New York City farmers tend to agree that agriculture within city limits has its challenges. While eaters’ interest in local food has never been stronger, city farmers and gardeners don’t always get as much love from government and property owners. All the hard work that goes into starting farms and gardens doesn’t necessarily guarantee their longevity -- if better options for the city, or building owners, should come along.
“What we often see happening is that urban farming and community gardening get squeezed into these interim areas, where a building once was and probably will be once again,” Novak says. “But the reality is that these are not just food-producing spaces, they are important green spaces, and they improve neighborhoods and communities. So what I would love to see, and what’s kind of evolving as urban farms take all these different iterations, is that everybody’s finding a different way to make sure that the efforts they make last beyond their own personal agenda, and their own personal tradition at the farm.”
In spite of the formidable obstacles to urban agriculture, city farmers are hopeful about its future. And making their efforts last beyond their own personal tradition at the farm is what keeps the farmers I spoke with invested in their work.
“I’m a native New Yorker; I’m cynical,” says Plakias. “But this project has made me way more hopeful. The belief that you can reinvent your city, that we can work together to create a place where we actually want to live; that’s inspiring for me.”
Plakias, like the other farmers I spoke with, observes that while farm visitors and shoppers tend to be way more informed about urban agriculture than in the past, their level of delight and surprise at what they see hasn’t diminished in the slightest.
“These are New Yorkers we’re talking about; they’ve seen everything. But when they get up to the roof, and they see the sky and the views and everything that’s growing all around them, suddenly they’re wild-eyed and unwaveringly excited,” she said. “It’s incredible.”
In conjunction with the farm, Annie Novak of Eagle Street runs an apprenticeship program that, to date, has graduated more than 100 trained urban farmers. She says she’s noticed that would-be apprentices are coming to the program better prepared than ever -- even before they start.
“There are a couple of archetypes that we get every year, like we’ll always get someone who’s in the food industry or in herbal medicine or with a passion for compost,” she says. “But by and large, people are coming to us smarter, they’re coming better prepared to jump right into a change of career, and I find that really exciting, that people are getting an increasing sense of direction.”
As the general public takes to city-raised food, and as opportunities expand for the people who grow that food, urban farmers are hopeful about the impact of urban agriculture on one set of New Yorkers in particular: kids. For children who are more familiar with shrink-wrapped iceberg lettuce from the supermarket than with soft, freshly grown romaine, seeing city farming in action can be a particularly revelatory experience.
“We can all work together to create changes in the way urbanites think about their food,” Plakias says. “We can raise a generation of kids who know where their food comes from.”
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