Thursday, November 21, 2013

food forethought

There’s no denying it. Food is so hot right now. Especially if it’s local, organic, and held proudly  by a small child with rosy cheeks. This is good. Food is important. The revival of interest in real food and where it comes from is reflected in the snack gardens in schools filled with sugarsnap peas and lettuces, the popularity of backyard gardening, and living walls adding life to hi-rises. Please, let it be noted that I am a yea-sayer to all this activity.

But...well...sometimes, there is something important missing in this whole scene. And that’s urban farming. And I don’t just mean some school kids growing 50kg of potatoes, or you tending some herbs on your balcony -- though both things make me happy. I mean production gardens. Small farms and regular-sized farmers who grow good amounts of food to feed neighborhoods. This is a scale and an element of our food system which needs talking about, needs valuing, and needs to be realised.

When this is mentioned, there is often a respectful muttering of “cuba” and “self-sufficiency”. Yep, Cubans grow a helluva lot of food in their cities.  Millions of tonnes per year.  And they make an enviable amount of compost. Yes, they had to. Yes, they were embargoed. Yet this is often where the daydreaming ends. And we head off to buy some lettuce that travelled a few hundred kms by supermarket truck to have the privilege of being in our salad. Maybe, we wonder, the sort of city-based, well-orchestrated food system that Cuba boasts only materialises when people are starving and when there is an autocratic government to organise people into teams and land into gardens? Well, not necessarily. There’s an alternative plotline.

First, we need to start imagining our city bursting with food; good, plentiful, delicious abundance. A city dotted with farms started by enterprising, hardworking farmers dedicated to growing a lettuce which doesn’t get carsick on the way to the store. A lettuce that you pick up along with your weekly share of produce which is carried home on your bike, in your backpack. You get the point: it’s grown near where you live.  This imagining takes some work. Sometimes it’s hard to see the food forest for all the uncompromising asphalt. City farms might not look like little scenes of bucolic loveliness nestled into a hillside, surrounded by pasture and doe-eyed cows. But they will be beautiful all the same, as integrated systems that combine age-old-know-how with cutting edge technology.  Food systems that take inspiration from farmers all over the world. We have the internet and we will use it wisely. And these systems will just keep getting more elegant. People will stop measuring their food in miles and start walking and riding to their local farm, whistling cheerfully, the wind in their hair, the sun on their backs... Ok, I’ll stop now.

Seriously, these farms will not only provide gold-standard food for your mouths. They will create livelihoods for the farmers and others who make it all happen. Farming, especially on a small scale where your body is your tractor, is hard work. Days can be long, wet, hot, and exhausting. Days can also be gorgeous, warm, and filled with satisfying labour, good conversation, and bird calls. Either way, you don’t want to fit a farm enterprise around a full-time off-farm job, not when you have a few hundred mouths to feed. It needs to provide you with a livelihood.

I used to manage a community garden. Every day held new discoveries, learning and connections. The focus was on engaging kids and adults with the soil, with living plants, with cooking something grown from seed and serving it proudly to the community. That community garden remains as much a playground of ideas as anything. A place of focus where people can contribute, can argue, try new things, test something out, make mistakes, eat, get distracted, meet someone new, learn something, forget what they learned and just a place to hang around in. Especially if you don't really have anywhere else to go. And while we would load up a harvest table with whatever was ready (always plenty of silverbeet), this was not a production garden for many reasons - it’s size, it’s organisation, it’s volunteer base, and most importantly  because of the aim of the garden. This was not a garden to feed people.

It seems obvious when it’s spelled out like that. But too often the excitement (duly felt) about community gardens, pop-up mall vege patches and guerilla gardening can get in the way of thinking about what systems could, would fill our larders with enough to eat each week. And an urban farm is probably not going to pump out the food if the farm is relying on volunteer labour alone. “But what about the whole good-vibes community thing?”, you ask (perhaps more eloquently).

A farm is a community resource. Local businesses likewise. Organisations that provide a service to the people - a useful place, a place where people meet, things to be utilised. A place that provides livelihoods and lively neighborhoods. We do have examples here in Australia… just not enough of them. 

