What’s Doing at DoTank: Brooklyn Urban Agriculture Skillshare

Posted: June 20th, 2010 | Author: Amy Newton

Crafting seedbombs for community beautification

On June 5th, I attended a workshop in Williamsburg at The Change You Want To See Gallery, hosted by a local organization called DoTank:Brooklyn. As part of their mission to promote “interdisciplinary exploration, engagement, and enhancement of the formal urban planning process”, the Urban Agriculture Skillshare presented three distinct ways that individuals can effect change in their own communities using minimal resources, a little creativity, and the help of Mother Nature.

The gallery was packed, standing-room only, but that was fine because this workshop was a series of hands-on, how-to demonstrations where, divided into three groups, the participants rotated to three different stations, spending thirty minutes at each, learning and creating a small project in urban agriculture that included Vermiculture: Indoor food waste composting, WindowFarms: To grow food indoors year-round, and Seedbombing: To beautify abandoned lots.

My first turn was at the seedbombing station where we literally got our hands dirty crafting seedbombs intended to green empty and abandoned lots in the neighborhood. Proponents of FoodNotBombs should rest assured that these bombs do no harm. In fact, they are a combination of a mix of wildflower and herb seeds, moistened in compost with a little water, and then rolled in clay to dry over night. Once hardened, these seedbombs can be tossed into abandoned lots in neighborhoods around the city where eventually, with the help of a little rain and sunshine, they will produce pretty wildflowers and fresh herbs, transforming what was once an eyesore into a more attractive space. What’s not to like about these bombs?

Today's seedbombs, tomorrow's upgrades

Aurash Khawarzad, a founder of DoTank:Brooklyn and our seedbomb instructor, calls it “upgrading community”. He spends his time teaching skillshares like these in the hopes that it will become normal for people to do these sorts of things in their own communities. Seedbombing as the norm, rather than the exception.

DoTank:Brooklyn is all about doing rather than waiting for the slow process of urban planning and implementation to kick into gear. Interested in transforming an empty and abandoned space in your neighborhood? Check out the Do:Tank website for detailed seedbomb instructions.

After washing our hands, we moved on to the white plastic bottles at skillshare number two, building an indoor hydroponic system for growing food. Britta Riley, artist and creator of WindowFarms, gave us a brief overview of her project before handing us the tools to get started. The project has two goals: to empower urbanites to grow their own food year-round indoors and to give ordinary people a way to contribute innovations toward more sustainable cities. WindowFarms are a unique design partially made from recyclable materials using a vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, system to produce high-yield, edible plants in limited space indoors.

Assembling a Window Farm

As an indoor gardener myself, I was intrigued by the prospect of growing my own fresh produce even in the midst of winter in the middle of the city, so I paid close attention. Using one-liter plastic water bottles connected through a series of cut-outs and modified bottle caps, a WindowFarms design allows for as many as five plants to grow without soil in a vertical assembly that hangs neatly in any sunny window.

The plants are fed water and nutrients through a plastic tube connected on the outside of the system and run by a small air pump, such as those used for fish tanks and aquariums. The water is recycled, conserving a precious resource, while the plants, rooted in specially-designed hydroponic clay, grow through cut-outs in the sides of the bottles. The theory is that because the roots do not spread out in soil and lose water to run-off, the plants are able to utilize the nutrients faster, promoting higher yields.

One could build their own WindowFarm with a little resourcefulness and some scrap materials. Or you can explore WindowFarms’ website for instructions and printable patterns for transforming plastic water bottles into your own window farm.

As part of attaining their second goal, WindowFarms maintains an online community of over 12,000 members worldwide. The Window Farms Network has been sharing ideas and input from their own experiences with Riley to help guide the design through twelve innovations, or subversions, making the WindowFarms system more nutritionally productive, easier to maintain, and better-looking, among other things.

A WindowFarm system……just add plants!

Currently, WindowFarms is in the process of creating WindowFarms kits for purchase through its website which will help fund their non-profit organization. As I look at the plants in pots on my window sill and think about the one I accidentally knocked off last night, snapping its stem and dumping dirt everywhere on the floor, I feel quite inclined to test out a tidy, efficient WindowFarm system myself this winter.

