A Hamburger Today

Post-Sandy, Added Value Farm in Red Hook is Getting Fresh Produce to Neighbors

[Photographs: Lauren Rothman]

The impact of Hurricane Sandy has been measured in many ways: feet of water, billions of dollars, numbers of fatalities. At Added Value Farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it's measured in pounds of sweet potatoes.

The Saturday before the superstorm surged through the metropolitan area, workers harvested the farm's autumn sweet potato crop, which amounted to more than 400 pounds. Workers stored the potatoes in shipping containers that they reinforced against the coming storm, but their efforts were in vain: all but a couple dozen pounds were destroyed when both the Gowanus Bay and the Buttermilk Channel flooded the following Monday evening, October 29th, not only bursting into the containers but also drowning the farm's one and a half acres of crops under three feet of water.

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A young volunteer wades through post-Sandy puddles at Added Value on November 10.

Added Value is a community farm that occupies a 2.75-acre lot a stone's throw from the Ikea store at the far end of Red Hook. The store, and the open water behind it, forms the backdrop of the farm, from which the area's narrow cobblestoned streets as well as its towering NYCHA residences are also visible. The farm employs the neighborhood's underprivileged youth, providing them with a stipend in exchange for their work starting and planting seeds, harvesting crops and contributing to Added Value's website.

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After the storm, volunteers turned the farm's soil to expose it to air in an effort to dry it out and help dissipate possible contaminants from Gowanus Bay waters.

Post-storm, workers at the farm have been organizing ways to get fresh food back into the kitchens of Red Hook residents still working through the difficulties of damage to their homes and property. Those at Added Value see food justice and food availability as key issues in the neighborhood's rehabilitation.

"Access to healthy food is going to be a huge part of the recovery for people here," said Ian Marvy, 39, who co-founded Added Value with current Greenmarkets Director Michael Hurwitz in 2001.

He said that in the wake of Sandy, two out of three of the area's supermarkets closed, limiting residents' access to wholesome food.

In response, Added Value has joined with the city's Greenmarkets, local farms and an organization called WhyHunger to launch a pop-up farm stand in Red Hook. At the first market, held on November 20th, farms like Glebocki Farms and Wilklow Orchards donated over ten tons of yams, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, apples and more. Residents with EBT were able to pay for the produce with food stamps.

The pop-up markets will continue each Wednesday and Saturday "until they're no longer needed," Marvy said.

Before Sandy washed it all away, Added Value was a full-spectrum market farm that grew and sold its own collard greens, arugula, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and many more crops.

The farm started as an ordinary city park that contained underutilized soccer and baseball fields. Marvy, who was living in Red Hook and working in youth empowerment programs, envisioned a thriving farm there at a time when the idea of urban agriculture was just starting to take off in the city.

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The farm's beehives were ravaged by the storm and had to be put out with the trash.

He saw a local farm as an ideal way to involve Red Hook youth in their community: the stipend they would receive in exchange for their work on the farm would help them feel a sense of worth as well as contribute to their families' income.

"We wanted to reinvent the way people saw this community and the kids who lived here," Marvy, 39, said.

In 2003, after working with a diverse group of organizations such as the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the anti-hunger group Heifer International, Added Value partnered with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to open the site as an urban farm. The park's concrete was covered with six inches of composted leaf litter, crops were planted, and a farm was born in Brooklyn.

Since the founding of Added Value, its youth empowerment program has been central to the organization. Corbin Laedlein, director of the program, explained that its purpose is not necessarily to create a new generation of farmers.

"The kids in the program learn about food justice, and in turn, social justice," Laedlein, 25, said. "They learn about oppression. This is farm-based learning, but it helps the kids connect to the issues and become conscious consumers, not just of food but of knowledge."

Many of the participants in the youth program were on hand in the days after Sandy, when the farm organized a series of volunteer cleanup days to begin the hard work of getting back on track. They joined volunteers from Brooklyn and beyond to take apart wheelbarrows, clean them, and put them back together again; they ripped ruined crops out of the soil to compost them; and, using shovels and pitchforks, they turned over all the soil on site to expose it to the air and help it dry out.

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Teen workers sort seed garlic in the greenhouse.

Jocelyn Rivera, 17, lives on Coffey Street in Red Hook. She has worked at Added Value for two summers and is now a Senior Youth Leader in the program. She said she was hopeful about Added Value's future.

"Everything that's happened here is really sad," she said. "But it's also a new experience, which is kind of exciting."

Marvy, too, was feeling optimistic about conditions on the farm. He said that although the Environmental Protection Agency had not yet completed testing the farm's soil for possible contamination by petroleum byproducts or chemical runoff, results in the area had, so far, been positive.

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Hand-painted welcome signs.

"Soil from the head of the Gowanus has been tested and shows low or no levels of semivolatile compounds, or VOCs," Marvy said. "We're waiting on the results from our farm specifically, but what we've seen so far is super encouraging."

Marvy said that if given the go-ahead on soil quality, the first thing workers and volunteers would plant is garlic.

"We've been growing this same strain of garlic here for seven years," he said, "so it's special seed. I want to see us planting it for years to come."

About the author: Lauren Rothman is a former Serious Eats intern, a freelance catering chef, and an obsessive chronicler of all things culinary. Try the original recipes on her blog, For the Love of Food, and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.

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