While visiting farms in the states I spent a couple of days at Sweet Land Farm, a CSA farm in Trumansberg, upstate New York, that feeds 350 families in their community. This is a farm started by a couple as a business. A business with solid ethics and an actual, written-down, list of what they are not willing to compromise, in terms of values, in their business. They employ people who learn and practice skills in crop planning, transplanting, harvesting, and produce handling. Men and women who often end up starting their own small farms. I was already impressed. But more so when it came to be CSA share pick-up day. As people rolled in, some with kids in tow (who quickly made for the U-pick strawberry patch) to collect their food for the week, I saw community. I saw people connect who met through their connection to this farm, swapping news, recipes, and smalltalk. I saw people making a tangible connection with their food choices. They can actually touch the farm (and the farmer, if they are feeling cheeky). They can pick their share of peas, and their share of blue cornflowers. They can ask the farmers about squash varieties and their plans for the future seasons. They see what food production is about. The work. The dirt. The sweat. The people.

"Farmers need a place to farm and make a viable living. Farmland needs to be enriched and nurtured so that it can yield bountiful harvests year after year. Members need a dependable source of vibrant, richly grown food. All of these needs must be kept in balance. Sweet Land Farm is a CSA-only farm, so everything that we grow is for you, the shareholders. This makes the above-mentioned balance nicely transparent"
(Sweet Land Farm member handbook)

It’s a business and a community resource. Sure, Sweet Land Farm is a pretty big farm, sitting on the outskirts of a pretty small town; but the same connection of people to place, to community, to food can happen right here in our cities, in our suburbs. People are pretty good at getting innovative and working with smaller areas. They grow stuff on rooftops, in laneways, in vacant quarter acre lots, laid out like mini farms - with wheel-hoes instead of tractors. In fact, having less space forces people to be more creative, more innovative in growing food. There are a lot of brains working on this puzzle already. 

Urban farming is not the answer to the big question of how to feed ourselves, dare I say it, sustainably. It’s just a really useful, and underutilised part of the food system. And there will be crops that will be grown on farms outside cities - grains and seed crops that make more sense on a larger scale. But perishable vegetables, those that are at their snap-juicing-sweetest heights when they travel only a metre from plant to mouth should be grown as close to that mouth as possible. Have you ever grown strawberries? Snow peas? Radishes? Try it (taste it) and prove me wrong.

So where to from here? For starters let’s start valuing farmers and farm-work. I mean individually, and as a city. In the last year, in Hobart, someone got around $27,000 in subsidies for an artificial ice skating rink business (that’s about to be superseded a year down the track). Now I like ice skating as much as the next guy (though I prefer glistening, real ice) but I care a lot more about what’s for dinner. How about support for enterprising farmers, who want to grow good food for their community? And, yes, earn a livelihood in doing so. I’m ok with my money going to that corner.

We need farmers and we need them to be able to sustain themselves and their families. We need new farmers. We need farming to be an attractive prospect to young people thinking ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’. We have the means, we have the ways, we all just need to get on board with this.  We, local and state government staff (including town planners and policy makers),  home gardeners, small-hold farmers, community/school gardeners, agricultural scientists, and eaters of food. That pretty much covers everyone, right?

Let’s not just wait patiently for our supply of food from the mainland to get held up indefinitely, for the moment when you find shelves empty and produce aisles lacking. Let’s not wait for an embargo, a disaster. That’s no time to get organised, to innovate (though invariably it will happen then too). Now is the time. It’s not simply food for thought, it’s food forethought.  

Post-script: Nov 2015. It's happening!!! Go to or to find out more about a city  farm in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.  -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thursday, October 31, 2013

things that make sense

It's difficult to describe just how satisfying it is eating something you have grown yourself. Probably because it is more of an adventure than a moment. The beginning is when you have lusted after a friend's veggie patch, quietly envied their seemingly genetic green thumb ('jerk') and wasted countless hours trawling homesteader blogs (it's garden porn and you know it). 

