Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Ryan Watson

This is the eighth 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.

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Ryan Watson at North Brooklyn Farms at 329 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, NY.

What is your definition of creativity?

I think it’s some sort of expression of oneself through whatever medium it is. With us, it’s plants and vacant space. For some people, it’s bike parks.

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

On a day-to-day basis I like to touch plants. I like to spend my day with plants. For the long run, this is the kind of stuff – the kids playing in the lawn, the school classes that come through here.

How did you set that up?

It was a pretty natural evolution. My partner and I, Matt at the Battery Urban Farm – (Laughter) This is a problem with interviewing people here because there is always a train every three minutes. Sorry, what were you saying.

We were talking about these kids and different schools. And how you are helping out with local education and getting kids involved.

Yeah, my partner and I met at the Battery Urban Farm in Manhattan. I was an education apprentice there, so I was teaching kids. That’s part of the reason why we wanted to build this space because it was a natural expression of farming in the city and exposing kids to things. I grew up in a city and I didn’t visit a farm until I was a teenager or something like that.

What is the biggest setback about being a farm in an urban environment?

I now live outside of the city so I’m managing another space in Sullivan County, upstate. That’s why I was late. I got stuck in traffic on the bridge. Urban farming and farming in an agricultural area are very different in all respects. Here, we can’t grow in the ground – any edibles – because the soil is contaminated from this being an industrial neighborhood and the lead paint from the way of the bridge. So, that. There’s a bad side and a good side and the bad side is that there is trash all the time. We’re in New York City so there’s rats, there’s cockroaches.

How do you manage that?

Through proper control techniques. You put wire mesh outside of your compost, you so these sort of things to keep it under control. The same way you would do it for like trash or whatever. Then the other side of it, that’s really great, and why we do it and why urban farming is really important is because people are in cities. That’s where you effect the most amount of people. You can have a big farm outside of the city that’s a production farm but you’re not going to have the daily – you’ll see in the course of sitting here how many people walk past, how many people stop and look, trying to figure out what’s happening.

It’s kind of like being in a fish bowl.

Yeah. I like that, though. Or at least, I’ve always gardened that way and it’s like your sharing it with everyone, it’s for the community. Everything we grow here we use. We’re a farm, we run like a business, we are a business, like social entrepreneurship. But there’s a community benefit to this and that’s why we do urban farming – to benefit and to connect with the people around us.

How do you aim to benefit the community?

We have a lot of things that we do. You can see pictures of what this lot was before. There is a picture on the other side of the blue piece of wood over there. It was empty. This lot has been vacant for a decade before we got into it so we’re using vacant space – making something beautiful. This lawn is bigger than any city park around here. McCarren Park is probably the closest thing that has a big lawn. The lawn at McCarren doesn’t look like that. Kids don’t have a green space to run around in. This is also a place for education. We work in that sense with local schools. We have school visits tomorrow and Friday. And, we offer a place for the community to get fresh, local produce and to get exposed to how that happens and why it’s good.

Your website has a lot about companion planting. What is that?

Yeah, companion planting. Just like things pair well together when you eat them, there are things that grow well together and things that don’t grow well together – things that will inhibit the growth of something else. Part of being an organic farmer is that you have different techniques of dealing with pests and one of those is using companion planting. For example, with kale, you can plant thyme or rosemary or mint sort of underneath and it helps to repel a certain type of insect – the Cabbage butterflies. The little white ones.

What do they do?

They eat holes in the leaves. They little, white butterflies land on the leaves, lay little caterpillars, which then eat holes in the leaves. And the only way you can stop them is by picking them off. So if you have things that are growing in your garden, in your farm space, that help to deter certain insects or encourage predatory insects to come, that’s companion planting.

Is that you worst pest?

Probably. There is nothing that you can do. Oh, that and white flies, too. For us, kale and tomatoes are probably our best selling things. And flowers. Basically, those two pests effect kale, but for the most part we’re pretty good. Our stuff does really well.

Everything looks great. Do you eat your own food?

Yeah, I grow food to eat it. That’s how I became a farmer.

Where do you do your grocery shopping?