As a former volunteer on sustainable farms, I am familiar with a variety of composting systems, but I had never been introduced to the small-scale, in-home version of vermicomposting until this workshop. At our third skillshare for the day, we took on the task of how to reduce the two and a half pounds per day of waste that the average American produces. NYC processes 12,000 tons per day of trash at a whopping cost of two million dollars each day, sending trash to six different states as well as upstate.

Dumping our waste in landfills is not only dangerous to the land below these dumps, but the process of anaerobic decomposition creates methane which can stay in the atmosphere for nine to fifteen years. Methane traps twenty times more heat than carbon dioxide, contributing extensively to our issues of climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. So what to do with all this waste?

The North Brooklyn Compost Project offers one solution to reducing waste in the home: vermicomposting or composting with worms. Considering that 40% of the waste we generate in our homes is organic compostable material, vermicomposting can be an easy way to keep that organic material from entering the waste stream by recycling our food scraps into rich, dark compost for use in our gardens and on our indoor plants. Scientifically proven, compost is powerful enough to remediate contaminated soil, transforming it once again into productive, healthy earth, and is therefore referred to as “black gold”. Anyone can make their own black gold with a few starter materials, some worms, and your food scraps.

Here’s how it works:  You need a compost bin to get started. At the skillshare, we modified a plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid by drilling some air holes in the sides. Proper ventilation will aid in the process of decomposition (and let the worms breathe!).

Modifying for a vermiculture compost bin

A successful compost ratio is 2:1 — two parts “browns” and one part “greens.” Browns contain carbon, such as leaves and yard waste, or, as we used, shredded newspaper.  Greens contain nitrogen — your food scraps. Coffee grounds, egg shells, and tea bags are all acceptable for composting, but citrus peels, which take much longer to break down and can turn your compost acidic, should be left out. Use vegetable not animal waste in your compost bin.  Meat scraps, animal bones, dairy, and fats should not be included in your compost bin as they will not degrade quickly and will add unpleasant odors. Woody seeds and pits should not be included as they may germinate.  If the newspaper or yard waste is dry, it’s important to mist a little water in there and turn it to moisten the mix. Then, add the worms and let them do the rest.

Red wrigglers, often used for fishing bait, make great compost worms. The Lower Eastside Ecology Center sells compost worms for about $22/lb. For a bin the size we used, a pound of worms is plenty. One pound of worms will process two to three pounds of food per week.  Worms multiply rapidly so you may be able to give a pound away to a friend in about six to twelve months, keeping the amount of worms to waste balanced in your bin and doing your part to help more people compost their food waste in the city.

It will take about six weeks to reach the first harvest of compost. Keep adding food scraps, stirring the contents once in awhile and monitoring the moisture and ratio of brown to green. When it’s ready, you will see dirt accumulating underneath — a rich compost layer at the bottom of the bin separate from the remaining food scraps above.

The worms will work their way upwards in the bin over time, leaving the compost below and feasting on newer scraps and papers above. You can transfer the food scraps and worms from the top to another bin, harvest the compost beneath and then start over with a new bin. Fresh, wet compost is very high in nitrogen and needs to be cured — aired out for two weeks before applying it to your plants.

Red wrigglers, newspaper, and food scraps

Carina Molnar, our vermicomposter extraordinaire (and blogger for CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, offered these tips for maintaining a healthy compost system — very important as this is an indoor system. She keeps her bin of worms and food scraps under the kitchen sink.

If the worms are escaping, it’s because the bin is too hot or cold. Adjust the location or situation to amend this. If it begins to smell like sulfur (like eggs), add more brown, such as shredded newspaper, to absorb the odor. And if it’s too dry, spritz it with water to help maintain the moisture.

As food scraps break down, they release liquid. Balancing the scraps and newspaper will help keep an inviting environment in which the worms will continue to do their work. And the results will be your very own pot of black gold.

A pile o' black gold!

For further reading, Carina recommends the book, “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof. Or check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden website for resources on composting. The North Brooklyn Compost Project accepts kitchen compostable scraps from the public as do many community gardens in neighborhoods around Brooklyn.

If you missed out on the DoTank:Brooklyn Urban Agriculture Skillshare, visit their website and tell them you are interested in more Skillshares. They are always working to create opportunities for locals to join in the efforts to enhance urban communities all over the city, so roll up your sleeves and get “doing”!

