How My Garden Goes – Part 1

Posted: March 21st, 2011 | Author:

Some recent developments in my garden planning!

    1.  Major real estate acquisition.
    My last post was about the only real outdoor space I have — a small front yard right on Bushwick Avenue. I still may put a few SIPs out there, or at the very least do something to beautify the space, but I’m just afraid that my fruiting plants will be too enticing for passersby. To some extent I like the idea of a stranger plucking a ripe heirloom tomato or snipping some thai basil from my garden and just enjoying it. But to a larger extent, I want the make sure the tomatoes actually ripen, and that my friends and I get to eat a few of them. 

    The front yard is the most easily accessible and has some soil there already, but I thought of two other potential spots: a small square of concrete outside two of my roommates’ bedroom windows, and my next-door neighbors’ backyard. I can actually access their backyard by climbing out my window and heading down a small junk-filled path. It’s a pretty large yard (by NYC standards), though in complete disrepair.

    Overcoming my nerves, I finally knocked on their door on Saturday. They were a bit confused at first (“So, you’re going to sell fruit?”), and didn’t totally understand that I can access their backyard from my bedroom window (“You can’t get there, the door is locked for the winter!”) but they eventually agreed to let me use their backyard! They actually used to grow things back there (flowers, mainly) but it seemed like they hadn’t planted anything in two years.  Thank you neighbors!

    2.  Sub-Irrigating.
    I’m going to be growing in sub-irrigated planters (SIPs). These cool planters are also referred to to as “self-watering” containers, but that name seems to focus on the laziness of the the garden. Sub-irrigated makes it sound like I”m doing something sophisticated. I guess for the purpose of advocacy — getting lots of people to grow their own produce — self-watering is a more helpful term. But for my own ego, I will be implementing an integrated sub-irrigated planter system. I’ll be talking a lot more about SIPs as the season goes on.

    3.  Seedlings
    I’ve had to decide whether I’ll be starting my own seeds indoors or buying seedlings that I can plant after the last frost. I’ll definitely be trying to start some seeds indoors, but because of the limited sunlight coming through my limited windows, I think most of my plants will come from nursery- or store-bought seedlings.

More on all of this soon!


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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 »

Future Urban Farms Map – A New Vision for the New World

Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Author:

40-46 Nevins St aka 311-315 Schermerhorn St, Bklyn

Look closely at the picture above.  Do you see a farm there?

No, you’re not crazy.  It’s not there yet.

In the last year, as the real estate market crashed around our ankles, we’ve all walked past by scores of empty, fenced lots with no discernible activity.

I am left to wonder: Future Urban Farm?

Why not transform the housing bust into an urban farming boom?

Looking at this silver lining, please nominate your favorite forgotten chunk of real estate for the Future Urban Farms Map.

[Once you land on this google map, click “Save to My Maps” to add photos and addresses of these sadly abandoned locations where one day our food might grow.  Alternatively, please send me the site addresses and any comments or photos and I will include them on the map.]

Who knows? Maybe we could submit the finished map to the City Council with a nicely polished legislative proposal that would change the cityscape and radically alter our local food system. After all, NY City Council re-zoned Williamsburg-Greenpoint to address imagined “blight.” So why not  re-zone today’s vacant lots for farming responding to these pockets of real blight?

Stalled construction sites can be found all over New York City. Brooklyn has the dubious honor of hosting the most.  Greenpoint and Williamsburg alone have 80 inactive construction projects — the same number of stalled sites in the entire borough of Manhattan! In a recent “Statement of Community District Needs,” Brooklyn Community Board 1 (Greenpoint and Williamsburg) made the following recommendation:

The Department of Buildings must take immediate steps to inventory stalled construction sites and monitor them for any issues that would negatively impact the community (homeless encampments, standing water – mosquito infestation/West Nile Virus prevention, illegal dumping, trespassing, arson).

Community Board 1 was not looking for alternative uses but trying to prevent nuisances. In the 1970s, however, many community gardens sprung up to thwart the nuisances caused by hundreds of vacant lots left by buildings torched for insurance claims.  So it’s only one more step to imagine 21st Century community gardens as community farms.

According to Ted Caplow of BrightFarm Systems “Growing all the fresh vegetables that New York consumes would require only 1.4% of the city’s surface area.” Maybe city residents need to eat more veggies because that is an amazing statistic.

I am not alone in promoting a future vision where farms are born from the hardscaping that dominates New York. In “Mannahhatta: A Natural History of New York,” (Abrams, 2009), Eric Sanderson contrasts images of Manhattan today with vivid 3D computer-generated maps depicting what Manhattan looked like in 1609 when discovered by Henry Hudson. Sanderson’s final chapter “Mannahattan 2409″ imagines the city with fewer buildings concentrated along the shoreline and a emerald patchwork of farmland restored in much of Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island.  The author continues this conversation about the place of nature in our City with The Mannahatta Project (a wink at the succinctly unnatural Manhattan Project that produced the Atom Bomb).