I do my best to shop at local, non-chain supermarkets. I say I do my best, obviously I’m not perfect. It’s actually extraordinarily challenging as a consumer to be a farmer because I know all of the shit they out into stuff. Or I know, at least, I have an inkling. I know the kind of shit they out into certain things and how horribly stuff is produced – that it’s getting shipped from Argentina, from Chile, from three thousand plus miles away. And so I have a difficult time going into a supermarket buying produce so I tend to not buy that much produce in the off-season. I try to can a lot of stuff and do my own. But, you can only do so much. Trader Joe’s, that’s the one.

Are you a fan?

Yeah, I grew up in California and I’ve been shopping there with my dad since I was a kid so – I hear that they’re not necessarily the best or that they’re not the best – that’s just a sentimental spot for me.

How do you think supermarkets in general have effected urban agriculture?

Well, you can walk into any supermarket during any time of year – not any supermarket but a bulk of supermarkets – and get things that you’re not supposed to be able to get for prices that you’re not supposed to be able to get them for. There’s a reason that things have seasons and you’re supposed to eat a certain thing during a certain season. You’re going against the grain if you’re not doing that in terms of expenditure of resources, freshness and taste product. Stuff that’s grown three thousand miles away is not grown for taste, it’s grown for durability and shipping. You get tomatoes in January and they’re not picking them ripe off the vine so they squish when they’re traveling. They’re picking them green, putting them in a warehouse, pumping it full of gas that artificially ripens them once they get to there final destination.

More to come…

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

 

Mother Nature’s Daughters

Maggie Cheney, center, the director of farms and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY, at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn with Kristina Erskine, left, and Iyeshima Harris, garden managers. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

If you wanted to find someone picking a fat tomato this week in the City of New York, you could go see Esther and Pam, near the kiddie-pool planterson the rooftop of the Metro Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen. Or Maggie, Benia, Iyeshima and Kristina at the Bushwick Campus Farm and Greenhouse. Or Deborah, Shella, Sarah, Kate, Rachel and Chelsea in the West Indian haven of East New York Farms. Or Kennon, Leah, Jennifer and Charlotte at the Queens County Farm Museum, which has been planted continuously since 1697. Or Mirem, Cecilia and (another) Esther in the converted parking lot outside P.S. 216 in Gravesend. Or Nick, Caspar and Jared, on a one-acre farm and orchard in Randalls Island Park.

Wait a sec. Nick, Caspar and Jared: Are those unconventional girls’ names now, like Kennedy and Reagan? Because if you’re looking for a farm-fresh tomato in the city this summer, you’re likely to find a woman growing it.

In recent years, chefs, writers, academics, politicians, funders, activists and entrepreneurs have jumped on the hay wagon for urban agriculture. New York now counts some 900 food gardens and farms, by the reckoning of Five Borough Farm, a research and advocacy project.

Deborah Greig, the agriculture director of East New York Farms in Brooklyn. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

Yet city farmers will tell you that the green-collar work on these small holdings is the province of a largely pink-collar labor force. Cecilia, not Caspar. And they’ll provide the staffing numbers to show it.

This is where the speculation begins — and, inevitably, the stereotypes. Are women more willing to nurture their communities (and also their beet greens)? Are men preoccupied with techie farm toys like aquaponics? Is gender the reason the radio at the Queens Farm washing station is always stuck on Beyoncé and Alicia Keys?

More significant, if urban ag work comes to be seen as women’s work, what will that mean for the movement’s farming model, mission and pay?

Counting New York’s urban farmers and market food gardeners can seem like a parlor game: part math, part make-believe. Data on gender is scarce to nonexistent.

The federal 2012 Census of Agriculture isn’t much help. It suggested 42 farm “operators” in New York were men and 31 were women. But the census published data from just 31 city farms. (Under confidentiality rules, it doesn’t reveal which farms participated.) And its definitions fail to capture New York’s unique abundance of nonprofit farms and community gardens.

A “farm,” by census standards, is any place that grew and sold (or normally would have sold) $1,000 worth of agricultural products in a year. Yet surveys from the parks department’s GreenThumb program suggest that some 45 percent of the city’s hundreds of community food gardens donate their harvest to neighborhood sources and food pantries. Blair Smith, who compiles New York’s data for the U.S.D.A., explained, “Those are not farm businesses, at least from our standpoint.”

New York’s urban farmers — the people who actually work in the field — offer a sharply different head count of what you might call bulls and cows. Of the 19 farms and farm programs that contributed information for this article, 15 reported having a majority of women among their leadership, staff, youth workers, students, apprentices and volunteers. (Of the remaining four, one claimed gender parity and another hired two men this summer from a seasonal applicant pool of 18 men and 30 women.)

