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Harvest in the city

New York gardeners bring fresh, healthy food to the less-affluent
Garden. Margarida Correia
Arlington and Ali Malone in the Garden of Eden. Photo: Margarida Correia.


Bursts of yellow flowers explode along one side of the Garden of Eden on Weeks Avenue in the Bronx. The 5,000-square-foot community garden is just beginning to unfold, but already it lifts the spirit. A path runs through the garden, taking visitors past tidy 8’ by 10’ plots, where residents will soon begin to grow everything from tomatoes and collard greens to corn, squash, and onions. Crowded into the small garden are three apple trees, a cherry, a nectarine, a plum, a pear, and a huckleberry. A grapevine grows there, along with at least six rose bushes flowering in three different colors. The tiny space is chock-full of wonders.

This urban oasis is a family affair for resident gardener Arlington Malone. His father, Ali, has been in charge of the Garden of Eden ever since it was established in 1989. Malone, 19, tends his own plot of vegetables and practically grew up in the garden.

The Garden of Eden is one of more than 700 community gardens throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Together they account for some 200 acres of land, according to Steve Frillmann, executive director of the Green Guerrillas, a New York City gardening group. Community gardens average about 50 feet by 100 feet – or two lots – in size, but can be as big as five city blocks. Most were built on city-owned abandoned lots.

Aside from the fruit trees, which are communal, members of the Garden of Eden grow primarily for themselves and their families, says Ali Malone. In August, notes son Arlington, people “come with bags to pick the cherries.”

Increasingly, though, the gardens are producing greater and greater amounts of food to sell at farmers’ markets and to donate to soup kitchens and pantries. According to Just Food, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving New York City’s food system, 37 gardens last year produced more than 30,000 pounds of food. One highly productive site – Bissel Gardens in the North Bronx – harvested 2,370 pounds of food. Just Food estimates conservatively that the gardens produce an average of about 800 pounds each.

The emergence of food-producing community gardens in New York City reflects a trend that’s taking root around the world. It’s called urban agriculture. According to the Urban Agriculture Network, a non-governmental organization that supports urban agriculture development worldwide, more than a third of the world’s urban areas are used for farming, with US metropolitan areas producing more than 30 percent of the dollar value of domestic agricultural production. Urban food production is particularly strong in developing countries, where people rely on it to survive. But in developed countries, it’s catching on too.

The rise of urban agriculture, experts say, may be in response to the expansion of cities and the loss of cropland. With diminishing arable land acreage, the theory goes, the conversion of unused lots of urban land into food production areas becomes increasingly important. Interestingly, urban agriculture marks a return to early cities, where food production was part and parcel of daily life.

“Urban agriculture is something that will happen more and more as the population moves into urban areas,” says Kathleen McTigue, manager of Just Food’s City Farms program, which helps New York City communities increase their food production.

In New York City, the largest food-producing gardens are thriving in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx, serving areas that don’t have access to fresh, affordable produce and are typically at or near the end of subway lines. While the food is grown primarily for personal consumption, New York City gardeners increasingly grow extra produce to meet the needs of the community.

The focus is bringing community gardens to the “next level” of urban agriculture, says McTigue, referring to the creation of viable farmers’ markets. The idea, she says, is to “use the money from the farmers’ market to bring money back into the garden.”

According to McTigue, more than $21,450 worth of produce was sold through Just Food urban farm stands last year. Urban gardeners produced just under half, with the rest brought in through partnerships with rural farmers. Additionally, six garden sites donated produce to nearby soup kitchens and food pantries.

The United Community Centers (UCC) garden in East New York, Brooklyn, was one such garden. Last year, it donated more than 700 pounds of food to local soup kitchens and sold close to $4,000 worth of food at the nearby farmers’ market. The farmers’ market is a stone’s throw away from the garden, notes Georgine Yorgey, urban agriculture coordinator for United Community Centers, one of four partners that form East New York Farms, a coalition of neighborhood gardening groups.

The half-acre garden near the elevated subway line grows almost exclusively for the farmers’ market open Saturdays from late June to early November. The market occupies almost one full city block and last year drew some 11,500 customers, says Yorgey.

The UCC garden isn’t the only source of produce sold at the farmers’ market. Some 23 resident urban growers in 12 community gardens and three upstate farmers keep the market alive. The farmers bring crops too big to grow in Brooklyn’s community gardens, like pumpkins, corn, and apples.

