The young and the restless . . . urban farm

A moveable farm: buckets of soil loaded onto the service elevator at Farm-In-The-Sky

Moving is a fact of life for New York City residents, especially among the young. In just over 5 years of living here, I have lived in no fewer than six different apartments. It’s a combination of factors that make twenty-something New Yorkers so peripatetic. Our limited budgets are set against an ever more expensive rental market. And we’re no strangers to frequent and sometimes dislocating changes, of lifestyles, priorities, and relationships.

A couple weekends ago, I learned that for young urban farms, moving is no less a fact of life than it is for young urbanites. Since meeting farmer Matt Lebon of Farm-In-The-Sky, I had been in touch with him about visiting another farm he tends in the city, Riverpark Farm. I had planned a Sunday visit, until I received a message from Matt the Friday before saying that a recent development had thrown off his work schedule: Riverpark Farm was going to have to move. The farm, a project of its namesake restaurant, a high-end establishment in Manhattan overlooking the East River and co-owned by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, was situated on a stalled building site next door to the restaurant. Knowing that the site could only temporarily host the farm, its founders designed the farm to be portable and modular.  Now, the day of testing its portability was nigh, which meant I would have to reschedule my Sunday visit. Matt also mentioned in his message that Farm-In-The-Sky was undergoing a move, of sorts, of its own, and invited me to lend a hand to an “all hands on deck soil move day” on Saturday. With my Sunday now free, I decided to enlist in the effort to move soil from Farm-In-The-Sky to its sister farm, Bushwick Campus Farm.

The big move at Farm-In-The-Sky began on an unseasonably warm October morning. For six hours, I helped move literal tons of dirt. We shoveled mounds of compost and dirt heaped on the roof into growing-container buckets, moving what seemed like hundreds of these buckets of soil from the roof to the building’s rattletrap service elevator and from the elevator to the U-Haul truck bound for Bushwick Campus Farm. It was grueling manual labor, but the team, which peaked at nine strong, worked hard to get it done with daylight to spare. There were setbacks, of course: sun-damaged plastic growing containers cracking on concrete like eggshells and spilling their contents, the temporary stalls of a maxed-out service elevator, and a rumored encounter with a rodent.

A Volvo provided logistical support

The work was hard, but it was satisfying to know that our efforts were helping build the Bushwick Campus Farm’s new 2,000 square foot sub-irrigated planter garden. The farm is located at Bushwick Campus, a public school campus home to four high schools that use the farm as a hands-on learning resource. Upon arriving at the farm, the soil was to be piled into a windrow, a composting method in which a long row of soil or compost is covered with other organic waste — horse manure, in this case, a readily available commodity that works well for this kind of composting. The activity of the bacteria in the manure can generate large amounts of heat in the windrow, which kills off pests such as insects and their eggs buried in the soil.

After any hard day’s labor, the first thing anyone wants to do (yes, even before washing off the grime) is eat. But after a hard day’s labor on a farm, you not only want to eat, you want to eat well — you want the fresh cornucopia your surroundings have suggested all day. And so the crew that stuck it out to the end headed to Mama Joy’s, a new soul food joint a few blocks away on Flushing Avenue. There, I realized what brings this group together. Underneath the sustainability ethos and passion for urban farming, there exists a simple, irreducible love of good food. While my claim to the last fried chicken order in stock provoked some hostility, within minutes I was exchanging morsels of food and sips of beer with relative strangers, as we cross pollinated each other’s plates like excited bees upon the flowering herbs of a rooftop container garden.

In the midst of seemingly endless soil-bucket-burdened round trips between the roof and the service elevator that day, it occurred to me that, in many ways, moving an urban farm didn’t feel all that different from moving apartments. The repetition, the heavy loads, the pressure to finish the job before you had to return the rented truck were all familiar to me. Indeed, one could draw parallels between Farm-In-The-Sky and Bushwick Campus Farm’s circumstances as young urban farms and the circumstances of young New Yorkers like myself. These farms also face limited budgets; Farm-In-The-Sky had no money until it could convince area restaurants to support it through an RSA. They evolve to accommodate new relationships; in addition to serving as a green classroom for the high schoolers of Bushwick Campus, the Campus Farm is a demonstration site for JustFood’s Farm School NYC. The very concept of urban farms in New York City is a relatively young one. And so farms such as these undergo the steady changes of youth as they carve out a niche in their urban communities.

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