Please help me make this Future Urban Farms Map useful to you and your community.  Please comment on this post to indicate how you would use the map to promote urban agriculture too.  I will update readers about the utility of the map as it grows.

14 2d Ave @ Houston St, NYC

Filed under: Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning | Tags: , Real Estate, Urban Farms | No Comments »

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 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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Mission Impossible? A Locavore’s Thanksgiving in NYC

Posted: November 24th, 2009 | Author:

Green Thumb Farm, Watermill, NY.

Every Thanksgiving, I set myself some challenge to tweak the traditional meal. This year, I decided to source ALL ingredients locally — within 100 miles of my home in Brooklyn, NY.

“Cranberry” Caveat
When I told food writer-activist, Chloe Bass, about this project, she said “Oh, my friend tried to do an all-local Thanksgiving last year. He got almost everything he needed, except for the cranberries. Beware the cranberries.”

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Local Scene
Thanksgiving started as a celebration of bountiful local foods available to the Pilgrims in the northeastern colonies. I live in the northeast, so I should be able to source almost every ingredient nearby without too much trouble. Researching origins of our food reveals the status quo of the food system and opportunities for positive change.

I defined “local” as a farm or a producer within 100 miles of NYC. For harder-to-find items, I stretched my definition to “regional” within 500 miles. Finally, I applied the so-called “Marco Polo” exception to foods never successfully produced locally, like spices or citrus.

Wherever possible I sourced from local organic farmers, but some local farmers are too small to maintain paperwork required for organic certification. So local alone prevailed when local and organic was not available.  Organic won out when there was no local option at all.

My family plans to gather for the feast in Shelter Island, NY.  Settled in 1652, just 30 years after the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the locale shares many attributes with New England including sandy soils, short growing season and mild temperate climate.

Aerial View of Shelter Island

I tested LocalDirt to help me find ingredients. Local Dirt is a website where buyers and sellers connect directly to purchase local foods. Local Dirt aims to create more efficiency in the growing demand for local food, reducing the current rate of 40% spoilage.

Like so many internet sites, Local Dirt is a great idea not yet useful or effective. A 100 mile radius search using Local Dirt, for instance, displayed locations of a few farmer’s markets in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  I was not able to search by product name, like “cranberries”.

The best information for local Thanksgiving ingredients was available by word-of-mouth. I relied on the knowledgeable managers of NYC Greenmarkets, like Betsy in Carroll Gardens. Farmers themselves are experts in their products and extremely informative. Lastly, amazing agricultural associations and university departments provide guidelines, history and research that opened my eyes wider to see interesting details of each food I explored.


Free Range Turkey Farm

Of course, we have to start with the Bird of Honor. Turkey meat is now a year-round big business in the U.S. with 2.7 million metric tons produced in 2007 valued at $3.71 billion, according to the USDA.

As with all other industrial meat products in the U.S., turkey production is dominated by a small number of gigantic multi-national corporations. The same meat-packing conglomerates are also responsible for factory farming of chicken, pork and beef — mistreating animals, workers, the environment and consumer health.

It is unfortunate then that most consumers are going to get their big birds from one of the top five meatmakers: Butterball (a joint venture of Smithfield & Maxwell Farms), Jennie-O Turkey Store (Hormel), Cargill Meat Solutions, Farbest Foods, Inc., or House of Raeford Farms, Inc. The first three companies listed above process 88% of all turkey purchased in the U.S.  The relatively good news is that mass-produced turkey is free of hormones and steroids, but, unless it’s labeled “organic,” the turkey may have been given antibiotics.  The top five turkey-producing states (in order of volume) are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia and Missouri, according to the National Turkey Federation. (Source: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center)

Turkey farming in the Northeast is very small scale. Undaunted, my first step in finding my local gobbler was googling “Local Turkey Long Island.”

As it turns out, I could bag my own wild turkey on Long Island. The turkey hunting season in Suffolk County started November 18 and runs until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  The wild turkey population has grown from 75 and endangered just a few years ago to over 3,000 today. I’m no hunter. And I have heard that other hunters tend to shoot at more nuanced human mimics of turkey calls.

Seeking a safer option, I found “Consumers Have Taste for Local Birds” from NY Times in 2007, listing six possible turkey farms on the East End. First, I called Garden of Eve, a certified organic farm in Riverhead. (FYI the number listed should be 631.722.8777).  I spoke to Melissa Rebholz, Farmstand Manager, who informed me that the Garden of Eve’s turkey trailer burned down to the ground last year. So no birds this year. When I asked her for a local turkey recommendation, she told me she buys heritage birds from Tamrack Hollow in Burlington, Vermont, 802.535.1515.  Too far for my 100 mile radius. Sensing a knowledgeable source, I asked “How about local cranberries?”