Then after a while, something or someone tells you that it's actually not rocket science to grow a lettuce; in fact it's pretty straightforward. So you spend a day turning a patch of lawn into a loose bed of soil. You get dirt under your fingernails and you feel new muscles aching at the end of the day. It feels good, it feels like action. Then comes that ultimate moment of faith – trickling out the tiniest seeds in an indentation you drew with a stick. And you think, really? This little dry bit of thing is going to transform into a big, showy lettuce with frilly edges? Juicy and lush? Sure. Whatever. But you persist. The wisdom of the countless growers before you becomes an encouraging hand on your shoulder and an encouraging word in your ear – yep, that's it. It is hard to believe, isn't it?

And this little patch of earth becomes a place that you want to return to. You come to water and stare hard at the ground hoping to spot the first speck of green that will signal success. But then you stay a while – because while your eye was down at soil level you notice a bug you have never met before. With a long nose like a snuffleupagus. It's incredible! You almost call your neighbours over to see but you restrain yourself. Besides, while you were watching this beetle a family of black ducks have been making their way down the rivulet and you don't want to move a muscle for fear of startling the ducklings. And all around you dew is caught in tiny and intricate spiderwebs joining blades of grass together. They look like silvery crocheted granny rugs. The earth is cool under your feet. The world is waking up and you realise you need to get to work so you leave your garden for now.

And weeks later, weeks made richer for your daily pilgrimages to your little patch, you behold the glory of the lettuce. It's so green it seems to emanate its own light. And while its hard to really fathom what's happened between the moment you pressed that seed into damp earth and this moment of cutting the lettuce head from its base, you accept it. In the way that you just-kind-of-have-to believe your parents when they show you a photo of a dimple-bummed baby and say – this is you. We are mere humans after all and sometimes things are just unfathomable.

You cut the lettuce and there is this embarrassingly heroic quality to the harvest. This beautiful thing you have grown. This food! And of course you were part of it, along with the seed, the soil, the compost, the worms, bacteria and fungi, the rain, the bees and the sun. You didn't just magic this lettuce from the ground, though it kind of feels like it. But you did get involved, in the most fundamental aspect of your existence. And I think it's ok to feel proud of that.

"Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: We want to feel that our world is intelligible so we can be responsible for it...Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale & extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy".
-Matthew B Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

I have grown food in my various backyards for the past seven years or so. Even when I have the meagrest of yards with terrible growing prospects I still feel compelled to grow things. So I'll dig up some lawn or plant some herbs in pots or a succulent in a tin can. It's become a part of life that I find difficult to compromise. But it wasn't until I read Crawford's analysis of what it means to be frugal that I really grasped why. I wanted to understand something.

You see, I had spent five years at university studying anthropology and social work. This study opened up my mind. Concepts and assumptions were examined, illuminated, challenged and then torn apart. The pieces were spread far and wide with utter disregard, perhaps contempt, for the whole. By the end of my Arts degree I felt a little torn apart too. Sure, I was inspired and living inches in the air. Thinking about Everything yet also getting totally strung out with all this thinking and all this questioning. In the end, I was a little bit lost in a quagmire of unknowing. And wishing I had studied science. Where someone would just tell me: this here beetle is a Meriphus and it belongs to the Curculioninae sub-family and it consumes various floral parts, in particular, pollen, and in so doing aids cross-pollination of plant species. You know, facts.

I longed for facts. I could get a little paralysed in an endlessly self-reflexive analysis of, you know, the very idea of a beetle and the complex tensions implicit within the nature/human dichotomy and so on ad nauseam. In the end, I realised it wasn't just about facts. I craved a world that was intelligible. Or just a bit intelligible. And the garden, many gardens, became my consolation.

