Urban Agriculture Panel Discussion @QueensMuseum

Just some quick notes from this evenings panel discussion on urban agriculture at the Queens Museum of Art presented by SUPERFRONT

Bee Ayer of BK Farmyard spoke first and gave a personal testimony about growing up near Detroit while the rest of her family lived in Detroit. Here words contextualized the evening as a dialogue that SUPERFRONT is progressing in various cities including NYC and Detroit. Bee went on to give an overview of BK Farmyard which is a collective of four farmers promoting food justice, education and sovereignty. They currently have five sites, the biggest of which is a schoolyard in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The focus of BK Farmyards is on education, production is a side benefit and if there is a decision on whether to increase learning opportunities or production they will always go for education. They currently run a small CSA and sell at farmers markets with leftover produce being sold to restaurants. She said, “we work where we live.” I thought that was an important statement so I underlined it in my notepad. Bee spoke of collaboration and cooperation as a powerful component of her work

Karen Washington was the second speaker and she represented the Community Garden Movement in the South Bronx. She was a powerful and dynamic speaker. Her tone and cadence was imbued with passion, knowledge and righteousness. I didn’t take many notes, I was in awe. She told stories of community gardens empowering communities, providing outdoor activities in to otherwise city bound citizens, growing food and flowers as a means of reconnecting people with the Earth and themselves. She started the Garden of Happiness in her community and maintains that community gardens are not so much about food and flowers as they are all about Community Organizing. She spoke about former Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to sell of lands that housed community gardens and how this act transformed community gardeners into community organizers and galvanized a movement in the City. From this New York City Community Gardens Coalition (NYCCGC) was formed in 1998. In closing Karen shared a vision of the future where community gardens help create high quality jobs locally that pay a living wage and instill pride in ones profession. She also underscored the importance of connecting urban and rural growers.

Next up was Maggie Cheney who told us about her work with EcoStation:NY. She runs the Bushwick Campus Farm at a Brooklyn high school which focuses on youth, food and justice. EcoStation:NY also runs some small rooftop farms and several farmers markets in the Bushwick area. It was noted that all of these markets accept EBT (food stamps) and WIC as well as offer cooking demos on site to teach folks how to cook with fresh ingredients. She (like BK Farmyards) is focused on food production as a means of education, from math and sciences to construction skills and dietary health. Maggie stressed the collaborative aspects of creating local food systems giving an example of the most recent project of creating a hoop house with hydroponics on site in collaboration with Boswyck Farms which specializes in implementing hydroponics for all sorts of projects. Maggie didn’t mention it but I happen to know they are having a Solstice Feast/fundraiser on Dec. 16 from 7-midnight at Brooklyn Fireproof, check it out!

I have heard Kubi Akerman speak a few times now but he always seems to pull out some new facts and figures I was not previously aware of. He works at Columbia’s Earth Institute Urban Design Lab and prepared and amazing piece of research entitled, “The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City”(DL the PDF here) which is the (solid) bases of his talks. A couple tidbits; there are over 600 community gardens in NYC, there are thousands of acres of underutilized vacant lands within the city from rooftops to privately owned lots as well as city owned lands. I’m not gonna go into detail about his presentation but I strongly encourage you to take a look at the report, it’s friggin’ awesome. He spoke of presenting to city officials wanting to know how a revamped food system could change things and as recounted how they didn’t want to hear about the regional impacts and changes, they where only interested in the city limits, that is to say the limits of their constituency. He ended with this,” The most interesting and important work, despite his citywide and regional work, is happening on the communities and neighborhood level.”

Zach Pickens is the farm manager at RiverPark, which is a farm to table restaurant run by Tom Colicchio, the same fellow that has all the wonderful WichCraft restaurants throughout the city. Zach was quick to point out that his rooftop farm was atop a building with high dollar rents and corporate tenants, this is not the food justice farm everyone else has been talking about. All the same the farm has some interesting aspects. It is made up of hundreds of converted milk crates lined with landscape fabric, filled with soil and used as modular growing units. This was designed by a Brooklyn based duo I happened to meet a few months ago at Brooklyn Green Drinks, ORE Design, good people. The system was made portable/removable because the farm is built on a construction site that has been stalled. This is an interesting idea that I think deserves a bit more attention (more on that in a future post). He says there is currently approximately 600 stalled construction sites around the city that could be used for similar purposes. In addition to managing this wonderful rooftop farm, Zach has brought several other folks in his apartment building in Brooklyn together to cooperatively build a hoop house on top of their building.

Our final speaker was Winnie Wong who represented the Occupy Wall Street Food Justice and Environmental Sustainability Working Group. She brought a video for us to watch featuring a day in the life of a food worker in the #OWS Kitchen. “Called Lunch @ Zucotti”. She drove home the issues we had been speaking about concerning community, food justice and food sovereignty. She said all this comes down to our personal cosumprions habits and I whole heartedly agree. America needs a new food/agriculture system but it will not get that until we become new consumers, advocates, growers and home cooks. Enjoy the video.


Thanks again to Mitch McEwen at SUPERFRONT for curating and moderating this wonderful panel discussion.




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