bushwick city farms

space type: community farm | neighborhood: bushwick | active since: 2008 | links: website, facebook, twitter

The first thing my sister Laurel told me about Bushwick City Farms was that being a volunteer there went a tremendous way toward assuaging her gentrifier guilt about living in Bed-Stuy. “As soon as I unlock the gate, a dozen kids come running out of the housing projects nearby, asking if they can plant seeds, or paint planter boxes, or just play tag in the space,” she said. “And the parents come by every day to thank us for what we’re doing for the community, and for keeping an eye on their kids.” My experience was the same. The kids are so eager to help that we couldn’t do any of the planting ourselves—they practically grabbed the seeds out of our hands. And when I talked to some of the adults in the area—who were barbecuing on the sidewalk, and insisted on giving me a heaping plate of grilled chicken, sausages, and rice and beans—they reiterated how happy they were about the farm as a safe community space.

kids planting (photo by Alix)

Bushwick City Farms is really one of the most beautiful projects I’ve had the pleasure of profiling. Like Trees Not Trash, they’ve appropriated two abandoned lots (so far), and they’ve filled them with fowl—chickens, ducks, guinea hens, even a turkey—and gardens. They’re growing more than fifty different fruits, vegetables, and plants, and the entire yield is given out to the community. They’ve got a small version of the Free Store outside of one farm, where people can take or leave clothes, small appliances, and other household goods. In the past they’ve offered ESL classes in the farms, and the spaces serve as a gathering place for members of the community, as well as an opportunity for food education—one day we were harvesting and passing out arugula, and we watched many people try the spicy green for the first time.

Jason with a bucket of greens (photo by me)

The project is entirely volunteer run, and nearly everything has been donated. They’re always looking for more helping hands, so head on out to see them if you’d like to participate in this incredible project. But first, read my interview with Vinnie, Jason, Aneta, and Laurel.

planters (photo by Alix)

brooklyn spaces: How did this all get started?
Vinnie: My wife Masha, the founder, got permission from the owner of the lot on Broadway to use it as a community garden, and she and the original group of volunteers came in and started cleaning the place out. Shortly thereafter, Jason and I got involved, and other people started helping out, and little by little we started building and expanding. The goal was always to produce fresh, organic food for those in the community, and to provide a space that people could come in and enjoy. We also want to provide food education, to bring people back to basics as far as where food comes from, how to grow and produce it responsibly, and how to eat healthy.
Jason: People are so out of touch with where their food comes from, how food is grown, and what types of food you should be eating.

Jason and Laurel (photo by Alix)

brooklyn spaces: What was the lot like when you got here?
Vinnie: It was overgrown by weeds, and it had been used as an illegal dumping site for years, so it was completely full of garbage. It was a year before it started really looking like something.

Outside the Broadway lot (photo by Alix)

brooklyn spaces: What did you start with?
Vinnie: We had chickens and some container gardens. The garden itself went through a kind of a metamorphosis over the first couple of seasons. We didn’t really know what we were doing; a lot of it was a learning process. We didn’t know about the extent of the contamination in the soil, and we had built smaller beds that didn’t have enough depth to them, which were taken apart eventually.

Inside the Broadway lot (photo by me)

brooklyn spaces: What’s the soil contaminated with?
Jason: Everything. A hundred years of building and collapsing and building and collapsing.
Vinnie: Dumping too. The Stockton lot has been both an apartment building and a gas station in the past, and then it was vacant for two or three decades. It’s basically a landfill; there’s no real soil. It’s mostly cement, brick particles, and garbage.
Jason: There was a tent city, and people had been living in there up until like 2009. Apparently there was a crazy fight, some guy bashed someone’s head in with a shovel, and then there was a fire and their huts burned down, so it was vacant when we went in there.