Recall that whatever lofty things you might accomplish today, you will do them only because you first ate something that grew out of dirt.
- Barbara Kingsolver

I've made gardening my job. I'm just starting out but this turns out to be the best job yet and feels more like a livelihood. It helps me to think not just about soil and seeds and the sun and the rain, but about economies, culture, work, ethics, philosophy - just about everything. It's a lens through which I start to understand, critique, re-imagine and create the kind of world I want to leave for future generations.  I read somewhere that while we can't change the type of ancestors we inherit we can affect the type of ancestor we will become. Now my ambitions are pretty mundane but I want my descendants to know and to be proud of where their food comes from.

So there is still a lot of thinking and questioning. But the scale can fit inside my head. The growth of a radish seed, a lady-bird hunting aphids, the taste of a tomato when it is so ripe it falls from the vine, heavy into my hand. The feeling of soil warmed from the day, the muscles in my arms and legs slowly strengthening to the tasks I demand of them. Things that make sense. 

Originally published in the Autumn 2013 edition of Betty Mag  

Monday, September 17, 2012

sharing a garden

One of my jobs is managing the Goodwood Community Centre garden. Some days it feels like a real job, most days it doesn't. On the best days I get to potter around with volunteers - harvesting, planting, weeding, pausing and thinking, wondering and wandering. I get to hang out with the playgroup kids and parents - getting our hands dirty, feeding the worms, making juice and building a scarecrow.

I get to teach and I get taught, regularly. The thing about gardening is the thing about everything. There are a million ways to do something and they are all the 'right way to do it'. Without strength of conviction, or a helluva lot of experience this can get kind of tedious. Our garden is a shared garden. People work together on plots, growing vegetables and fruit. Some people turn up every day offering to lend a hand. Others pass by the garden and call out their advice or their idea. One man, who has grown his own vegetables for most of his 90-odd years comes by every few weeks and passes on some wisdom. When to cut down the scarlet runners, how best to trellis the peas, when to plant potatoes. The idea of a shared garden makes sense when lots of people contribute but it can be hard to know which decisions to make, which direction to take. My idea of a garden is quite possibly a little more chaotic and rambly than someone else's. 

There is a patch near the road which is covered in dandelions and Californian poppy. Some people think this is a weedy area that needs clearing. But when I look at it I see abundance and I see food! A lady who works just across the road comes by regularly with a knife and a plastic bag and collects the tender dandelion leaves for her dinner. Since being in Greece I learned that this is called 'horta' - wild greens - and is a traditional and common food. She cooks them up with a bit of olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. I think she is one of the few people around here who recognises this nutritious food and cooks it on a regular basis. The Californian poppy is a plant that we cultivate carefully at the herb farm where I work and to see it growing so vigorously without any intervention is exciting. But to many this bunch of green is just a bunch of mess that needs what to do? Who's advice to take? Who should be making these decisions anyway? What's the point?

I can get a little hung up on it all and end up in a kind of self-reflexive paralysis. Which isn't great when what I need to be doing is turning the compost or harvesting lettuce or sorting out the shed. Then it dawns on me. This is what it is about. Not the quantity of veges we grow, or the efficient functioning of the worm farm, it's not about how neat everything looks or how well timed our plantings are. The garden is as much a playground of ideas as anything. A place of focus where people can contribute, can argue, try new things, test something out, make mistakes, eat, get distracted, meet someone new, learn something, forget what they learned and just a place to hang around in. Especially if you don't really have anywhere else to go.  And yep, I really want to encourage people to compost, to grow vegetables, to eat vegetables and fruit (and try varieties they have never heard of) but that's just my own agenda. The Goodwood garden has it's own life. It's animated by whoever plays and works in it, by the plants and trees, by animals and birds and insects - some so tiny we just have to have faith that they are there, by the wind, the rain and the sun. It takes different shapes over time, different hues and atmospheres. 

My friend Sulyn says that as a gardener she is merely an editor. And in a shared garden that is particularly so. Though some days are frustrating and I feel like I'm getting nowhere and doing nothing and beating my head against a wall it is probably on these days that something really is happening.  Maybe not something I can sum up in a paragraph, something that looks all rosy, wholesome and 'sustainable' for funding bodies. Nothing I can really quantify. Nothing I can properly evaluate. But something, nonetheless. Contradictions are rife, values and priorities are bouncing around and into each other...people are interacting. Activity! And it's complex and it's exciting and it's frustrating and it just happens. 

