It seems that Brooklynites will emerge from their brownstones in droves for anything concerning local, sustainably produced food. The Brooklyn Food Conference on Saturday was a free, educational event, consisting mainly of workshops housed in a local high school. Attendance was in the thousands—it was hard to move in the crowded trade shows, and a raucous marching band shook up an ordinarily quiet Prospect Park that morning. This was Park Slope’s Puerto Rican Day parade.
Workshops provided a variety of perspectives, from philosophical ("Food Sovereignty North and South: People’s Control Over Their Own Food") to practical ("How to Start a Food Co-op: Nuts and Bolts") to political "(Meet Our Congressional Reps: Ask Your Questions on Federal Food Policy & Hear Their Answers").
But the message was the same across the board: small and local is good, big agriculture is bad, and everyone wants to start their own victory garden.
Attendants crowded John Jay High School’s auditorium for “Our Sustainable Chefs,” a roundtable with Dan Barber (Blue Hill), Peter Hoffman (Savoy, Back Forty), Bill Telepan (Telepan), David Shea (Applewood) and John Tucker (Rosewater), hosted by WNYC’s Leonard Lopate. There was no need to explain the basics to this crowd—when Lopate asked how many audience members knew about Blue Hill, every single hand shot up—so the conversation got interesting quickly.
Though each chef displayed an impressive knowledge of agricultural issues, Dan Barber stole the show.
When Peter Hoffman raised the example of Wagyu beef to challenge Dan Barber’s claim that local, sustainably raised food always tastes better, Barber retorted, “Once you’ve tasted meat that’s rotationally fed, on good grass, with good breeds, and hung the right way, Wagyu beef looks like McDonald’s.”
And on the topic of vertical farming, Barber deplored the trendy panacea as a waste of resources. “There’s only a certain amount of money that our government will spend on agriculture, and…the biggest problem small farmers face is distribution. That’s what we should be subsidizing,” said Barber, demonstrating awareness of a crucial issue that doesn’t get discussed often enough.
At the next workshop, “Passing the Hoe,” a panel of young, hiply dressed farmers, Severine Fleming, Michael Grady, Sarah Franklin, and KayCee Wimbish, discussed their “ninja-esque” struggles and triumphs in the field. Hardly your typical 4-H member, Grady described his college years “smoking cigarettes and reading Dostoevsky” in response to a question about the state and usefulness of agricultural education.
The impassioned Fleming, whose documentary film The Greenhorns was showing at the Brooklyn Museum that night, described her work with the organization she founded for young farmers, while interjecting with surprising statistics. Seed sales are up 35 percent since Michelle Obama planted her victory garden. One-third of white children and half of minority children in the country have obesity or diabetes; the fastest growing demographic of farmers in Vermont is women under 25.
At the end, locals Ben Flanner and Annie Novak addressed the crowd about the vegetable farm they were starting on a Greenpoint rooftop. As audience members trampled each other to introduce themselves to the panelists and volunteer to help the two, it was clear that a real movement was underway.