But the gardens on occasion grow crops that the upstate farmers don’t, and a reciprocal arrangement is born. The UCC community garden, for example, grows collard greens, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers for one of the farmers that participates in a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program. These programs supply urban dwellers with weekly deliveries of fresh produce from upstate rural farmers.

The UCC garden – run primarily by 13- to 15-year-old student interns and a handful of adult volunteers – is at least four times the size of the miniature Garden of Eden, growing fruit and all kinds of herbs and vegetables. There are two varieties each of mustard greens, eggplants, and cucumbers, and five of peppers – the kind of variety you don’t see on industrial farms, says Yorgey.

Still, the signs of urban poverty are hard to ignore. For a Friday at lunchtime, the streets are silent, with the nearest thoroughfare offering a meager selection of shops and only two small grocery stores – a Spanish bodega and a sun-drenched West Indian market, each with a limited selection of vegetables.

In low-income neighborhoods like East New York, grocery stores are scarce, says Yorgey. The produce is typically low in quality and variety, forcing many residents to go outside the neighborhood for their fruits and vegetables. Yorgey notes that the farmers’ market was formed to help fill the void.

“The farmers’ market tries to provide high quality at an affordable price,” she says. It doesn’t offer the cheapest vegetables – the produce, she says, is cheaper than other farmers’ markets but not cheaper than grocery stores. What the market offers is fresh, quality produce that is grown locally or in upstate small family farms. So fresh is the produce that customers pick their cherry tomatoes right off the vine in the UCC garden.

“The idea is to show people that what they get at the market is different from what they get at the grocery store,” Yorgey says. Local farmers, she cites as an example, don’t store their produce as do large-scale agriculture businesses and focus instead on taste and nutritional value.

But how safe and nutritious can vegetables grown in urban neighborhoods be? While Yorgey and others advise consumers to wash urban-grown food, as one should with any produce, they are comfortable with the safety of the food as it’s grown with soil brought in from the outside and then enriched with compost. This takes care of any pre-existing lead contamination in the ground. Furthermore, crops are grown organically – without pesticides or herbicides – following environmentally friendly production techniques. Crops are rotated, and there’s a great deal of variety within relatively small spaces, unlike industrial agriculture where there are “acres and acres of broccoli,” says Yorgey.

Urban Agriculture
New York City has the most cultivated land of any U.S. city. Photo: Margarida Correia

“When farmers dedicate huge areas to just one crop, there’s a lot of build-up of pests,” she says. In the community gardens, where a mix of crops grows, this isn’t as much of a problem, according to Yorgey.

Even in the larger, more productive gardens, such as Bissel, where entire beds and rows are dedicated to just one crop, there’s a great deal of variety because crops are constantly rotated. And rather than planting everything all at once, crops are staggered so there’s “a harvest on a continuous basis for a few weeks,” says McTigue. That allows gardeners to have a full harvest of beans, for instance, for the market followed by a second harvest two weeks later.

The community gardens are just as environmentally conscientious when it comes to conserving water. The UCC garden uses rainwater from the roof of a nearby house: The water is stored in a large tank. It also employs drip irrigation off a sidewalk hydrant. A drip tape runs along the base of the plants and drips the water slowly, allowing it to soak into the soil better and deeper, says Yorgey. Community gardeners can only water their crops before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., when water evaporation is lowest.

New York has the most cultivated land of any US city, says Frillmann of the Green Guerrillas. Still, it trails what’s happening in most of the rest of the world. According to an article in the Times of London, London produces roughly 16,000 tons of vegetables annually. Urban agriculture is especially pronounced in developing countries. According to the Urban Agriculture Network, urban food production in developing countries contributes between 20 percent to 80 percent of the local food supply. For example, Havana – home to 2.1 million people and more than 60,000 patio gardens – grows 60 percent of its vegetables. Cuba became a model for urban agriculture out of necessity. At the end of the Cold War in December 1989, the country lost access to food imports, fertilizers and pesticides from the Soviet Union and had to fend for itself. Today, Cuba has more than 1 million registered patio gardens, all of them organic.

In the United States, cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit have the greatest potential for urban agriculture because the land is underused and not as valuable as in New York, says McTigue. It’s therefore easier, she says, for community gardeners to get “big expansive property” because developers aren’t competing for the space.

And the bigger the property, the greater the food productivity. That’s when urban agriculture kicks into high gear, producing not only for individual family needs, but for markets and pantries, generating what McTigue describes as a “crazy amount of abundance that can be shared with the community.”

Margarida Correia is a writer and editor in New York City.


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