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In late Fall, I met with my friend, Matt Sheehan, to talk about his take on urban agriculture, which is vast.  He took a break from from building “worm bins” for Red Hook Community Farm (An Added Value Project) to speak with me.

Matt wears many hats: Master Composter, Vermiculture Impresario, Backyard Farmer, Father of Two Boys Who Like Dirt, Public School Teacher, and Added Value Volunteer.

Matt is passionate about teaching Urban Agriculture to kids.  He has been trying to get anyone who will listen to understand the value of kids making a mess to grow food.  He wants urban agriculture to be part of every school’s curriculum and every child’s science experience.

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A south-facing planter at Brooklyn New School

“I have never seen students so engaged for such a long time on any subject that I usually teach in the classroom.  But I give them a shovel, a pile of dirt and leaves and they want to work and learn for hours.  I literally had to drag the students away from composting project.  By harvest, their minds are totally blown.”

Matt is part of a new initiative, Garden-to-Café Pilot Project, that aims to connect kids in NYC’s public schools with the growing, harvesting and eating of seasonal food at school.  Garden-to-Café is is a pilot program of NYC Department of Education, SchoolFood and NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets in collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension; GreenThumb; Added Value; and more than 20 community-based organizations.  Matt brought Garden-to-Café to the Brooklyn New School, which is one of 20 schools participating in the pilot program around the City.  For more info on Garden to Café, contact Christina Grace 718.722.2834 who works at the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Lack of fresh food in NYC public schools is a major health issue which was recently covered in the NY Times (Schools’ Toughest Test: Cooking).  Better school food raises a host of issues from nutrition to classroom performance to local economy and the environment.

Matt thinks school farms is the missing link that could help solve some major problems for students.  He is not alone.  There is a movement afoot across the United States that shares these aims, such as Edible Schoolyard, launched by star chef Alice Waters in Berkeley, California.

The student farming movement is almost like turning the clock back on education.  In the past, kids were let out of school in the summer to aid with the harvest on their homestead farms.  Later, progressive educational institutions in 1890s were called Farm Schools.  Maria Montessori included growing food as an essential element in early childhood education.  The impulse then as now is that young people ought to understand the way things grow.  Agriculture courses were taught in school along with other applied disciplines cut from curricula, like “Shop Class” and “Home Economics.”

Educational research has shown repeatedly that there are different types of learning and different types of learners.  And, in particular, kinesthetic learning is the most neglected, while audio-visual learning is ascendent.  Gardening provides for strong, memorable pedagogic experiences that elucidate scientific concepts.  Why is it we are always dissecting worms rather than promoting their life cycle in a compost bin?

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Red worms making casings at Brooklyn New School

Matt is on a mission to start his dream small.  He has partnered with Brooklyn New School to build a farm there, taking small steps to make the growing possible.  With a small grant and a lot of volunteer labor, he built a composting station that transforms cafeteria food scraps into fertilizer and topsoil.

Matt also built a container garden around the perimeter of the school. Stalks of corn have popped up on Henry Street on a treeless stretch of sidewalk in front of the school. Matt has enlisted the students to design and plan the garden.  He has engaged students in discussions about irrigation, rainwater capture and composting.

Matt met up with a lot of challenges putting the project together but now he is aided by a committed group of parent volunteers. “What would it be like if the Board of Education simply decided to create an infrastructure for student gardening?  It wouldn’t be this process of one inspired guy, like me, hitting his head against a whole host of obstacles.   What if they swept away all the school rules that made it hard to undertake?  What if they made all the resources available?”  I like the sound of that.

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Student work on seed germination

Matt’s experience as a teacher permitted him to craft connections between the work in the garden with classroom curricculum, reinforcing the lessons about the food systems with environmental science.  On the day that I met up with him, he was teaching kids about the composition of soil taken from several different locations around the region.  The week before, he was talking about seed germination.

Of course, Matt knows that operating urban farms in every school will be challenging to achieve.  ”In a school system where parents are asked to buy the teachers paper, I am not optimistic that they are going to buy teachers raised beds, composting bins and seedlings.” However, Matt was able to do it all with very little funds and lots of donated labor, equipment and materials. So your school could have a farm too.

As much as it is a cliche, children are the most obvious symbols of our future.  It would be worth exploring how we can help them grow a little more at school.