 And I'm just an editor, so I won't get ahead of myself.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Crooked Carrot - a Community Supported Kitchen

I was lucky to spend a day in the kitchen of the Crooked Carrot CSK  (that's Community Supported Kitchen) with my friend Mahra as well as Johanna, one of the three members of the enterprise. 

The small kitchen, just outside Ithaca NY, gleamed with pots and ladles, jars and colanders - and the possibility of the ingredients of the day. The kitchen is housed in the farm building of Stick and Stone farm and is a very bucolic place to prepare food.

The CSK is part of the Full Plate Collective and is especially aimed at members with produce shares;

"By pairing our share items with in season vegetables, our share supports your healthy home cooking. For example, in early summer your CSK share might include arugula pesto to toss with sautéed summer squash, Greek-style dressing for baby salad greens, fresh herb aioli as a dip for new carrots and cucumbers, and pickled turnips to eat as they are. Most share items are ready-to-eat as a simple meal, and our newsletters will provide recipes and ideas for ways to combine your share with seasonal vegetables and other local products." 
                                                                                                   - Crooked Carrot website

This morning, for the eating pleasure of the CSK members we would be making blackberry and blueberry custard and a black bean and cucumber salad. But first, to the garden. 

We walked along one of the farm roads in search for blackberries. I was looking into the fields for the rows of brambles when Johanna said, 'over here, we are picking wild blackberries today'. Carefully, with varying levels of deftness, we plucked the ripest berries from the tangles of thorns. Back in the kitchen we washed and mixed these with blueberries. 

I had never made custard before and was really keen to know the method. The smell of the vanilla bean infusing the slowly heating cream definitely whet my appetite. Mahra and I worked carefully together pouring the cream mixture into the bowl of egg yolks, whisking slowly and steadily. 

There are many admirable things about the Crooked Carrot CSK. Firstly they are committed to allowing seasonal produce to shape their fortnightly menu. If cucumbers are weighing down the vines outside then they become a central player in a salad. An abundance of kohl rhabi becomes a delicious pickle, a glut of tomatoes is carefully transformed into a hearty pasta sauce for dinner. Less than perfect fruit and vegetables are often used to make delicious dips, soups and lacto ferments. This thriftiness if nothing new, but in a society that wastes 40% of the food produced for consumption it is certainly radical enough to warrant honorable mention.

"Since getting deeply immersed in the local foods movement, Silas (one of CSK founding members) has dreamt of a new model for food service: a model where the craftmanship of his favourite chefs and the progressive values of Community Supported Agriculture could meet the everyday food pragmatism of his mother - who fiercly put complete meals of wholesome food on the table, seven nights a week"
                                                     - Crooked Carrot website

Another admirable aspect of this CSK is their approach to packaging. Well, 'packaging' is maybe not the best word. All of the meals, dressings, dips, desserts etc. that are dispatched to the members come in a glass jar with a crooked carrot printed on the side as well as a label. These jars differ in size and shape, depending on what they are being filled with.

 The members are required to return these jars which are washed and reused for the next round of goodies. Zero single-use packaging for pre-prepared food is so rare these days, at least in our culture. My friend Sam recently told me about buying yoghurt in China, which came in reusable ceramic bowls. We have a long way to go. Convenience need not be synonymous with wanton waste. I often dream of the day where all bought food is dispensed, bulk style, directly into our own containers which we bring from home, carefully selected for the ingredients it will hold. 

Many food coops incorporate such systems into their shops. Source Wholefoods (Hobart, Tasmania) is one. It is really satisfying and curiously personal to bring along your favourite honey jar, since emptied and now being filled once more with a luxuriously thick flow of amber  -  your breath held while you concentrate on timing it just right.

The foods just looks great in the jars too.

 On this day we also made a delicious black bean salad with juicy cucumber, onion, just picked corriander and a wonderful herby dressing which reminded me of the centrality of balance (and chemistry!) in good cooking.

