Diary of an Urban Farmer: Braving the Storm


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.

Chickens clucking nervously in the back of the van, I arrived back in Brooklyn late the following afternoon. With my heart in my throat and my arms full of chickens, I walked up the three flights of stairs to the warehouse rooftop and nearly burst into tears.

High winds had sent my tender pea plants into a trembling, serpentine dance. As they'd blown back and forth, the shale and rocks in the green roof soil medium had cut many of their stems to the quick, killing them abruptly in their first month of growth. The bright roots of the cherry belle radishes were exposed along the edges of their row like gums red with gingivitis. The plastic drip tape set up to irrigate the farm, empty of water following spring's heavy rains, had been worked lose from the soil, snapping leaves off the purple Russian and Tuscan kale as it whipped smartly across the rows.

The plastic roof of the hoop house had blown straight off. The exposed plants—my tomatoes, peppers, basil, and other late May transplants—dried up in a single afternoon. Upon closer examination, the cucumber seeds had also been dug up out of their seed trays by a visiting creature (Mouse? Squirrel?), setting me back three weeks on plants the farm leans on heavily as a popular Brooklyn pickle. In two nights of wind and one of sub-40-degree temperature, my crops were decimated.

The next night, the community supported agriculture group I supply met at the rooftop for a "getting to know you" dinner. I'd asked them to bring their favorite vegetable-based dishes, to get an idea of what sort of food they like to eat. By the time the group arrived, the wind had died down, but my spirits were abysmally low. Although we were a few weeks from beginning distribution, I was ashamed to show them the farm in such a rough state. Paying for their produce up front in return for a weekly basket of food, the CSA members were my economic shareholders, the people who had made my February seed purchases possible. To my eyes, at least, the farm had never looked less like a worthy investment.

Throughout last year's heavy rains, larger upstate CSAs tested the limits of membership commitment through the good times and bad as farms lost their tomatoes to late blight, cold crops to fungal root rot, and fields to erosion. Having been raised in a team-sports family, the athletic part of me loves CSA for the dogged commitment of it. If May threw us a pea-failure, by golly, we'd plant another round.

Translated metaphorically, the original Japanese word for CSA, teikei, means "food with a farmer's face." When we sat down to share our dishes, I felt an enormous sense of privilege in the trust these people had granted the farm. The food they'd made was thoughtful and delicious. There was none of the expected awkwardness of sitting down with a group of yet-strangers. Above us on the rooftop, the weather had eased and the windows of the warehouse stopped rattling as the river wind calmed down for the sunset.

At the end of the meal, we walked up the stairs to the farm to throw our scraps into the compost bin and stood together for a quiet moment, looking at the skyline. At night, New York City is almost impossibly beautiful. Against the constellations of city lights and black sky, the weekend's damage to the vegetables was obscured. The small dark shadows of the chickens settling down to roost in their new coop was silhouetted by the brilliant white light of the Empire State Building. Finally, all I saw was what we were all looking forward to: the promise of new growth, the tenacity of plants, and the possibilities of city farming.