Filed under: Composting, Events, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning, Water Conservation | 1 Comment »

Foodie Field Trip: Winter Events at Stonebarns Center

Posted: January 4th, 2010 | Author:

Photo by Roberto

If your New Year’s Resolution included getting closer to the source of your food, then you might want to take a trip to Stonebarns Center for Food & Agriculture in lovely Pocantico Hills, NY.

If you are like me, you may be feeling a bit shut in by the cold, so a little out-of-town field trip might help fight the winter blues while raising your environmental IQ.

Below is a sampling of some of the tours and tutorials that are being offered in January and February. For a full calendar, more information, reservations and prices for the events, please click here or contact Rebecca Sherman 914.366.6200 x 118

Winter Farm Market
Shop for vegetables, meat and eggs on the following Sundays from 1-4 PM in our Hay Barn: January 17, February 21, March 21, April 18. Weekly Farm Market will re-open in May.

Cooking for Kids – January 9, February 13 and March 13, 1:00 PM–2:30 PM. Themes: Breakfast Foods (1/9), School Lunch (2/13), After-School Snacks (3/13).

The Legacy of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil with Lorenzo Caponetti – Sunday, January 17, 2:00 PM–3:30 PM

Meet the Farmer: Brassicas – Saturday, January 16, 1:00 PM–2:00 PM

Writing a Food Memoir – Three Saturdays: February 27, March 6, and March 13, 9:30 AM–12:30 PM

Hands On on the Farm Tour: Youth Ages 2 to 14Sundays, 1:00 PM–2:00 PM

Winter Farm TourSundays, 3:00 PM–4:00 PM

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Slow Food NYC Raises $10,000 for Youth Farm

Posted: December 6th, 2009 | Author:

Master Bartenders Compete Head-to-Head for a Cause

On December 3, 2009, SlowFoodNYC collected upwards of $10,000 at its First Annual Cocktail Fundraiser to benefit The Youth Garden Project, planned for a location in Brooklyn TBD. 100% of donations raised went to the urban farm project.

SlowFoodNYC is finalizing discussions with several potential partner sites to run a youth-operated urban farm. The entirely volunteer-run chapter of Slow Food NYC will use the funds raised to obtain compost, to install a rainwater catchment irrigation system, to buy tools and storage sheds, and to prepare for spring planting. The aim is for youth farmers and SlowFoodNYC volunteers to work together to plant the crops, to maintain the farm and to run a farm stand.

The event was entitled “Paint the Town Green” held in the home of Board Member Sandra McLean and featured “slow” cocktails made by some of NYC’s most illustrious mixologists from the Clover Club, PDT, Little Branch and Death and Co. as well as celebrity mixologist Allen Katz. I sipped each of five different cocktails and left feeling very generous indeed.

I had the pleasure of meeting cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, the author of “Imbibe!” (which was auctioned off later in the night). He told me that he was working on a new book about alcohol punch. Wondrich and I compared notes on the “Suffragette” a 1909 cocktail I discovered which resembles a martini — created to poke fun at the men that supported the nascent women’s movement. True to “slow” form, the hosts provided some delicious food made with local ingredients. After all, McLean is a chef herself who teaches at The Institute of Culinary Education.

McLean explained the impetus behind the farm project: “It is especially gratifying for us to sponsor this Youth Farm Project, as the locations that we are considering are all located in one of our city’s ‘food deserts’, meaning that wholesome, honest, fresh food is scarce.” In addition to providing fresh produce in the community, “this farm will help kids learn about good food and its value towards their health and well-being” added McLean.

To learn more about what you can do to support the growth, maintenance and development of the SlowFoodNYC Youth Farm Project, contact info@slowfoodnyc.org. Click here to support the Youth Farm Project with your donation. 100% of your donation will go to the farm project, rather than administrative costs or salaries.

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New Future of Food: Glywood Harvest Awards

Posted: October 28th, 2009 | Author:

October 26, 2007 – Glynwood, the non-profit organization with a mission to save farming, held a celebration for winners of the 7th Annual Harvest Awards at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.  The awardees participated in a panel discussion entitled, “The New Future of Food: Finding Change in Unlikely Places.”  <<Interestingly, Glynwood also operates its own farm in the Hudson Valley experimenting with sustainable agriculture practices with a focus on raising animals.>>

In a sign of the wide interest in the topic, the large conference room was packed to capacity and there were people in the hallway waiting to get inside.  I sat next to a woman — a dietician — who told me she had traveled from Long Island to hear about sustainable agriculture.