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INTERVIEW WITH ARCHITECT GITA NANDAN

Is Accutane PrescriptionRecently, I met with my friend and colleague, Gita Nandan, at Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Gita is the principal of the groovy green architecture firm, thread collective, and a motive force behind GreenHomeNYC, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and touring green buildings.

I spoke with Gita about why she sees the future of green building as linked to urban agriculture.

What is the future of green building right now?
The green building marketplace is totally over-run right now even with the overall market is down. Green building went rapidly from a small group of fringe folks who were dedicated to social change to the darling of big business and government overnight. Today, there are literally thousands of people with ‘LEED Accredited Professional’ printed after their names who have never worked on a green building and who may or may not care so deeply environmental progress.

I have observed that phenomenon too with some dismay. Isn’t it a good thing that the mainstream market forces have begun to seek out green objectives and sustainability credentials, like LEED?
I am a bit dubious about the widespread understanding of environmentally transformative practices in light of the recent rush to green professionalization and standardization. Green building really involves continually pushing the envelopes of the professions and the practices — not achieving some static benchmark that everyone can attain at once. For instance, one day solar panels won’t even be seen as a green design element because some other, more efficient technology or better building system will have replaced them.

Then what’s the next frontier for green building?
I am looking for more ways to express a green design agenda that is progressive rather than status quo. Like you, I have been investigating ways that green building projects can be combined with urban agriculture to be truly sustainable and catalytic for neighborhood change. A private green residence doesn’t do much to help people in poor communities understand their environmental impact and limited environmental resources.

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What are you working on now?

We just received a grant from the Design Trust to work with Added Value on exploring how urban agriculture can be expanded to have a greater city wide impact, incorporating a metric based study.  Currently New York City does not have an urban agriculture policy in place.  We will be exploring the potential of how this can take shape.   The project is called the Five Borough Farm.

We are also in the planning process with Added Value exploring the expansion of programs and facilities at the Red Hook Community Farm.

What would that expansion look like for Red Hook Farm?

One idea is to create a Red Hook Center for Sustainability and Agriculture.  We would add a 7,000 square foot facility to the existing farm that will be carbon neutral and give back to the environment with a knowledge-based center for community learning about sustainability and the culture of food.  For instance, the building would have solar power with a learning center teaching about how the photovoltaics work and how the system provides electricity.  We envision having similar exhibits about biodiesel, black and grey water processing, wind power and animal husbandry.

Whoa, you lost me there. Did you say, ‘Animal husbandry.’ I am getting flashbacks from studying for the SATs.
OK, OK. How about ‘caring for animals’? Does that make you feel better?

Marginally.
Anyways, we plan to have a wayfinding system for schoolchildren and signage everywhere. To the extent that systems require operation and maintenance, we will engage visitors and volunteers in these processes.

This is a really ambitious plan.  How are you going to get these all done?

Our idea is to proceed in two phases. Phase 1 will be exploration of ideas, community outreach, need identification and pre-design. Phase 2 will involve building a small functional portion of the larger structure, say 2000 to 3000 square feet. We are going to begin with a study to show that urban farming is a viable business and identify its importance.

Sounds right up thegreenest alley.
Yes, it is. We are going to explore how private-public models, like the Red Hook Community Farm, function.

What makes the Red Hook Farm private-public?
[NYC Department of] Parks owns the land and lets a private not-for-profit, Added Value, operate a farm there.  It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and its important because the farm is actually considered a public park.  Unlike most other farms that are on private land.

OK.  What is the roll-out plan for the Five Borough Farm?

First, we are working to determine the a set of specific metrics.  The focus will be on the triple bottom line impact that Added Value and urban agriculture can have.  These are impacts on social justice, economic justice, and the environment.

Next, we will develop a so-called “Kit of Parts.”  We will research best practices used by Added Value and other successful urban farms to produce a guide for urban farmers.

Lastly, we will convene city agencies, community groups, and local stakeholders to discuss what would be the best strategies to promote urban farm development.

And what kind of food productivity could New York City expect? We need to have a consumption and production study that shows the challenges and obstacles.   Then, we need to have a city-wide discussion with decision makers about potential policy impediments to urban farming.  We need to understand the foodprint of NYC.

Foodprint is the amount of land needed to supply one person’s nutritional needs for a year.

Is Accutane PrescriptionThat sounds like a government function.  Shouldn’t the government be charged with analyzing the foodprint?
Currently, there is one full-time government employee working on agriculture in New York City and she is not even employed by the City, she works for New York State Department of Agriculture [and Markets].

