their meals like that.

COBURN: So tell me about the other family that you worked with.

STEPHANIE: I met another wonderful family from Gambia, and Ceesay is 31 years old, and she has eight kids, and she’s not educated. She was married in Gambia and came to the U.S. And, you know, she very much wasn’t in control of how many kids she had.

She was really lovely, and the family was very open, and when we met them, they had already run out of food for the week. That was because she had asthma, and she couldn’t make it to the pantry.

When I got to her house she had invited her sister over who had nine kids. And there’s a photograph that I have where all the kids are finishing off a bowl of chicken, and that was the day that they had run out of food, and a neighbor brought a box of chicken wings and legs over.

Picture of a group of children eating chicken out of a bowl on the floor of their family's apartment in the Bronx

Hullamatou Ceesay, 31, is the mother of nine children. She commonly gets food from the local pantry called Part of the Solution, or POTS, and shares it with her sister Kadijatou Ceesay, 42, who is a single mother of eight children.

COBURN: Was there anything for you working on this story that was challenging, either personally or logistically? What were some of the challenges that you faced?

STEPHANIE: Well, getting in touch with people consistently was difficult, because phones are not something that’s a high priority when you don’t have enough food for your family. And finding families that were willing to share their story was difficult, because there’s a big stigma towards not having enough food and needing food stamps and free meals and pantry services. It took some time to get cooperative families—people who weren’t so ashamed with their situation.

COBURN: Were there any themes that came out when you were working with these families? Did people say: “If only I had this, then things would be better,”? Were they able to see a solution? Were you able to see a solution, or is it just too complex?

STEPHANIE: Everybody wanted jobs that paid decently. I think that that was the problem—if there were jobs, they didn’t pay enough to justify not being able to take care of their kids or having to pay for daycare.

And, you know, if you make just enough that you don’t get Social Security or food stamps, then all of a sudden, you’re still in the same situation. You just actually have a job instead of being at home with your kids. So for a lot of people, the low pay was a struggle, especially in a place like New York where we have such a high cost of living.

Picture of a woman with her small daughter on her back, cooking in her kitchen in the Bronx

Hullamatou Ceesay shares an afternoon snack with her youngest daughter. A good cook, Ceesay uses pantry staples to prepare traditional Gambian dishes, stewing meat with greens, potatoes, and onions. When there’s no meat, she serves her family peanut butter porridge with piles of yellow rice, eaten by hand from
communal bowls.

COBURN: So what do you hope that viewers will take away from seeing your pictures and from seeing this story?

STEPHANIE: Well one thing I really liked about seeing Kitra [Cahana] and Amy [Toensing’s] work with this, is it really shows the diversity of the types of people that food insecurity and hunger can happen to. And I hope that everybody can see themselves in it, or a relative, and that they can say: “You know, that could be me.”

There’s all kinds of things that could happen to people, and their lives go from being stable to being very insecure. And that’s what I hope—that people can see themselves in this and not pass judgment. I hope that we’ve shown enough stories and enough variety that everyone can see something that they relate to and be motivated to support change that makes families more secure. We shouldn’t be a country that is so prosperous, yet have so many people struggling.

Coburn Dukehart is a Senior Photo Editor for National Geographic.

Hear Stephanie Sinclair speak about creating a sense of urgency in an interview on Proof. See more of Sinclair’s work here and on Instagram.

Read the feature article “The New Face of Hunger” from the August 2014 of National Geographic. The May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicked off an eight-month series about the future of food.

A version of this article appears published on PROOF in National Geographic with the title Stephanie Sinclair on Hunger in America: The City. Proof is National Geographic’s new online photography experience. It was launched to engage ongoing conversations about photography, art, and journalism. In addition to featuring selections from the magazine and other publications, books, and galleries, this site will offer new avenues for our audience to get a behind-the-scenes look at the National Geographic storytelling process.

Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Kennon Kay

This is the second 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_6066

Kennon Kay dibbling and planting leeks at Queens County Farm Museum.

How long have you been working here for?

This is my 6th year here.

How’d you get started?

So my first experience farming was out in Oregon through WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. You can go anywhere in the world and work on a farm – you basically sign up and get a directory and then you can get in touch with farmers directly. So each farmer might have a different request, and you can help out for whatever they’re looking for – whatever period of time  – in exchange for food and housing, usually. When I was in college I wanted an excuse to go out to Oregon. I really liked being outside. I loved food. So farming seemed to make sense. And it was actually a one acre farm that was attached to a restaurant, so at that time – it was 2004 – and that was still kind of like, woah, cool, that’s really neat what they’re doing. And I really liked that model, so thats how I got started. Right after I graduated in 2005, I moved right out there and ended up working there for a season. and there was just two of us so I learned a lot about a diversified small farming system. Then I went to UCSC – University of Santa Cruz has a program called Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC – and it’s basically just an awesome apprenticeship – farm program, intensive, hands on introduction to all different scales and styles of farming.

