City pickers

From green roofs to chicken coops, urban agriculture is on the rise. TONY looks at a trend that's bringing the city's rural past into its future.

On a Saturday afternoon this past September, I sat against a tree in upstate New York and waited for Severine von Tscharner Fleming to kill a rabbit. Part of an agricultural conference organized by Von Tscharner Fleming (who is directing a documentary about young farmers called The Greenhorns), the demonstration was meant to reconnect the group of mostly NYC-dwellers to one of the hard truths of eating meat: the slaughter. Holding the rabbit between her knees, she readied to strike, then brought a mallet down on its head. But not hard enough. The rabbit shrieked and struggled to break free. She hit it a second time, properly stunning it, then grabbed a knife and cut its throat, her unsure movements revealing her inexperience. “We’re with you,” someone shouted. “You’re doing great!” another encouraged. As she lifted the creature by its hind legs and blood drizzled onto a garbage bag below, the rest of us applauded awkwardly.

The bumbling execution highlights the growing pains of many progressive urbanites as they attempt to reestablish links to the food they eat. Back-to-the-land movements have happened before, but this is different: Instead of fleeing to rural areas, many New Yorkers are bringing the land back to the city.

Media coverage of the subject has documented endeavors like rooftop beekeeping and backyard farming. In many cases, the people featured are wealthy enough to own property; they are motivated, at least in part, by the troubling global and political issues related to how we eat. “A person can say, 'I reject this food system; I will plant my own carrots,’” says Gabrielle Langholtz, editor of the Edible Brooklyn and Manhattan magazines. “It’s a counterculture reaction.”

Aside from the intellectual reasons, certain New Yorkers are seeking something they feel they’ve given up in order to live here. “People aren’t curing their own bacon to save money,” notes Langholtz. “It comes from a place of comfort.” After all, our extreme urban environment is a recent one: Just a century ago, Brooklyn and Queens boasted the most productive farmland in the U.S. Today’s urban farmers partake of this fundamental human experience without losing the benefits of city living.

Yet while it may not be a matter of survival for the privileged few, a larger, less-recognized population of New Yorkers has taken to growing food for precisely that reason. Poorer neighborhoods—faced with hunger and the lack of accessible fresh produce—have found a solution in community gardening. According to Chris Grace, manager of the Urban Food Systems program at the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, the role of these green spaces—which are increasingly devoted to growing food—is significant. “The biggest number of community gardens in this city are in East New York...not an affluent area,” she explains. “I would guess that 90 percent of the people involved are low to middle class.” Jacquie Berger, executive director of Just Food, a nonprofit that works to create a sustainable urban food system, adds that there’s a “real interest in improving access to good food, particularly in underserved neighborhoods, which often have open lots. The opportunity for urban food production is there, and the need is there.”

Some projects have already taken off. “For four years, we’ve been growing our own food and giving it to our food pantry,” says Reverend Robert Ennis Jackson, CEO of Bed-Stuy’s Brooklyn Rescue Mission. “We’re averaging about 7,000 pounds each summer, and with the right development of the garden, we will be able to produce 14,000 each year.” The Rescue Mission has also established a market, selling its own produce alongside that of farmers from outside the city. “You have all economic levels meeting at the market,” says Jackson. “We’re trying to focus on the healthy relationships that farmers can bring to a community.”

Ultimately, the potential of these projects is as much about building communities as it is about the food itself. “We’re never going to feed all of New York City from New York City,” says Grace. “Part of what urban farming does is it creates an educated consumer, and upstate farmers don’t have a market if people here don’t value what they sell.” Education, in fact, is a primary goal of many of these initiatives. At P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, parents and teachers have established a gardening program in the schoolyard, and are working to install a green roof, where students can learn hands-on about growing. “[Many of them] don’t know where their food comes from; they see a tomato on the vine and they don’t recognize it,” says Vicki Sando, a parent.

Even if we can’t ever feed all New Yorkers with food grown within the city, it’s worth considering the possibilities. Cuba makes for an inspiring example: With famine looming in the early ’90s, the government launched an emergency program of urban agriculture, planting in every open space available. Today, more than half of the produce eaten in Havana has been grown in Havana. A parallel scenario is unlikely here, but a lesson emerges: Just as in our city’s poorest areas, necessity will likely be the driving force behind our food-producing future. If our economic and ecological conditions continue to deteriorate, we may be required to grow more of our own. In a worst-case-scenario future, children could pick grapes from schoolyard trellises as workers ride skyscraper elevators up to harvest lunch, while others slaughter the evening’s dinner. Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound half bad.