"It's not going to be top-down. It wasn't Fidel Castro who said, 'Hey, let's all grow our own food.'"
If you're not quite sold on urban farming, Brian Snyder might be the motivational speaker who could Power-Point you into a completely rational fervor. Even if at first he sounds radical.
"Wouldn't it be cool if we could shut off the food supply to New York City, just for a little while?" he said the other night. The audience at the Astor Center's "Room to Grow" discussion about urban agriculture—no doubt a bunch of leftie urban locavores—was silent. "Well, it wouldn't be fun," Snyder admitted, "but that's kind of what we did in Cuba, and guess what happened? Widespread urban agriculture."
Snyder, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, showed us several photos of bountiful organic farms in Havana, which he says feed its 2 million residents. (Protein remains insufficient.) With the shortage of petroleum and fertilizer resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union and US trade embargoes, locals took it upon themselves to feed themselves—turning their backyards and eventually city parks into farms. "We thought the government would crumble and Cuba would come begging," Snyder said.
Snyder is gifted at making the far-out seem logical by way of analogy. And he backs up his argument with numbers. What happened in Cuba began out of necessity but was then nurtured by the government through tax policies and big subsidies. Snyder would love to see a similar evolution here. A grassroots movement is already growing, but even Snyder admitted it's trendy, and that if that trend fades, we'll never see the kind of legislative change he wants. As he put it, "It's not going to be top-down. It wasn't Fidel Castro who said, 'Hey, let's all grow our own food.'"
After Snyder's talk, the three other speakers, leaders in the urban farming movement, joined in a discussion of how anyone—but especially city slickers—can take part. Nevin Cohen, who teaches environmental studies at the New School, is an urban planner who focuses not just on the environmental aspects of planning and marketing, but specifically on the food system and how it is affected. Catherine Saillard owns the Fort Greene restaurant iCi, which was one of the city's first to focus on local, seasonal ingredients and support urban farms like Added Value. Annie Novak is the co-founder of Greenpoint's year-old rooftop farm, Eagle Street; the founder of Growing Chefs, an educational organization; and the Children's Gardening Coordinator for the New York Botanical Gardens. The talk was hosted by and benefited Farm Camp at Flying Pigs Farm.
The two hours shed light on some vexing conundrums of urban farming, like how to appropriately measure the productivity of small farms, (using pound-dollar ratios doesn't account for the weight difference between tomatoes and lettuce) and how to change policies when state lines don't match up with the natural boundaries of food-sheds. (Snyder most likely won't succeed in re-drawing state lines to correspond to common environmental interests, though he'd love to.) Novak talked about the economy of small farming. (Eagle Street stopped growing winter squash in favor of more space- and time-efficient—and therefore more profitable—crops.) But mostly, these experts were inspiring and suggested real contributions we can make.
Novak, who has farmed in nine countries and studied the agriculture systems of many more, recognizes that not all eager urban farmers will stick with it. Growing food is a lot of work. On the other hand, green roofs, planted with food or non-edible plants, benefit the city simply by absorbing rainwater, which otherwise often overwhelms our sewage system. "I think the exit strategy for a lot of rooftop farmers is blueberry bushes," Novak said. "They're easy to maintain and are native to our area." So, if your loftiest goals don't work out, there's virtue still in blueberries.
Novak joked that she had promised not to end the night by telling everyone in the audience to go home and plant a seed, but couldn't help herself. "Well, too bad. I wouldn't have self-faith in these things we want to change with policies if I didn't know on a personal level that compost rocks."
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