It’s a snapshot, not a statistically rigorous poll. Still, the farms, from all five boroughs, represent a broad sample of New York’s particular growing models: a commercial rooftop farm; community gardens; and farms attached to schools, restaurants, parks, churches, housing developments and community organizations. The sample included two city-based farmer-training programs and two out-of-state sustainable farm-education schools and fellowships. These are the types of programs that mold future urban farmers.

Describing their own farms and gardens, managers suggested that women make up 60 to 80 percent of field workers, organizers and educators. Applicant pools are similarly unbalanced for summer postings, internships and certification programs.

Farm School NYC, an affiliate of the food-access nonprofit Just Food, “is 100 percent female-run,” said its director, Onika Abraham. But then, she added, “I’m the only staff person.”

More important, Farm School NYC receives 150 to 200 applicants annually for professional agriculture instruction. For this year’s entering 30-person class, Ms. Abraham said, “the breakdown for applicants was 76 percent women and 24 percent male.” (Applications for next year are open through Sept. 15.)

The gender divide appears to exist in salaried posts and volunteer work alike. For 18 years, Steve Frillmann has led Green Guerillas, which provides support and materials to more than 200 community garden groups. Most of these sites lie in central Brooklyn, Harlem and the South Bronx, and three-quarters of their volunteer leaders, he estimates, are women. So, too, women typically represent 75 to 80 percent of the applicants who want to join Green Guerillas on an AmeriCorps stipend.

It’s challenging work, and Mr. Frillmann, 49, is happy to hire whoever wants to do it. “To be honest with you, we’ve never really lifted and looked under the hood and tried to figure out why,” he said.

At the extreme, Edible Schoolyard NYC runs a food and garden-teaching program with two growing plots and a staff of 16. Sixteen of these employees are women.

Kate Brashares, 40, who is the group’s executive director, said: “It’s a little unusual we don’t have any men on staff at the moment. There are usually one or two.”

Ms. Brashares believes that the diversity of her employees should reflect the low-income communities where they work. That diversity includes gender. “We talk about wanting to get a few more men in the place,” she said. “It’s funny, we haven’t talked about it that much, though. It’s one of those things that just sort of happened. As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s gotten more obvious.”

Less obvious is why the discrepancy exists. Ms. Brashares speculated about the prevalence of women in education and nonprofit careers. But ultimately, she concluded, “I honestly don’t know.”

Onika Abraham, right, the director of Farm School NYC, at the Governors Island Urban Farm with Katherine Chin. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times

Karen Washington has been observing the community garden scene for more than 25 years from her plot in the Garden of Happiness, a couple of blocks from the Bronx Zoo. She also organizes the Black Urban Growersconference and a long list of other food and neighborhood initiatives. This roster may explain why Ms. Washington, 60, is prone to make work calls at 10 o’clock at night, say, after teaching a class on season-extending hoop houses, or on the way home from running La Familia Verde farmers’ market.

Nowadays, she sees a cohort in her gardens that she gauges to be 80 percent women. “It was more 60/40 back in the early days,” Ms. Washington said. “Mostly Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans. They were in their 40s and they’re in their 80s now.”

Explaining the gender gap on a community garden level, she said, “a lot of it, from my point of view, had to do with the fact women lived longer than men.”

The stereotypical image of an American farmer may be a white man of late middle age captaining a $450,000 combine in an air-conditioned cockpit, high above a flokati of corn. But this profile is a poor match for farmers in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa — that is, the groups that often predominate in New York’s community food gardens. Nevin Cohen, 52, an assistant professor at the New School and an expert on urban food issues, points to a telling statistic from a United Nations special rapporteur: “Women are 80 percent of the global agricultural labor force.”

Many of the women who farm in Bushwick with Maggie Cheney possess experience in small-scale agriculture. They’ve long fed their families out of extensive kitchen gardens (as Colonial-era immigrant women did in New England). Ms. Cheney, 30, is the director of farming and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY. And on the group’s two growing sites, she said: “I tend to work with a lot of recent immigrants from Africa, Mexico, Ecuador. And the islands: Jamaica and Haiti, the Dominican Republic.”