 I was pretty happy when lunch time rolled around. We feasted, with the Stick and Stone crew, on a smorgasboard of fresh salads, dips, two kinds of aioli, ferments, stewed fruit and yoghurt. I never appreciate lunchtime as much as when I am working and this was a meal to inspire all meals. Thanks for having me, everyone. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Four Season Farm

We were heading up to Maine anyway so we dropped in to have a look-see at Elliot Coleman's and Barbara Damrosch's farm, Four Season, in Harborside. I have been working my way through Coleman's book "The New Organic Grower" after it was multiply recommended and was really excited to see the place in person. What I have found especially useful, in my current work, is Coleman's focus on making efficient use of well-designed hand tools. 

Please note the little bits of tubing on the rake. Instant row marker for seeding.

 This works for the scale that Coleman and Damrosch are farming. After being on such big organic farms I was suprised to hear that Four Season Farm is only a little over an acre yet produces so much food and for the majority of the year. It's not called Four Season for nothing and producing food through the Maine winter is no mean feat. When we visited it was all sunshine and honey bees but over the darker months the temperature averages between 20 and 30 degrees, and that's Fahrenheit, folks. That's a nice range of -1 to -6 Celsius. Needless to say these guys make good use of greenhouses. And these are either unheated or minimally heated during the growing season.

It is probably obvious that I aspire to be a farmer and there are lots of reasons why. One is that farmers are some of the most genius people I have met. And they need to be. They need to constantly and creatively problem solve, adapt and invent. In one of my new favourite books "Shop Class as Soulcraft",  Matthew B. Crawford, amongst other things, talks about the immense satisfaction he gets from fixing motorbikes. Indeed this realization was the main impetus for writing the book;

 "This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognised as 'knowledge work'. Perhaps most suprisingly I find manual work to be more engaging intellectually".
I've been working on a farm for a few months now under the guidance of two farmers, both very experienced and just two of the smartest people I have had the pleasure of knowing. They are able to approach a problem with a wealth of theoretical and experiential know-how that extends not just what could be done but how to actually do it. Like, how to use tools and make tools especially for the job. Watching them work makes me want to go back to high school and pay attention to mathematical and physical principles. But I might just keep working on the farm and learn that way...the view is nicer. But back to the farm.

I present to you Exhibit A: The Tilther. This little gem was conceptualised by Coleman and combines existing technologies, culitvator and hand drill, to create a nifty little machine that can be used safely (no petrol fumes from a rotary hoe, for example) and with less energy in a greenhouse to gently cultivate beds to prepare for re-seeding. I'm guessing you could recharge the drill battery through solar or other means if you had that rigged up.

Four Season is also home to about a couple of hundred chickens, around half of these are layers and the other half are meat birds. We saw this neat set up for rotating young chicks around pasture.

They also have a couple of pigs. It seems like a farm on this scale would struggle to manage any bigger livestock (and provide feed and good habitat for them). Speaking of scale, we were able to ask a couple of questions about the composting system. There is a sizeable area dedicated to composting, but apparently it is difficult to produce enough material for the area that is under cultivation, so compost is also brought in.

An aspect of the planting design on the farm which is both beautiful and educational is the progressive plantings of one crop in a particular area. Like these onions. It's like a living flowchart. You can see dug onions curing on the ground at the back, the next couple of nearly-done rows just pushing themselves out of the ground and young green shoots in the foreground. This is immensely satisfying to see. From my backyard gardening experience I know there is a fair amount of faith/hope involved, especially in sowing the tiniest of carrot seeds, for example. It's like, 'sure, these will become carrots, uh huh, ok...whatever you say". I think I'll always find it incredible to scratch around a 50 day old carrot plant and find the impossible orange beneath.

I gave Elliot some Tasmanian Miellerie honey to say thanks for letting us look around the farm (he mentioned the Tassie honey when describing his last trip there). Luckily I had filled my bag with Gould's farm grown herbal tea and jars of the best honey I know. Being over on the other side of the world opens my eyes to things I've never seen before and gives me space to reflect on what's so good back home.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Chocolate fields forever...