Planting tomatoes in the Stockton lot (photo by Alix)

brooklyn spaces: When was that?
Jason: Earth Day 2011. We’d had our eye on it for a while, and we just decided to go in and start cleaning it out. We spent a long time bagging up trash, raking up the rubble, cleaning it up. We planted some flowers that first day, and then later we built the fence and got some container gardens started. We just started slowly building it up.

container gardens (photo by Alix)

brooklyn spaces: So you didn’t have prior permission to be in the Stockton space the way you did with the one on Broadway?
Vinnie: No, we just went in and did it. Eventually the manager contacted us. He asked us to write a proposal to the owner, and we did that, and we were given permission to stay. Most people, if they’re not using the land, are pretty open to the idea of community gardens. Or at least that’s been our experience so far.

photo by Alix

brooklyn spaces: What was the reaction from the community?
Vinnie: People loved it, the kids especially. They really love the chickens.

photo by Alix

brooklyn spaces: Where did the chickens come from?
Vinnie: The first ones came from the pollo de vido, the live poultry shop on Myrtle. Since then we’ve gotten more from there, and a lot of the birds have been donated. The turkey was left here on Thanksgiving; we never saw who brought it.

guinea hen & chickens (photo by Alix)

brooklyn spaces: And what about all the building materials and things? Where did all that come from?
Vinnie: We get different things from people in the community: grocery stores have donated produce, gardening companies have given us leftover plants, landscaping companies gave us all the woodchips. There’s a company that ships huge stones, and they have these pallets that are only good for one use, so we get all of our wood from them.

building planter boxes (photo by me)

brooklyn spaces: What all do you have growing now?
Vinnie: Oh, there’s so much. We have spinach, kale, all kinds of lettuce, radishes, carrots, tomatoes…
Jason: Cucumbers, green beans, cilantro, basil, mint, eggplants, a fig tree…
Vinnie: Roses, apple trees…
Jason: Pear trees, peach trees, nectarines, plums, peppers, elephant ears—just tons and tons of stuff.

photo by Alix

brooklyn spaces: And all the food gets donated to the community?
Jason: Yeah. Sundays at 2 o’clock we do distribution, we give out the eggs from the chickens and whatever we’re harvesting that week. The food is given out on an as-needed basis, but we don’t check credentials or anything. We trust people to need what they take and take what they need.

garden behind the chicken coop (photo by me)

brooklyn spaces: How many people are involved in keeping this going?
Jason: There’s a core group of about ten volunteers who come to work here almost every day, but if you include all the kids in the neighborhood and everyone who stops by to help out when they can, we probably have more than fifty people.

photo by me

brooklyn spaces: What are your goals for the future?
Vinnie: Probably by the end of the summer we’ll be thinking about expansion, going into other lots, getting schools involved, doing more educational programs.

photo by Alix

brooklyn spaces: What’s the most rewarding part of this for you?
Aneta: I like that people get really excited about it. People are so thrilled, like, “Wow, I’ve never seen a live chicken before!” That’s really fascinating and rewarding. People are happy, really happy to see this.
Vinnie: It reminds a lot of people of where they’re from, so it’s really nice to see their reactions. And the kids just love it. It’s really great to work with the kids.
Jason: For a kid to see something go from seed to harvest is unbelievable, that’s so cool. And they’re more likely to want to eat what they’ve planted, so we’re planting seeds in a lot of different ways.
Laurel: I think the community-building is my favorite part. Providing a space to bring people together and to meet their neighbors. It’s a diverse neighborhood, and I think it’s great to challenge boundaries and remember that people are people.

photo by Alix

Like this? Read about more community spaces: Time’s Up, Body Actualized CenterBoswyck Farms, Books Through Bars, No-SpaceTrinity Project#OccupyWallStreet art show

boswyck farms

neighborhood: bushwick | space type: farm | active since: 2008 | links: website, facebook, twitter

Amid all the other creative movements in Brooklyn these days, farming is one that’s gaining ground. Brooklynites are farming in gardens (Trees Not Trash, Bushwick City Farm), on rooftops (Eagle Street, Roberta’s), even in trucks! And of course they’re experimenting with different kinds of farming—which brings us to Boswyck.

in the Grow Room, researching how plants grow with no natural light

Boswyck Farms is a working hydroponic farm as well as a research and development center, focused on building and testing different types of hydroponic growing systems. They grow all manner of produce—from artichokes to dill to a dwarf apple tree—and they’ve placed smaller offshoot farms around the neighborhood, including on the roof of the Bushwick Starr. They also do a ton of outreach and projects within the community, like growing lettuce at an institution for adults with mental illness, teaching botany programs and summer school classes in NYC schools, and running hydroponic workshops for adults. They even bring students into the farm as interns. It’s not just for kids, of course—anyone can volunteer.

