Diary of an Urban Farmer: Braving the Storm

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Adam Golfer


Two weeks ago, three stories up in the air, I knelt on the rocky, shallow soil of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm to plant row after row of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. The air off the East River was strong from the south, the clouds light and slow-moving, and the Rooftop Farm's local mockingbird had returned for a second year of teasing me into thinking the rooftop hosts multiple species of birds. As I planted, across the water the United Nations drew in dozens of helicopters with a steady, heavy drone. As an urban agriculturalist, I can tell it's spring in New York City both because it's warm enough to transplant nightshades and because the rooftop volunteer farmhands have switched from plaid flannel to straw fedoras.

With a few strange 80-degree days this past month, the butter-soft spinach tastes of salt as the heat draws out the full-sun rooftop flavor I remember from last year's growth. The spicy mustard salad greens are up, mizuna and pizzo each a brilliant purple and green like snakeskin laid in rows. The flavor of the salad greens changes weekly, responding to the lengthening days and the temperature changes in the air and soil. The narrow arrowheads of carrot sprouts poke up like blades of grass. A rippling line of lettuce weaves through the new planting of radishes. The vines of my sugar snap peas shot up four inches in mere days. Two friends recently visited the rooftop with a loaf of bread and wedge of cheese in hand. We harvested our first ploughman's lunch, making on-the-spot sandwiches garnished with purple chive flowers for their sharp, garlicky bite.

That week I also got chickens. In advance of my summer round of seed planting, the hens would eat last year's plant growth off the rooftop. After the farm's first year and a notable amount of nutrients lost to rooftop runoff, I also wanted an easy source of healthy manure for the compost. In a covered run, the chickens could also control the spring's early insect issues. As a bonus, they would boost the slow early spring harvest with eggs for my CSA group.

Community supported agriculture started in Japan in the 1960s when women concerned with chemical pesticide use and the rise of processed, imported foods formed a subscription-based produce-purchasing group. The families found farmers whose agricultural practices they trusted and paid a set price up front for weekly pickups through the growing season. CSA groups often form in the late winter (mine was organized in February and March), when farmers are most likely to need the cash flow for the coming year's seeds.

I created the Eagle Street CSA for several reasons. The farm literally needed seed money. I also wanted something less tangible: data. The leading question I get at the Rooftop Farm from its many visitors is how many people the farm can feed. A CSA pickup, in which a set amount of members gets a set amount of food, can easily be tracked to report back on what meals the share covered. In addition to harvesting produce for a farm-based market, five and sometimes six area restaurants, and hosting over 30 different schools and organizational visits a year, I figured it'd be interesting, at least, to see what the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm could do to help answer the question, "Can New York City feed itself?"

To get the chickens, a friend and I drove her family van from New York City to just outside of New Paltz, New York, where the farmers at organic apple orchard Liberty View Farm, Billiam and Rene, were raising my birds to egg-laying age. I asked them for this favor after an insane early spring, during which I crowded thousands of plants into my apartment in lieu of a proper heated nursery. As a New Yorker, doing the math on where I would have raised chickens from chicks in my apartment had me sleeping in the bathtub.

The afternoon I arrived at the apple orchard, cataclysmic winds had knocked down power lines across the Hudson Valley. Liberty View Farm was no exception. After scrambling to move dozens of baby chicks from Billiam's coop into a warm guest room in the farmhouse, we lit candles, rationed water when the electric pump stopped, and ate a salad for dinner in the dark. Not usually a pessimist, I slept restlessly. I was sure something really awful was happening back on the rooftop, a two-hour drive away.

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Annie Novak is the founder and director of Growing Chefs, a field-to-fork food education program; the children's gardening program coordinator for the New York Botanical Gardens; and co-founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn. More

Annie Novak is founder and director of Growing Chefs, a field-to-fork food education program; the children's gardening program coordinator for the New York Botanical Gardens; and co-founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in partnership with Goode Green and Broadway Stages. Annie has worked with the CENYC Greenmarket, Slow Food, and Just Food advocating and growing urban agriculture throughout New York City. Her work in agriculture has been featured in New York Magazine, Edible Brooklyn , and on the Martha Stewart Show.

A lifelong vegetarian, Annie's passion for agriculture began while she was working in Ghana with West African chocolate farmers. She has since followed food to its roots in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Turkey, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Fiji, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Alaska, and the American West and Midwest; her adventures are cheerfully blogged at growingchefs.org .

Since 2005, Annie has worked with the Meerkat Media Collective to write, produce, act and film in several films and documentaries. Her work has been screened in New York City and in festivals across the country. Titles include award-winning felt animation WWee Dark Hours and My Felt Bike; award-winning documentary short Every Third Bite; and narrative feature-length film A Little Death.

In her free time, Annie has run five marathons, builds and races bicycles, and birdwatches. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005.
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