Brooklyn Grange Farm - on a roof top in Queens, NYC

 I think we could be forgiven in that we were just a little lost when looking for the farm. In a neighborhood dominated by warehouses, mechanics, roadworks and general industry that sea of green that typifies a farm takes a little finding. And after walking around for a bit, looking around, looking up, scratching our heads - we found it. Here we are, obviously...


be a hero, take the stairs
live out
and thar she blows

Brooklyn Grange is a private business owned and run by 3 owners and is actually a series of farms. I visited their flagship farm in Queens but there is a second farm being set-up on a rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard this season. There are only a handful of other roof-top farms in the city and these are mainly greenhouse and hydroponic set-ups. Have a look at Gotham Greens and Eagle St Farm

The produce grown on this roof is sold at multiple farmers markets and direct to restaurants.The farm itself spans across an acre of roof and is made up of roughly 1.2 million lbs of soil and over 20,000 linear feet of green roofing material. Yikes.

The all important work bench. I appreciate it's mega size

Tomatoes are one of their most important crops (over 40 varieties growing). The solanaceae family did seem to be thriving in these conditions.

The farm has one full time employee (as well as the owners who work at the farm), 30 interns (mainly college students gaining experience and credit who work 10 hrs/week) and a few volunteer apprentices.

It seemed to me that a venture like this would need a lot of investment to start off. Thanks to Michael who kindly gave us a tour and shared some history.

The funding came from the combination of crowd funding (via kickstarter) as well as private investment. The crowdfunding approach allows members of the public to donate any amount in order to get a project started. This allows a proactive (and somewhat cashed up) public to get something off the ground without having to wait for an often lumbering public bureaucracy to make the move. Michael mentioned that there has also been some really successful crowdfunded energy investment to pay for neighborhood-scale sustainable energy in the states.

Amy Cortese in her recent book describes this approach to social enterprise as "locavesting" and argues that "this peer-to-peer crowd funding model of aggregating many small sums promises to unlock new opportunities for investing in businesses whose needs are not being met by conventional sources". Through the Brooklyn Grange kickstarter campaign the donors were rewarded with gifts depending on how much they donated. This "thank you" could be a CSA share for a year, a single box of veges or a private farm tour, amongst other things. 

there is just a lot of sky when you farm on a roof
 So how does someone let you build a farm on their roof? Well, it turns out the landlord was looking for a green roof and there are incentives for building owners to 'use their land' in this way. First off they get $100,000 over 4 years in tax write offs plus they get rent from the farmers (a  previously untapped revenue stream). Presumably they also get some pretty serious cultural cred. Farming is so hot right now.

I was really excited to see some bee hives on the roof . Apparently two years ago the city changed the laws around bee keeping and now the only condition of setting up hives is that you register them with the city government. Look here for more details. There is no archaic by-law about how far the hive is from the nearest dwelling (like we have in Hobart, Tasmania) and this opens up the landscape for enterprising beekeepers. The  bees are a significant part of the Brooklyn Grange farm not only in terms of revenue from the honey produced but also because of their pollination prowess.

The roof also is home to a handful of laying hens. The eggs from these hens are sold, along with the produce at a weekly farm market actually held in the lobby of this building.These hens are as important for educating children and adults alike about eggs and keeping chickens, as for their contribution to the produce basket and their place in the overall system (e.g. eating weeds and turning them into eggs!). 

There is a lot that is surprising about a rooftop farm but something that really took the cake is the chocolate covered fields. You heard me. If you notice yourself getting a little hungry, drooling a little perhaps, when you are weeding, you are not alone. Brooklyn Grange makes use of a commerical byproduct to help add organic material, nutrients and a mulch to their beds. Direct from a chocolate company. Cocoa beans. And yep, it really smells like chocolate. Totally dreamy.

Ok, for those interested in the more nitty-gritty details of how you actually transform a roof into a farm here are some details from the BG website:

Can the building hold that much weight?