herb garden in a flood-and-drain system

Q&A with Lee, Boswyck’s founder

brooklyn spaces: Give me a quick hydroponics tutorial.
Lee: Hydroponics at its core is growing without soil. All the food that the plants need is mixed into a nutrient solution. We try out many of the different types of hydroponic systems here. We’re growing tomatoes in a flood-and-drain system, and the way that works is and six times a day the roots get bathed in nutrients, and then it drains back down into the reservoir. All of our systems re-circulate. We have ancho peppers growing in a drip system, where nutrients are dripped through the roots continuously, twenty-four hours a day. We have an herb garden, with basil, dill, cilantro, oregano, and thyme, growing in another flood-and-drain system. We have several self-contained drip systems, growing broccoli, cauliflower, and pink flamingo chard. We have artichokes growing in a deep-water system, which has about two inches of nutrients that the roots sit in all the time, and a raft system growing cucumbers, sage, dill, cilantro, and spinach. Lastly, we have basil, dill, and cilantro growing in a tower system built out of milk crates. Every nine minutes, the pump turns on and rains down nutrients through the roots. That system was designed by two students at City College.

ancho peppers growing with no natural light

brooklyn spaces: And this is all great for the environment, right?

Lee: Even though it’s counterintuitive, hydroponics uses 70–90 percent less water than traditional growing: there’s no runoff, and there’s very little evaporation. People ask whether hydroponics uses a lot of electricity, and usually they look at the lights, which do use a lot, but they actually have nothing to do with hydroponics. If we were growing indoors with soil, the lights would be the same. At Boswyck, we’re starting to look at how we can offset some of the electricity usage with wind and solar power, and we’re always looking at ways to build these systems from reclaimed materials.

pink flamingo chard in a self-contained drip system

brooklyn spaces: Have you always been a farmer?
Lee: No, I’m a computer programmer. I read a magazine article and took a visit to the Science Barge, which is a teaching boat that’s hydroponic, and I just got hooked. I decided that I was going to turn my life upside-down and become an urban farmer. It’s very exciting and very terrifying, because I’m putting my life savings into it. If I wasn’t frightened, I’d be delusional.

tomatoes in a flood-and-drain system

brooklyn spaces: Who are some of your clients?
Lee: One is a place called Fountain House, in Hell’s Kitchen, which is a residency and day center for adults with mental illness. They wanted to grow the lettuce that they use in their cafeteria, so they had a 165-sq-ft room that we built out just for growing lettuce. Another client is the Child Development Support Corporation in Bed-Stuy. They do a lot of early childhood classes for families, and they run an emergency food pantry. They gave us a 250-sq-ft room, and we’re going to be growing lettuce, bok choy, and collards.

herbs growing in reused milk crates

brooklyn spaces: Tell me about the work you do with students.
Lee: We started in a fourth-grade class in the West Village. The last time I had been in a fourth-grade classroom, I was in fourth grade. I had a lot of respect for teachers going in, but now I simply don’t understand how they do it. I’d spend an hour and a half with the kids and then come home and take a nap. Now we do informal internships with college students and formal internships with some high school students in the neighborhood. It’s been really eye-opening working with these kids. They have been fucked by the system, from start to finish. I can’t put it any other way. I’ve got eleventh graders in who are reading at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, very little math skills, and nobody’s ever taught them a work ethic. I feel my job is teaching them how to work, what it is to be in a workplace, and things like personal responsibility. Not too long ago, we had a workshop with a number of sixth-grade students from a school out in suburban Queens, and these kids were so focused, the questions they came up with were so insightful. Seeing the contrast between them and the kids we work with in at-risk areas… I always knew this was going on, but it hit me really hard when I saw it in person. It makes me want even more to bring that kind of experience to schools in our neighborhood, because all kids deserve it.

artichoke in a deep-water system

brooklyn spaces: Are you the only hydroponic farm in Brooklyn?
Lee: There aren’t a lot of legal hydroponic farms in the New York City area. We don’t shy away from the fact that most of the people doing hydroponics in the city are growing pot. In fact, the pot growers are doing some great research, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them. But there’s a number of different farms in the city that are doing everything from small-scale to large commercial greenhouses. I think we’re the only ones who combine hydroponics, education, and working with social service providers. There is definitely a lot of great urban farming going on all over New York, and Brooklyn seems to be the epicenter.


Like this? Read about more community groups: Trees Not Trash, Books Through Bars, Brooklyn Free Store, Trinity ProjectTime’s Up, Film Biz Recycling, Bushwick City Farms