“I worked for NYC Greenmarkets for years and I have no idea where you can get cranberries in New York state.” Melissa said. Drat!

Next, I dialed Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton, 631.537.0335, not the most likely-sounding spot for turkey. Farmer Art Ludlow told me that he had gobblers ranging from 17 to 24 pounds. Jackpot! Ludlow raises only a small number of birds on his dairy farm (which produces excellent cheese varieties), so I reserved right away — two 17 pound turkeys to feed our gathering of 20 people. Art told me to come pick up the fresh-killed poultry the day before Thanksgiving.  Now that’s fresh.

Pork Diagram – See Bacon

Bacon and Sausage
There’s always a bit of bacon in Thanksgiving recipes, probably because it was a widely available preserved meat back in the day. And Sausage is to stuffing as turkey is to gravy.  Despite my love for the funky flavor of nitrates and fat and the snap of a good casing, I can’t deal with buying bacon or sausage from ginormous meat packing mega-corps. (See “Turkey” above).

For the last few years, I have been satisfying my desire for bacon and sausage with a locally produced product from Dines Farms from Oak Hill, NY. Jay Dines comes around to my neighborhood every Tuesday as part of Cobble Hill CSA pick up from Green Thumb Organic Farm, the first organic farm on Long Island (in continuous operation as a farm for more than 300 years by the Halsey family!).

CSAs are a group of folks who buy shares in a farm’s harvest which is then delivered to them at one drop location each week from April to December.  For more information on joining or starting a CSA, contact Just Food.

Side Note: I have ordered good local turkey from Dines before. This year, I wanted to nab the heavyset birds closer to my final destination in Shelter Island and I wanted to explore the availability of turkey on the East End.  It’s my challenge, remember?

Union Square Market carrots photo by WallyG

Sweet Potatoes, Turnips, Carrots, Onions, Garlic
Thanksgiving is all about star side dishes from the root cellar which can be obtained in abundance from almost all Farmer’s Markets in NYC.

It’s sort of shocking that most supermarkets stock root veggies harvested around the globe. A quick check of the (small) organic section in Met Foods in Brooklyn reveals the following provenances: garlic from China (!), onions from Texas, sweet potatoes from Georgia, carrots from California. Ask your grocer to switch to local.

Why not use foods from my CSA for Thanksgiving? An issue with a CSA is lack of choice. This week, the farm share consists of winter radishes, cauliflower, fennel, radicchio, garlic, and bok choi. Not exactly traditional Thanksgiving fare. Plus, the quantities would not be enough for a big group. So I will look elsewhere for these seasonal goodies.

I decided to get all of these Thanksgiving vegetables from Sang Lee, a certified organic farm in Peconic en route to our destination. My family has been shopping from Sang Lee Farms for more than ten years because it has excellent produce. Sang Lee is a family-run business that has been expanding and branding its operations very successfully while many other family farms in the area have folded, being one of few North Fork farms to supply Whole Foods in NYC.


Union Square Market. Photo by Walking Off the Big Apple

Brussel Sprouts
Another hearty, seasonal veggie that can be readily found in farmer’s markets this time of year.  Local farms sell the sprouts still attached to the stalk, keeping them fresh. The supermarket variety are sold in a round waxed carton. By buying sprouts locally, you save all that packaging and transportation. Karen Lee is setting four stalks of Brussels aside for me from Sang Lee.

Brussel sprouts are a relative newcomer to Thanksgiving and would not have graced the Pilgrim’s table, having been brought to the U.S. around 1800 by French settlers in New Orleans.  Long Island’s climate is well-suited to this cultivar of wild cabbage and the region has become the third largest producer of the crop in the U.S., most of which is grown in California and Washington. When I visited Green Pea Market on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, I saw sprouts for sale on the stalk! Alas, the label read: “Salinas, CA.” Ask your local grocer to carry Long Island sprouts.

PSRT 3Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (and Celery)
Most of these herbs are still growing in NY state before the first frost.  After confirming with Karen, I am getting these ingredients from Sang Lee along with marjoram and mint.  I could have gotten these items from any good farmer’s market this time of year. And so can you!

Milk & Cream
Let’s face it: Thanksgiving is a heavy meal calling for milk and cream.  Industrial milk is a major gross-out: feeding corn to an animal with seven stomachs for digesting grass; adulterating its body chemistry with hormones and antibiotics and crowding giant herds together like milk machines rather than animals.

I have been buying dairy from Milk Thistle in Ghent, NY which sells at the Farmer’s Market in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn on Sundays. Mostly what I buy is their excellent yoghurt which has a runny texture and a real snappy tang. Milk Thistle is a micro-mini operation with only 30 grass-fed, free ranging cows.  (FYI Stonyfield Farms, now the third largest producer of yoghurt in the U.S. and certified organic, started with just seven cows).