What led you from there?

I’m from Rhode Island, originally. I was at school in western Massachusetts where there’s a lot of farming. I just wanted to get the other coast. Oregon, I don’t know why, I just had my heart set on going to Oregon – so that’s how I got out there. And then the UCSC program is just pretty phenomenal and well known so I’ve been wanted to do that for a little while and applied. That’s what led me to Santa Cruz. From there, I made a friend who was from Maine and so he put me in touch with Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, who are a really awesome farming husband-wife duo. So I moved to Maine from Santa Cruz. What led me there was that I really loved the West Coast but I was really curious about growing in New England climate – where I was from- and what people were doing to extend the growing season. And it was just really amazing what Elliot was doing up on coastal Maine. What he was producing there was really impressive to me and more in line with where I thought I was heading. I really love New England and the Northeast so I wanted to come back. And then a boy led me to New York. And then right after I moved here I started working at Stone Barns Center – so that was back in 2008 – I worked there for a year. Then pretty much an opportunity arose here. (Indian dance music starts playing, alpacas start dancing.) Look at the alpacas, they’re like what the hell? (laughter) Welcome to Queens Farm, this is not unusual.

What inspires you on a day to day basis and in the long run?

Well, the cool part about Queens Farm is that I can grow food here. So I can do what really excites me, which is growing things. But at the same time we have so many visitors – you know we can have anywhere from the crowd that you see here, which is not that many people, to six thousand people. I think the diversity of visitors and all the people that come here is really inspiring too. It can be really challenging sometimes you know because it’s such a different head space to work with things that don’t talk to you. There’s that mode that I really like, but I really like the diversity of the day. The different conversations that can happen.

What does a daily day look like?

Well, that’s the cool part about this job – what I do varies week to week. Definitely seasonally, there’ll be different types of tasks going on. In the winter time there’s tons of crop planning that goes on, so everything that happens in a year more or less is mapped out – the framework is mapped out – in the winter time. And then, in addition to that, just because we’re public, we’re constantly trying to improve the space and the way people engage with the space and that could come through developing proper signage and informational pamphlets and were getting to the website sometime soon and social media and just trying to stay up to date with those things too. Spring time is you know we’re seeding a lot – both in the greenhouse and in the field – so our days are involved with turning in cover crop, so I’ll do a few rounds of works on the tractor with filling in anything that we’ve seeding the previous fall, which includes clover, oats, rye. And basically once beds are prepared, which could take a lot of work and compost application- it’s a lot of manual labor – then we’ll be doing more delicate things like seeding and transplanting. Also spring time has been such a nice time to tend to gardens, like this area, and other perennial flower beds. Just a lot of cleaning old debris up from the winter time, mulching, composting, helping things emerge in the spring time.

What’s mulching?

See those woodchips around the plants? Mulching is what we apply to the surface. Mulch can be a number a different materials. It happens to be woodchips there. In the fields we use straw just because both of those materials are readily available to us. But, basically what that does is once your plant is in the ground and established, by applying mulch you suppress weeds. By blocking light from getting to the soil you’re really keeping weeds down and also you’re helping regulate moisture. With a thick, natural layer of something, you’re locking moisture in to the ground so when it gets really hot it prevents the soil from drying out – it really keeps things nice and moist and it also prevents flooding and erosion too, it’s a layer of protection on top of the soil.

Do you have a particular crop that requires more maintenance or less maintenance?

Yeah, every plant’s different. Every single thing requires something different. Usually we’ll split things up within plant families. Certain things within families have very similar requirements. you know, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers – they’re all in the Solanum family. They’re heat-loving. They can be really, really high maintenance in their own right and tricky to grow in the Northeast. Then you have cooler crops like chenopods – beets and chard – and they like moisture and cool weather. Basically, every single plant is different and a lot of the care that is needed on my part is dependent on what the weather is doing. So in conditions like this, where it is cool and wet, I don’t have to worry so much about the chard or beets because they’re pretty happy. Where as something like tomatoes, they hate excess moisture on the leaves.  So I’d have to do a little more to coddle them when they’re that young so Im waiting another week or so before I put them out into the field. Where if it were super hot I’d be stressing about the beets – getting them water and wouldn’t be worrying about the tomatoes. And then whether it’s an annual versus a perennial – if its something thats going to be in the ground for thirty days or sixty days versus something that we are going to be taking care of for years to come – there’s a different set of considerations there. Did I answer your question? (laughter)

Yes, definitely. What’s the difference between your tomatoes and the tomatoes you’ll buy in January in a supermarket?