Glywood President Judith LaBelle kicked off the conversation with an introduction of the four winners. First, there were the Straubs of Triple H Farms, dairy farmers from Michigan whose small herd roam free on grassy fields yet make higher profits than other nearby farmers whose huge herds are contained in small spaces, using the industry-standard methods. Next, New Milford Hospital was recognized for its “Plow to Plate” initiative overhauling hospital food to make it healthy and local and fresh. Sounds so sensible that it’s radical: a hospital serving healthy food!  

Eat’n Park Restaurant group won an award for negotiating with distributors to buy 20% of its food from local, seasonal sources serving its 75 family restaurant chain in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. And lastly, Falling Sky Farm in Arkansas, which has been in business just two years, created a new sustainable farm of their own and on-line Farmer’s Market for 20 other local farms.

What was the theme that each of the winners mentioned?  Infrastructure change is key to making the food system more sustainable.  


The Straubs said that banks won’t approve loans to farmers intending to graze cattle because such “Farm Plans” fall outside lenders historic metrics for cash-flow and profits. As a result, the Straubs are working with Cornell University and other farmers to create alternative economic histories and balance sheets for grazing farms. This undertaking would not be remarkable except that the Straubs have been grazing dairy cattle since 1993. So, dairy grazing is not so new and it’s clearly proven and profitable.  For reference to the metrics, see the Straub’s recent report “Profitability in Dairy Grazing.


Eat’n Park would use MORE local food if the distributor would sell it to them. Eat’n Park leveraged its bulk purchasing power to exert influence over food distributors to convince them to carry local produce. With SYSCO and the other big food distributors dominating the trucking lanes, widespread change may be challenging.  


New Milford Hospital reduced the amount of waste associated with its food production by more than half. How? By using everything that it bought and cooking from scratch. Vegetable peelings make stock and not garbage. Leftovers are composted.  The hospital also simplified its menu which further reduced waste and reduced overhead enough to permit the food service to buy higher quality food. As a result, patients’ positive rating of the hospital food increased from 30% to 86% positive in just ten months. Job satisfaction amongst food service staff has also increased as they now feel included in the hospital’s mission and the patients’ healing process.    


Falling Sky Farm reaches buyers directly with its products rather than selling through a middleman. The purchaser gets to know the farmer that provides them with fresher, healthier food. As a farmer-producer, however, Falling Sky Farm is limited to operating at a very small output volume permitted by the USDA regulations. In order to increase its production and reach more markets, Falling Sky Farm would have to drive two hours to process its chickens in a USDA-approved plant. More USDA-approved processing plants need to be initiated for smaller farmers who want to reach more consumers. I am long-time client of Dines Farms, New York.  Dines has responded to the same USDA limitations and taken matters into its own hands, raising money to open its own USDA-approved meat processing facility.


The average age of a farmer in the United States is about 50 years old, suggesting a growing need for younger farmers to continue the farming business. Farm land and farmers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Who will feed this country when they are gone?  Falling Sky Farms provides an answer.  These two young, college-educated founders read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma inspiring them to visit Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia who gave them some of the conceptual and practical tools to embark on a new farming enterprise.  



After the panel, Glynwood held a lovely cocktail reception with food and wine provided by (some of my favorite) NYC chefs who attended The French Culinary Institute and whose menus emphasize local produce: Chef Sean Rembold, Marlow & Sons, Brooklyn; Chef Shanna Pacifico, Back Forty, NYC; Chef Josh Eden, Shorty’s 32, NYC and Chef Bobby Hellen, Resto, NYC. I am almost embarassed to admit how many times I have eaten at Marlow & Sons, where Chef Rembold’s use of local, seasonal foods has expanded my palate and my own cooking style. The crowd at the reception was quite thick, making it difficult to consume both food and drink. Yet I did get a chance to sample Chef Pacifico’s winter squash soup with roasted brussel sprout leaves and crispy pancetta — which was excellently seasonal and flavorful. Food pictured above is a paté assemblage prepared by Chef Hellen.  