There is currently one person running the Office of Food Policy Coordinator within the Office of Econonmic Opportunity.  This office is focused on providing access to healthy food for low income New Yorkers, which is a great thing, but there is no coordinated effort at the moment that addresses urban ag[riculture] and food in a systematic or holistic way.

[Side Note: A resolution was introduced on June 30, 2009 in the NY City Council by Bill de Blasio, called “FoodprintNYC,” calling for an initiative to create greater access to local, fresh, healthy food, especially in low-income communities as well as city-run institutions. For more information on this effort to pass legislation analyzing the NYC “foodprint,” see NYC Foodprint Alliance]

What are your short-term needs to get this process off the ground?

We are working with Design Trust to hire three fellows. First, we need a statistician to compile health, food, and economic data. Next, we need someone to act as a community liaison to discuss how to get the neighborhood involved in the planning and running of an expanded Red Hook garden. Finally, we need to undertake some mapping to show the results of research in graphic form.

Is this only for Red Hook? It sounds broader.
Right. The idea is to take the Red Hook Center and then replicate the model throughout the City. I have often thought that libraries, which are (unfortunately) dying, could be converted into “Sustainability Learning Centers.” That way, the library could engage communities in active education that impacts our daily lives.

Great idea, except that every community campaign wants to somehow include libraries. The libraries themselves are beleaguered from responding to these entreaties when they are trying to run their core business of lending books.
OK. I may have to re-think the library bit.

Will the design be driven by the community? If so, how will you avoid the dreaded ‘Architecture by Committee?’
Very funny. The design will be proposed by Added Value and Thread Collective but the elements of the design will be suggested and approved through community meetings. We also want to engage community youth in the actual building of the project, like putting up chicken coops and solar panels.

So, in a sense, this is not about a pretty monument dropped in from the outside?
Not at all. This project is not a community garden project. It’s not just about beautification and open space. It’s about learning to run urban agriculture as a business: a thriving non-profit education business with a for-profit component that grows food for sale.

How is the Red Hook space going to sustain both the education and production sides of the business?
This particular part of the plan for Added Value is still under discussion. The inclusion of farmland managed by Added Value on Governor’s Island opens the door to more opportunities that could provide straight cash flow to the organization while the Red Hook site becomes geared to education.

The expansion of the Red Hook Community Farm reminds of New Alchemy project in Massachusetts. I visited that project as a child and it was inspiring and revolutionary. Are you familiar with New Alchemy?
No. What is that?

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Bioshelter illustration from New Alchemy (1970)

It was sort of exactly like what you are describing for the Red Hook Center. New Alchemy had aquaculture with Tilapia before anyone even knew what that fish was and at a time when it was not even sold in stores.
Cool. What happened to them. Are they still around?

I think New Alchemy failed because the environmental movement lost steam in the 1980s and 1990s and it was never self-sustaining. Are you afraid that the green movement is a fad that will die out as the American economy groans in pain?
No. I think green thinking is now embedded in business thinking to some extent. However, not all of the aspects that are embedded are positive, like ethanol production, which has been a disaster.

What about New Alchemy’s other problem, spreading itself too thin? Does this expansion of Red Hook Community Farm have the potential to dilute Added Value and one of the most inspiring urban agriculture projects in the City?
No. I think that mission spread is a danger for any mission expansion. Added Value has wanted to expand in this way for many years and has planned carefully to get to this point. In fact, there was an earlier round of planning for this change before Thread Collective came on board to refine the idea further.

I guess I am concerned about Red Hook Community Farm going “high tech.” What I love about Red Hook Community Farm is that it’s pile of dirt on a parking lot. I think that the project speaks to youth about the possibility of a small positive action having a big positive impact.
I completely agree with that.

Do you fear that if there are new buildings and complicated green systems that the Farm many alienate people in the neighborhood who might see the more sophisticated undertakings as out of reach?
We believe that every element in the Red Hook Center should be created to engage the community. We also believe that the community that has supported the Farm will support this change. The building will not be static museum. It will still be a working farm. The farm will just have more bells and whistles to engage even more local people in the possibilities of improved sustainability. We think that it is essential to help people understand their connections to the new green economy. And we think that the Red Hook Center is the best way to achieve that aim.
Sounds good.

[Full Disclosure: Gita and I have worked together on several projects together over the years: partnering on GreenHouse Effect, a sustainable life style exhibition; organizing GreenHomeNYC building tour of my project, Greenbelt; and working on a green renovation project in DUMBO.]

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