Our farm was designed and installed with the support of engineers and architects who assessed and approved the site. The building was constructed in 1919 and is built like a rock. The roof is made of a thick reinforced concrete slab, which is approved for loads far in excess of the 30 lbs per square foot of materials that we have installed.

"How is the farm built?

Before laying down the soil, we laid down a green roof system, distributed by Conservation Technologies. The system is as follows: a layer of root-barrier, which prevents our plants’ roots from penetrating the surface of the roof; a thick layer of felt; drainage mats with small cups to hold excess water from heavy rainstorms (the soil and plants wick this stored water up in dry conditions to keep our water use down), and finally, a thin layer of felt to prevent the drainage mats from filling up with soil.

What kind of soil do you use?

We bought our soil from Skyland in Pennsylvania, a green roof supplier. The blend is called Rooflite and is composed of compost for organic components, and lightweight, porous stones. The stones make the material lighter in weight and also slowly break down to add trace minerals needed by the vegetables. Our beds are about 7.5″ deep with 1″ deep walkways."

Friday, June 29, 2012

Stick and Stone Farm & the Full Plate Collective

I was able to visit Stick and Stone Farm which is about 10 minutes drive from Sweet Land, just outside of Ithaca, NY. SSF is part of a collective of farms called the Full Plate Collective. This is a really interesting approach to CSA and combines the produce from multiple producers in the shares offered to members. This approach supports smaller growers by giving them an access to resources and a guaranteed market as well as allowing growers to specialise in a particular crop (e.g. peppers) rather than having to generalise.. 

Being able to start at a smaller scale also can help provide a stepping stone for an apprentice farmer who wants to farm for themselves. This is exactly what Mahra is able to do – she is growing a variety of sweet peppers for the collective this season on Remembrance Farm. This setup means Mahra can access land, resources and advice and in exchange for the labour she provides for this crop she will get a share of the income received from the distribution of these peppers.
FPC offers summer shares and winter shares.The produce is distributed through pick-up days, where the members come to the farm to collect. These days are structured in a similar way to Sweet Land Farm – one bag of whatever you choose from selected crops, plus a selection of unlimited extras, as well as rotating u-pick crops. As well as the direct pick-up, members can have their share delivered (they don't get to choose the make-up of their share in this instance), either to their home or to a group pick up point. The delivery logistics are handled by Garden Gate and the price of this delivery varies (there is financial incentive to have your share part of a single group delivery, for example).

There are three main farms involved in the collective - - as well as smaller producers who offer bread shares (Wide Awake Bakery), prepared food shares (Naked Carrot CSK), mushroom shares () and more. Sara, who helps coordinate the collective also offers 'side-dishes' – e.g. a dairy share which allows her to carefully curate a selection of milk, yoghurt, butter etc. from local producers. I love this 'curation' approach to food. It certainly flies in the face of a supermarket which offers 50 brands of everything or jumbled together without any critique or coherance. And, like getting a recommended reading or listening list from a friend, it's an entrée into another person's tastes, values and experience.

We were only at the farm for a couple of hours but we were lucky enough to accompany Andrew on his chicken-run (members can also sign up for an egg share).  We started out by throwing out a tub of fresh greens ('seconds' from the CSA distribution) to placate/distract the ladies while we privateered their eggs. Andrew was clearly passionate about the flock and knew what every chicken-custodian should – who's ok and who you should just leave on the nest. Apparently the hens were getting a little on the broody side and were becoming more pecky during the harvest. This was the first time I have helped collect more than a hundred eggs at a time and the scale was satisfying.

The hen setup seemed really good. There are three movable chook-mobiles (my dumb phrase, not theirs). Two are nesting/roosting places and one is an area where the hens can scratch and forage. This has a pretty deep litter floor and various forage materials are scattered in there to supplement the diet and to accommodate what chickens do best – scratch! Next to the area where the houses, feeders and waterers are is a sizeable row of triticale– a hybrid of rye wheat. The chickens can graze on this crop to supplement the mixed, ground feed provided. Hmm...I'm running out of computer patience, so for now, here is a montage of the chicken 'shanty town'.