Oh my god, don’t buy those tomatoes. Those are terrible. You can’t even call them tomatoes. I think, honestly, anybody who tries a field grown tomato in there prime will taste the difference. Pretty much, any tomato your getting in January has been bred for storage capacity and not for flavor. They’re basically foamy, spongy and flavorless. They look really beautiful – they’re really shiny and appealing – and they ship really well from wherever in the world they’re being shipped from. But you can’t… I think seasonality is a big thing. Organic was kind of the first catch word there for awhile, then it became local, then it became sustainable. There are all these ways where people are thinking about their food, which is great. I think its all a part of a positive movement, but I think seasonality is a huge thing that people are becoming more aware of now, which is really nice. Organic isn’t enough. Sustainable… what does that mean? People define that very differently. I think supporting local economies is very important but I think seasonality is the next step and that kind of goes hand and hand with local. As soon as people taste things that are in season you understand why and it’s because the conditions are perfect for them to taste the best.

What do you think people should know about what they’re eating and the food they’re getting that they don’t really know? Something people should be more aware of…

Even though I’m in this business I don’t like to necessarily tell people what they should do. I mean, I go to Five Guys sometimes for lunch, sometimes you need to do something like that.  I do think it’s really fundamentally important… It’s such a loaded question, actually. It falls into nutritional considerations. You’re only as healthy as what you eat. Also, in terms of what is being applied to your food. I think even I spent most of my life not really questioning the fact that what I was buying in the supermarket might have something that’s carcinogenic on it or had been grown with pesticides that might have an effect on my body. And that’s a pretty shocking thing. A friend of mine who had worked for a number of years in Pennsylvania in a commercial greenhouse that grew tomatoes and it was his job to spray the tomatoes. He would wear a hazmat suit and then have this little room that he would go to to take of the hazmat suit and another room he would go to to change his clothes and put them in a hazmat bag. Then he could put his regular clothes on and no one could enter that area for at least twenty-four to forty-eight hours. It was pretty terrifying – if you think about what is being passed on to the consumer that we don’t necessarily see. I think it’s important to talk to farmers, go to farmers markets, which are so readily available. We’re so lucky here in New York, they are so many here. Reducing transportation is really important for a number of reasons – for the local economy, for a lesser dependence on fossil fuels. And then when you get into meats there’s a whole other set of considerations for the way meat is produced in this country. So I think it’s really important to support people in New York who are raising meat in responsible ways: for the healthy animal, for the healthy environment, for the health of own bodies and for the health of the economy. But, I think that question can be answered in so many different ways…

What’s the biggest set back about being in an urban area, if any?

I think there are advantages and disadvantages to every growing space, whether it’s rural or urban or suburban. We’re sort of straddling that urban and rural space. I would say in our particular case, we are extremely fortunate to be within New York City limits but to have a substantial amount of land. It’s kind of a unique situation to be able to cultivate this much space and to have so much biodiversity around us – I’m so grateful for birds and insects and all the wild things that are around here while still being able to have lots of connections. For instance, we have no problems selling a lot of our produce, which can be a real struggle for a lot of people – so having access to markets. New York City is an incredible place to sell produce and make a decent living as a farmer. Some days I wish that it was rural just because its distracting sometimes to have so much stimulation of the city. It took me a little while to adjust to being in an urban space. It’s just a very different rhythm growing food. Sunrise to sunset is what feels most natural in this type of work, which is the opposite of most people in New York – in terms of when they’re up and at ’em.

What’s your favorite part about being in this setting?

I just don’t know what I would do. I wouldn’t be able to survive in New York if I didn’t. I’m so grateful to have the stimulation and excitement of being in the city with so much going on – it definitely keeps a lot of things in healthy perspective, sometimes.

Are most of the folks that work here volunteers?

We do have volunteers every Tuesday and Sunday. Generally twelve to twenty-four people – somewhere in that range. The actual farm crew has six people on it right now, including myself. This time of the year the agriculture department oversees all gardens, perennial spaces, all food production, flowers, herbs, livestock and markets. It keeps our day to day nicely diversified.

What is unique about your farm?

I think the amount of space we have here in New York City. It’s the only space of its kind in the city. It’s just really unique to have forty-seven acres of land protected here – it’s pretty precious. I feel lucky about that. I think having woodland too. Coming out here I don’t think people realize how you don’t have to really go far to feel in the space that’s definitely very urban. There’s a lot going on here – like techno music bumping from a wedding tent but you also can have woodland and feel very out there. So, it’s a nice mix of wild out here, different types of wild.