Ms. Cheney’s youth interns (five boys and nine girls) include the children of some of those immigrants. Yet wherever they were born, the youth growers at the Bushwick Campus Farm do not approach New York gardens as virgin soil.

Their fathers may have experienced farm labor as a harsh and exploitative activity, Ms. Cheney said. These men are not necessarily the easiest people to recruit for a hot afternoon of unearthing potatoes. By contrast, “I see a lot of girls interested because they may have that positive relationship to being the ones who cook in the family and buy the food in the market.”

She added, “The ones that I see, their roles at home are very gendered.” The politics of the New York “food justice” movement start at progressive and run to radical. But the connection between women and urban farming can appear traditional and even conservative.

Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Ms. Abraham, 40, recalls visiting her family’s black farmstead in Alabama. She said: “My grandfather grew row crops: cotton, soybeans and corn. He worked the fields. My grandma was home with a large vegetable garden and chickens.”

Put another way: “My grandmother grew the food; he grew the money. And I think maybe the scale of what we do in the city relates more to this kitchen garden.”

The Five Borough Farm project identified three commercial farms in New York, all of them sophisticated rooftop operations. Gotham Greens, for example, runs two (and soon three) climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses in Gowanus and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Next stop: Jamaica, Queens.)

Of the company’s 50-odd employees, more than two-thirds are men, said the company’s 33-year-old co-founder, Viraj Puri. “At Gotham Greens, our approach is more plant-science and engineering focused and less ‘gardening’ focused,” Mr. Puri wrote in an email. He posited that this orientation may account for the different gender skew.

Beyond these few enterprises, the city’s farms exist not just to grow okra, but to advance a shopping list of social goals. These include recreation, nutrition, public health, environmental stewardship, ecological services, food access and security, community development, neighborhood cohesion, job training, senior engagement and education. We ask a lot of our gardens.

Mara Gittleman, who jointly runs the Kingsborough Community College farm program, at the end of Manhattan Beach, often sees urban farming likened in the news media to “the new social work, or this thing you do for poor people.” In response, Ms. Gittleman, 26, founded the research project Farming Concrete to record and publicize the surprising yield raised in community gardens. These are vegetables that come not from the glittering glass on high, but from the ground up.

Be that as it may, if you’re trying to account for why so many college-educated women are attracted to urban agriculture, nearly everyone agrees that a social calling is the place to start. “Definitely, the most visible influx is young white people, and I’m one of them,” Ms. Gittleman said.

Kristina Erskine, a garden manager at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

If urban farming were just about the crops, it would be cheaper and easier to do it 50 miles north. Urban farming, however, is not a solitary or single-minded activity. Along with the weeding and pruning, the job description includes sowing community interest and reaping grants.

Kennon Kay, the 31-year-old director of agriculture at Queens Farm, said: “What makes this farm different is the element of public interaction. We have over half a million visitors a year.”

The farm staff currently numbers two men and five women, which is actually a bumper crop of gents. And Ms. Kay takes pains to say: “I don’t want to knock the guys. They’re great.”

That said, in her experience, “Women have been extremely effective in multitasking, planning, communicating and being the representatives of this public organization.”

Inevitably, there’s an inverse to saying that women are attracted to work that involves children and the elderly, caring and social justice. In short, you’re implying that men don’t care, or care a lot less.

This is what you might call the men-as-sociopaths hypothesis (M.A.S.H.), and Nick Storrs, 29, who manages the Randalls Island Park Alliance Urban Farm, does not buy it. “I would refute the claim that guys are sociopaths,” he said.

Having cheerfully dispensed with that libel, he struggled to explain why men seem less interested in the social goals of community agriculture. “I don’t know, because I am interested in it,” Mr. Storrs said.

So where are the men?

“Wall Street,” Ms. Washington said (a theory that may not be inconsistent with M.A.S.H.).

The Bronx’s vegetable plots, she will tell you, are not insulated from what goes on outside the garden gates. “A lot of our men of color are incarcerated,” she said. “Huge problem. If you tell a 21-year-old man just out of jail to go into farming, he’s going to look at you as if you have two heads.”

Or in the words of Esther Liu, 25, a rooftop farmer at the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project: “Men? Perhaps they want a living wage.”

The time has arrived, as it always does, to talk about money. The pay for community-based agriculture starts low and climbs over time to not much higher.

