On Urban Farms, A Sense of Place

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Photo by Josh Viertel


A few weekends ago I went to a picnic in Red Hook, Brooklyn at my friends Ian and Curt's farm. We ate picked salad while overlooking the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. Pretty cool spot for a farm. But we could have been anywhere. You see, the farm is in the bed of a truck. You might have seen a picture of it on the cover of the latest issue of Edible Brooklyn.

The Truck Farm is the latest, and maybe coolest, addition to a growing body of work that urban dwellers are collectively creating: growing our own food in the city. My own inadvertent contribution is in the closed alley behind my apartment in Greenwood Heights. I've got hay bales I brought back with me from a trip to see friends upstate. I layered them with worm castings from the worm compost bin under the sink in my apartment, and planted herbs and vegetables directly in the bales. Now they are spilling over with basil, lemon verbena, thyme, parsley, salad, and tomatoes.

Connection to place is a prerequisite for a land ethic. We can't be good land stewards unless we know, in a specific way, where we are.

Some people say this new back-to-the-land-in-the-city trend grows out of a desire to eat food that tastes like something. Others say it comes from the need to save money in an uncertain economy. Some say it is to reduce our carbon footprint. Sure. It is all of those things.

But I think it is something else, too. The impulse to grow food, particularly in a cement landscape grows out of a simple desire to be connected to place.

We connect to a place through the food we eat and eventually through what eats us. Eating (also defecating, dying, and decomposing) confirms that we are a part of a biological system, that we are community members in an ecosystem. But in the city we obscure this story. Food seems to come from nowhere (and shit and corpses disappear to nowhere, eerily, almost magically). We lose the opportunity to realize that we are someplace.

By growing our own food we become connected to place, aware of the seasons, aware of the weather, and deeply keyed into how the world outside us affects the world inside us. We become citizens again, community members in an ecosystem.

We can't be good land stewards unless we know, in a specific way, where we are. Once we develop the land ethic that comes from connection to a place, we can develop empathy for place in general.

And as we sit down to a meal, wherever we are, we can take pleasure in being somewhere and connecting in a simple, authentic way. Kids get this. I've seen a three-year-old reach down and pull a carrot top, and as the soil gives up its grip and the bright orange root pulls into the light, I've seen the light come into that child's eyes: This is magic.

Having given up stewarding an acre in favor of stewarding an organization, I have found myself craving that that sense of magic. And so I planted a garden in some hay bales in a closed alley.

And this morning, I cooked myself an omelet with herbs from that garden. Sage I grew made the omelet into something of meaning and turned a quick breakfast into a reflective moment in which I could feel connected to the world. It also tasted really good.

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Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA.

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