Are there many visitors?

The whole space, including next door, which factors in. We have a half of million visitors a year. We get a lot of visitors. Events and things like County Fair or our Corn Maize – we can have six, seven, eight, thousand people on any given day. So it can feel very crowded and packed, but really what is so special is afternoons here with families and visitors from all over the five boroughs just coming and hanging out – it’s nice to see people enjoying it.

I remember you were mentioning all of the pesky insects, how do you deal with those insects?

I think insects and pests are an issue on any farm, especially if your not using any chemicals, sprays or anything like that. We kind of just rely on building healthy soil. That’s really first and foremost. Whatever you grow is only as healthy as the soil. That’s really the immune system of the plant. So building the soil through adding compost and incorporating cover crop, which we do seasonally. And rotating crops so that there’s a balance of what’s being taken up from the soil by the plant. That’s really first and foremost of what we do to deal with pests. Any farmer will tell you, the first thing a pest will attack is an unhealthy plant – the most unhealthy ones, the weakest in the crop. That’s number one. Number two is creating diverse spaces where you can attract beneficial insects, predator bugs that will eat pests. Creating biodiversity within the space as a whole is the next thing that we do. And kind of the last line of attack is – for instance, right now we have got a lot of aphids in one of the greenhouses that are chomping on our eggplant – I went in with soapy spray, that’s a very basic thing you can do. They’re soft bodied, so soap will kill them but it wasn’t too effective, so we just went through and squeezed them by hand. So sometimes it’s as basic as that, if you have a pest issue and you are a small enough operation you can just get a lot people involved and manually deal with it.

Which is your worst pest?

It depends on the season and the crop – the year, even. Like last year we had a lot of trouble with our harlequin bugs on our brassicas. Sometimes it will just depend on what the winter is like – what the season is like because it will create certain conditions for certain bugs. This spring I would say our biggest issue is flea beetles.

What do they do?

They eat tiny holes into the foliage of crops and eventually that really can kill them. Our turnips and radishes are really being decimating right now. We’ve never had that issue before. It just can depend. If you get a huge pest population one season, it might be a good motivator to change your crop plan for the next season because usually certain pests will favor certain families of crops – so that might be telling you we’re out of whack here, we’re growing too many brassicas, lets pull back and diversify for next season. That’s another way that we can try to mitigate that pressure.

What do you think is next for you, the farm and the food movement?

That’s a really good question. For a long time, I’ve wanted to have my own piece of land and it probably still is a dream of mine. When your doing this type of work so much of the work your doing day to day is for a long term vision, so hopefully that will come into play at some point. But, practically speaking, my husband and I are living in Brooklyn and he has a restaurant. And were pretty much settled here for the foreseeable future. At least ten years or so. So I feel really lucky. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here. This space has so much history, but also so much exciting potential for its future still. And I really feel grateful for the freedom that I have to grow food here, to learn and to also develop this space. I would say my first three years here were really oriented toward the market operation and establishing something that could fund itself, support itself and also feed people. And now, this is kind of our second or third year that we’re looking more longer term in terms of developing the woodland spaces and the perennial spaces for years and years and years to come. So that feels like a really exciting frontier for this space and not only to create a beautiful space for people to come to but just a healthy space. It’s also kind of opening doors too to how we can diversify the services that we provide here. Now we’re doing flowers for weddings, for example, and that’s just a fun, different thing to be able to do. Dinner, things like that, you can always experiment and have different events here too, so that’s nice. I’m excited to be here for a little while longer. That sort of too touches on the future of this space. It’s going to keep getting more and more beautiful and diversified. The grander question of whats the future of the movement,  I’m not sure. It’s pretty neat to be in New York City because theres so many urban suburban and rural growers that come together, especially at Union Square Greenmarket – we’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of different people from a lot of different farms there. It’s a small world here, of growers. I think it’s really exciting what young farmers like the National Young Farmers Coalition – upstate a little bit – what they’re doing to ensure land is being protected and furthering a movement to make it a viable profession for young people and the next generation. So I think New York is doing really exciting things on that front.

What is creativity?

What is creativity? You’re going to throw me that one? You’re making me think too hard. Oh god. I think creativity is any sort of execution or demonstration or exploration of curiosity. I think as long as your curious and asking questions, creativity kind of follows. Making things, trying things, experimenting and there’s a hell of a lot of creativity in farming, which is cool. Which is why I think I really love this field because you can continually be surprised, you can continually be dumbfounded and always excited and that propels the desire to continue to grow, to continue to create and to continue be creative with how you respond to certain things that present themselves.

 

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

Kennon Kay is the Director of Agriculture at the Queens County Farm Museum.