Ms. Cheney endeavors to pay her youth interns $8.30 to $9.30 an hour and the Bushwick farm managers $17 an hour. Farmers with longer tenure may earn $20. These are decent wages in agriculture, Ms. Cheney said. Yet they’re hardly enough to keep up with the climbing rents in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Deborah Greig, 32, oversees the crowded market at East New York Farms, leads the gardener-education program, manages dozens of youth workers, and cultivates specialty crops like dasheen and bitter melon. (And some 65 to 70 percent of her farm staff, apprentices and youth interns are women.) “I get paid $37,000 a year,” Ms. Greig said. “I started at $28,000 or $29,000, which was huge at the time. And I have insurance included.”

The permanence of the job, which she has held for seven years, is a boon to Ms. Greig and to the community where she works. Ultimately, Ms. Abraham, of Farm School NYC, argues that only stable employment will make urban farming viable for neighborhood women — and men — who lack the safety net of a college degree and family support.

For her part, Ms. Greig is probably underpaid. Don’t tell anyone, but she would do the job for less. “People don’t expect to be paid very much doing this work,” she said. “It’s a labor of love to a certain extent. I don’t think we’ve come up with a hard and fast model to pay people exceedingly well for doing nonprofit urban-farming work.”

Sounds like a job for the guys on Wall Street.

Michael Tortorello is a journalist and a contributor to The New York Times.

A version of this article appears in print on August 28, 2014, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Mother Nature’s Daughters.

Daughter

——-

It’s the inherent grace
of Little Ones
to unmake our minds and open our eyes
to how the world truly is and not how we are taught it to be.

For before she learns to measure difference
she does walk among garden weeds,
tasting the sour sweet leaves of Sorrel;

Before war and anger show her the other way of emotion
the soul way she knows to go
is the way to Love;

Before school gives her the means to leave the household
she falls asleep in the home of her mother’s arms,
and the bed of her lap;

And before nostalgia becomes the only street back to the good ol’ ways,
she remains walking slow, on stone
and the silent dirt roads of kingdoms north and east.

In Her are the origins of perception,
and our way
to see things
clear again.

——-

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 Betty Mackintosh

This is the seventh 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.

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Betty Mackintosh with members of AmeriCorps at Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project

What is your definition of creativity? 

I don’t know. I guess making a new solution or having a view to something. It could be anything. It could be making a garden. It could be resolving a personality conflict. It could be resolving a land use issue. Creativity can go into many different avenues. Just trying to find a new slant on something. Creating art, or course.

What is your favorite part about this farm? 

Oh, wow. Well, I love growing things and I love introducing people to the plants and how to plant or harvest or do some other farm work. I personally find it very relaxing being here with plants. I find it very enjoyable sharing it with other people.

What is the biggest setback about being an urban farm? 

Well, we are a rooftop farm so that gives us other challenges. Getting the water here, not being publicly accessible, the pigeons. And protecting from the pigeons. We don’t seem to have many other pests here but pigeons. We have to be very careful that everything gets protected from the pigeons. We’re probably going to have to add more protections as the season goes on.

What is the best part about being on a rooftop? 

Look at where we are. This incredibly urban area, and yet we have the sky above us. And we have plenty of sun so that’s wonderful. An in-ground urban farm can have many more shadows and has other problems. I visited a lot of different urban farms and you know, one had homeless people who were camping in their farm, they’ve had rats in their farm, mice in their farm, other kinds of pests. So, we don’t have those problems. (Laughter) So far no mice or rats have come up here.

How did you get into farming? 

We have a place in upstate New York, in the Catskills, and so I started a vegetable garden and I took a bunch of courses at the New York Botanical Garden, learned about how to do it and just loved it.

What were you doing before you started up on this rooftop? 

Basically, I was working at the Department of City Planning, as I said, for many, many years. I would not be able to do this if I was still working. The three of us up here are retired professionals.

What is the hardest crop to maintain or the most difficult to grow? 

Well, we have stopped growing some things – the root vegetables, like carrots, beets, turnips – that probably need deeper soil. We stopped cauliflower, broccoli. The broccoli never gave us broccoli, it just sort of bolted or something. So as the years go on, we have realized what works and what doesn’t work. The greens work great. All kinds of lettuces, bok choy, spinach. They all seem to love it up here.

How about the easiest crop to maintain?