Overall, Glynwood produced an interesting and inspiring dialogue about the future of food. Glynwood’s awards emphasize practical and effective undertakings happening today which could transform agriculture in the future. That’s appropriate. I have to admit, however, that I was hoping the discussion would continue further up the same road to the future — pointing out grand dreams and bold visions. Maybe I developed an appetite lingering from my weekend conversations about “Utopias.”  In an effort to continue this significant dialogue, I hope to discuss Glynwood’s broader aspirations for tomorrow’s agriculture in an upcoming post.

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Brooklyn Farmers Ball – Come One, Come All!

Posted: October 27th, 2009 | Author:

Tonite, I am going to check out the Brooklyn Farmers Ball at the Brooklyn Lyceum.  The event was organized by Food Security Roundtable to raise funds to send a delegation of urban farmers and food justice activists to the Growing Food and Justice For All Initiative over this weekend in Milwaukee, WI at Will Allen’s Growing Power.   As a father of two school-age kids, I can’t miss the upcoming Halloween festivities.  So, I am excited to bid bon voyage to the sojourners this evening.  I hope to hear back  from some of the Brooklyn delegation later this Fall and report on their work in a future post!

Footnote: October 28, 2009: I guess there were about 300 attendees at the Brooklyn Farmer’s Ball last night, most of whom seemed to be twenty-somethings.  Here’s a photo of the somewhat nutty promenade with the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.

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“Utopian” Urban Planning: Discussion & Exhibit

Posted: October 22nd, 2009 | Author:

“Utopian” Urban Planning 
Artists and Community Leaders Discuss Brooklyn’s Future
Sunday, October 25, 2009, 2-4pm, Brooklyn Historical Society 
128 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201, First Floor Community Gallery and basement conference room.          Admission: FREE

Please join me at this round table event in which artists and curator will debate their ideas with community leaders, architects and urban planners, and the general public, with a focus on large (and small) scale planning initiatives.

What does it take to build affordable and sustainable living, working, and transportation systems in Brooklyn?  How can we develop Brooklyn responsibly to meet the needs of its diverse communities, including its artistic communities?  And finally, how do artists play a role in this urban planning process? 

Special guest speakers include Amy Sananman, Executive Director/Founder, Groundswell Community Mural Project, Shin-pei Tsay, Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, Derek Denckla, Founder, Propeller Group and Alexander Gorlin, FAIA, Principal/Founder of Alexander Gorlin Architects. The event will feature an exhibit walk-through with artists and curators, followed by a panel discussion moderated by urban historian and licensed architect Marta Gutman, PhD. (please see attachment for more information about participating organizations/panelists). 

“Utopian” Urban Planning is part of the Brooklyn Utopias? exhibitions and public programs series, in which artists and youth respond to differing visions of an ideal Brooklyn. The main Brooklyn Utopias? art show will be on view in the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Community Gallery through January 3, 2010. Please visit www.brooklynutopias.com for more information.


I was really impressed with presenters at this event. Each brought a vision for planning a greener city. Alexander Gorlin is incorporating vast tracts of urban agriculture in a proposed community plan for Brownsville. Amy Sananman of Groundswell Mural is inspiring youth to understand the source of our precious water resources through the creation of public art. Shin-Pei Tsay of Transportation Alternatives is sponsoring competitions to design a greener city with fewer (no) cars. The exhibition and the events were very thoughtfully put together by curator Katherine Gressel. Soon, I will be talking to Katherine about continuing the conversation because the notion of “Utopia” shifts with the necessities of each moment.

I think that there is a need to re-discover the impulse to be a “Utopian.” “Utopia” is inherently related to both time + place. “Ou + Topos” is literally “No Place.” “Utopia” is a place that is not a place because it exists only in our minds. Thus, Utopia is a place that always and only exists in the future. It is an imagined future that responds to a longing in the present grounded in some interpretation of problems past. For some, Utopia and Heaven are one. Plato may have called it “Forms.” President William Jefferson Clinton called it “Hope.” Regardless of your cosmology, I believe that it is peculiarly human impulse to work to describe and realize elements of Utopia in the present place and make way for the next, greater vision of Utopia that we will be chasing thereafter.

Filed under: Events, Urban Agriculture, Urban Planning | Tags: Alexander Gorlin, , , Brooklyn Utopias?, Future, , , , , , , | 1 Comment »
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