A Field of Ones Own
New Yorker Michael Meier makes a living in dirt.
At 25, he’s left a career in analytics behind him to become an urban farmer. The “urban” part means that on any given day, both clubs and crops are readily available to him.
“I wasn’t ready to leave New York City yet, and the innovation of rooftop farms was fascinating to me,” says Meier, a farmer at Brooklyn Grange, a for-profit rooftop farm based in Long Island City, Queens. “Someday I hope to have a rural farm, but for now I’m learning so much here.”
Meier and his cohorts couldn’t learn at a more crucial time. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than one percent of Americans are farmers. Half of these farmers are over 50. The future of America’s agriculture is quite literally grey.
In the new food culture, farming as an ethos is hip. Farming as an industry, however, is in need of some serious revitalization. And if the youth won’t go to farms, then it stands to reason that the farms must come to them. Enter urban agriculture.
Brooklyn Grange—one of the largest rooftop farms in New York—in particular evokes a separate peace in the city, making it especially attractive to would-be farmers. From this lofty vantage point, you can see the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline. The earth-scented breeze blows, and the dirt is soft and squishy beneath your feet.
A farmer could work all day here, digging into the rich soil with the sun and dirt as companions, and still meet friends coming out of Manhattan office jobs for dinner and drinks—for all its rural beauty, Brooklyn Grange is less than half an hour from Union Square on the R train. The majority of the farmers are young, many of them attractive. There is a lot of flannel. It’s almost too inviting.
“There has to be some sort of element of cool, too,” acknowledges Meier, “it’s just marketing, like any other business, but it’s a slippery slope, because then we’re criticized as being hipsters who will do anything weird to get written up in Slate or whatever.”
He’s right. When the New Yorker’s website gave a little write-up to the Brooklyn Grange, this line figured prominently: “I beheld young and hip urban farmers tilling the earth with their vintage Coach bags and babies.” The face of urban farms has become that of a “yippie” (hipster yuppie, of course)—making them safe objects of ridicule for many. And the image is also alienating to folks who desperately need access to good produce.
Although there is a romantic—and yes, hip—appeal in getting one’s hands dirty, Meier and his colleagues can’t worry about that. They spend an equal amount of time farming as they do in meetings and at computers: making connections, paying taxes, getting funding, and trying to ensure that they meet the bottom line. In this sense, it is just like any other business: Brooklyn Grange needs to stay in the black.
“We’re a triple-bottom line business, which means we have to make it work financially, environmentally, and for the community,” says Anastasia Plakias, one of the principals at Brooklyn Grange who originally took on Meier as an apprentice, as their first apprentice-turned-farmer, Meier is a mark of the Grange’s success as such.
Plakias, 28, worked in some of the city’s finest restaurants before shifting gears to become a full-fledged urban farmer. It was a natural shift, as she explains it, because she already had a passion for local, organic food grown with care.
If it was just foodie culture pulling young people to urban farms, it could be pegged as a trend. But people have been farming in New York City since well before Henry James documented uptown pig farming in Washington Square. Historically, urban farming has been confined to small pocket farms in less affluent communities, populated by recent transplants from rural areas who missed the fresh produce of home—or simply couldn’t afford the market prices.
The problem today is the inverse: People in less affluent communities are often forced to eat less healthy food, which is available cheaply due to an array of government subsidies. Sarita Daftary, 30, is the Project Director for East New York Farms (ENYF), which operates in the low-income neighborhood of East New York. The people that participate with ENYF—buying food, volunteering, participating in workshops—are members of a largely immigrant community, trapped by economics in a “food desert” where a bag of Doritos and a box of Ho Hos at the nearest bodega are the most affordable dinner.
“Many of the people here grew up on or near farms: in the Caribbean, Central America, West Africa, and Asia. They know what’s good for them,” says Daftary, “The battle is to create access, so that it’s possible to get fresh food at affordable prices in all communities.”
ENYF makes it a point to keep prices down and access convenient. Accordingly, they regularly sell out of everything they can grow.
Operating in the shadow of Ikea, Red Hook’s Added Value farm similarly provides low-income folks from the Red Hook Houses with the chance to till the soil. Added Value’s harvests are available for everyone: While a large sign on the farm’s gate announces that food stamps are welcome tender, its produce is also on the menu at tasty Van Brunt Street eateries such as the Good Fork.
Local interest in farming is indeed becoming something more than a grassroots movement. In March 2012, BrightFarms, Inc. announced that they intend to build a multi-acre farm on 100,000 square feet of rooftop space in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park—which would make it the largest rooftop farm in the world.
All in all, “It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a young urban farmer,” says Meier, his enthusiasm perking up his voice.
For a twenty-something to consider farming, especially in the midst of the long slog of the Great Recession, it also has to be a viable way to earn an income. And it helps if the endeavor involves the supportive community that is so easily accessible at an urban farm. Rural farming is exhausting work, often lonely, that rarely yields the financial rewards associated with Wall Street or a law office.
There’s also the problem of mentors. Trying to make it as a traditional farmer in a country with rapidly fading farm knowledge means that young farmers are often going it alone, without the support from other like-minded individuals that Plakias, Meier, and Daftary have found in the city.
The next step? Both East New York Farms and Brooklyn Grange are trying to draw in an even younger generation of farmers with children’s programs. Urban farms are the gateway drug to careers in agriculture or food justice.
“I asked a visiting class, ‘Are you learning about food and farming in school?’” says Plakias, “They said no. I said, ‘Are you learning about the environment?’ They said, ‘Yes, but that has nothing to do with us. The environment is out there, in the country.’”
Making the connection between an urban environment and the environment by and large is a far-reaching lesson that kids take home from urban farms. Roy Frias, a journalism student at SUNY who interned at ENYF as an 11-year-old, put the connection succinctly: “People, like vegetables, grow into who they become.”
Indeed, one way to make a farmer is to put a little dirt into the hands of city kids. Just see what happens. They may rub it off on their pants and wander off, or they may find something meaningful.
Although he’s now a bit older than a kid, Meier’s path may serve as an example. “I love what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s hard work, but it’s beautiful.”