I’d say Swiss chard. We haven’t seemed to have gotten a lot of Swiss chard here this year. We may do more on the next planting, but I call that the gift that keeps giving because you can just keep snipping it and it keeps growing more. And it’s beautiful. Some Swiss chard has this red stem and it’s very pretty too.

What is your favorite activity to do up on the roof? 

Wow, that’s a hard question. I can’t say that there’s one particular thing. I love putting the seeds in and I love interacting with the people, in terms of showing them what to do and how to do it.

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

It inspires me to know that we are doing something to help food security in Hell’s Kitchen. That all of the produce goes to the food pantry. I’ve worked in the food pantry and it’s every Saturday at, I believe 11:00am, and people start lining up for hours ahead of time. And, at least for our produce, it gets snatched up way before. We could have ten times more rooftop gardens, farms and we probably still couldn’t fulfill all the needs. So it’s good to know that we are contributing to some peoples well being. That they will have something healthy in their diet. I find that inspiring.

Do you get most of your work from volunteers?

Pretty much 100%. You saw today, this is AmeriCorps and then we just magically have two people who are international people from Germany and England or something.

Do you get a lot of foreigners? 

There are a fair number. Yes. There are a fair number. They’re very interested. Recently, somebody from France, a group from Germany is coming in the future. We have been filmed by other European countries. So yeah, for some reason they are all coming.

What is the difference between a big, juicy burger from Five Guys and the same juicy burger sourced from local, sustainably raised farms? 

Well, first of all, I’ve never been to Five Guys so I don’t even know what they serve at Five Guys. But are we talking like McDonalds or something? Or Wendy’s or something? (Laughter)

Yeah (Laughter) 

Well, obviously we’re not selling greasy food. We’re not giving away food that’s bad for you. All studies show that fresh vegetables and fruits are really important for your diet. They put you at less risk of all kinds of health problems. It’s pretty documented now that that’s very good for you.

What is the difference between a tomato that you get from the grocery store in January and one that you harvest in season from your rooftop farm? 

Well, that tomato may have had pesticides. May have been sitting around in a warehouse for a long time. Also, doesn’t taste as good depending on how it was nurtured. The food from here tastes very good. Since I grow my own vegetables, I know the difference, it’s like night and day. When I eat a tomato – I don’t eat any of the food here except for an occasional blueberry – I know that a homegrown tomato tastes entirely different than one that you’ll buy in ShopRite in a cellophane package. It’s totally different. I grow strawberries. A strawberry tastes so different. Snap peas or something. Of course you can go to a health food store, Whole Foods or something, and probably pay more money, and get very robust, healthy vegetables or fruits.

How long has this rooftop been in action? 

We’re in our fourth season – fourth growing season. I retired in 2010 and I guess our first season was 2011. We got a seed grant from United Way for $30,000, which we’re completely grateful for, we couldn’t have started it without that. We’ve had some grants from the Citizens Committee for New York City Council Discretionary Funds. I’m head of our fundraising group and we’re working on grants – writing grants. We recently had something on Kickstarter and we raised over $1,000 on that. So we’re constantly trying to raise money. The church here, Metro Baptist, donates money and donates the water, the roof. the clinton housing development company, which is across the street is very generous in collaboration with this project. They help donate plants and soil, amendments, help, that sort of that and some horticultural advice for us, They have been very important for the farm.

Where do you bring the produce before Saturday mornings?

It all goes into the basement of this church, into a huge refrigerator and then Saturday mornings there are volunteers – a whole group of volunteers there from New York Cares. And they come to the basement, and they organize the food pantry. They have different tables – there is a table for canned goods, a table for cereals, pasta and everything. Have you heard of City Harvest? City Harvest goes around collecting excess food from restaurants and what have you, they donate whatever they have in excess – rolls or buns or something.

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

The Poison Underneath

——-

The poison underneath finally broke the skin
and a boy was shot.

Like the cells of a body infected in the blood,
a crowd responds,

And the mayor calls on guards to keep a peace
that was never there.

But so it goes when the weight of such power
is held in feeble hands,

And a bandaged wound
is left unclean.

For peace is a condition of the soul
and the soul of this city had been without rest for a long time.

But why is something so inherently easy
made so hard to realize in the presence of dis-ease?

Why has such violence – such a public indifference toward the promises of youth –
become necessary before we speak of peace and order?

The progress of our world will ultimately be measured
by how well we preserve that which we already have;

Settling the poison with love.

——-

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.