Milk Thistle dairy products are excellent quality and sold in old-timey thick glass bottles (for which you have to pay a deposit until you return them next time). It’s no accident that celebrity chef David Chang of Momufuko (and author of the currently best-selling cookbook in the U.S.) mixes his bevvies with Milk Thistle at his Milk Bar in NYC.

Ronnybrook Butter. Photo by tiny banquet committee.

This is the weirdest thing.  Milk Thistle doesn’t make butter. Almost none of the small dairies make butter. Why? Economics. One pint of cream produces 1 cup of butter, or 1/2 pound.  Dairies can sell the pint of cream for the same price as a pound of butter. So why go through the laborious process of making the butter? I guess I could make my own butter from cream.

Homemade Butter Recipe: Beat cream beyond whip cream stage until it breaks down and curds floating in liquid buttermilk have turned golden color; strain curds into cheesecloth and squeeze out remaining liquid; then beat curds with cold water and squeeze again to remove last of the buttermilk.

I considered breaking the “rules” and buying butter from either Organic Valley, headquartered in LaFarge, Wisconsin, 1000 miles from Brooklyn, or Horizon Organic, the largest organic dairy in the U.S., based in Boulder, Colorado.

Both of these national brands are corporations that purchase and package milk from 500 or more farmers that adhere to the company’s organic production quality standards.  Horizon has recently come under fire for running factory farms following the legal letter of “organic” without really improving dairy farming practices or the environment.  For instance, Horizon claims that its herds have “access to pastures” but are sustained with “certified organic feed,” which means that its herds are neither guaranteed grass-fed nor free-range.

In the nick of time, I remembered about two local dairies that make organic butter: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, Websterville, VT (300 miles north) and Ronnybrook Dairy Farm, Ancramville, NY. Both dairies distribute their products widely to local specialty stores but not all locations carry butter.  So call ahead. I was able to get 4 pounds of Ronnybrook Butter at Cobblestone Foods, Brooklyn. Be prepared for sticker shock as local organic butter is almost four times the price of standard butter. Another more affordable local option is butter from Cabot Cheese Co-Op, available in most supermarkets. Cabot is not organic but it’s a good quality product made only 300 miles away.

I could not find any local olive oil or vegetable oil. I use Frankie’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil sourced by Frank Castronovo, founder of restaurants of the same name in Carroll Gardens and the Lower East Side. Frankies’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil is cold pressed from organically grown Sicilian olives in the DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) of Nocellara del Belice. For other vegetable oils, like Canola, I use Spectrum organic.  Spectrum is located in Boulder, CO, part of the Hain-Celestial Group. Definitely not local.

Most holiday desserts call for refined sugar crystals. Refined sugar comes from either sugar cane, grown in Florida and other Gulf States, or sugar beets, grown mostly in Idaho. Since the first sugar refinery opened on Liberty Street in 1739, New York City became an early epicenter of a thriving sugar industry in the U.S.

Unfortunately for our locavore Thanksgiving, the era of refining sugar in New York pretty much ended with the closing of the last large-scale plants in Brooklyn, such as Revere Sugar in Red Hook and the recently-departed Domino Sugar in Williamsburg. The Pilgrims eating Thanksgiving probably did not have access to any refined sugar as it became a product of the New World colonies later in the 18th Century.  So I guess history has come full circle for the local availability of sugar.

Locally, honey can be substituted as a sweetener.  Honey performs differently in recipes (using about half the quantity which changes volumes) and does not caramelize like refined sugar. So we will probably use both.

I am planning to obtain honey from the The Hamptons Honey Company in Southampton when I pick up the turkeys from Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton. Established in 2002, The Hamptons Honey Company works directly with a network of local beekeepres to bottle raw honey from Long Island directly at its source without being filtered or pasteurized. In the City, Whole Foods, Garden of Eden and Dean & Deluca carry this brand.

Anne-Marie Borghese (See “Wine”) told me that the best honey she has ever had in her life was made by Mary Woltz of Bees’ Needs Honey Company.  Woltz has over a 100 hives in places like Marder’s, Quail Hill Farms and the Green Thumb Farm.  Woltz sells her honey at East End farmer’s markets and is a major force behind many local agricultural innovations on Long Island.  To find a local honey near you, Long Island Beekeepers Club maintains a “Local Honey Directory”.


NY Wheat Field

In the 18oos, New York produced loads of potatoes and wheat. Not so today. I thought that I was going to give up on local flour until Melissa Rebholz told me about Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners, NY.

Since 2006, Wild Hive has produced stone ground flours exclusively from grains harvested from local and regional organic farmers. Don Lewis has operated a successful bakery & cafe since 1982.  He decided that he wanted to take his business a step further towards sustainability and produce his own flours with a gristmill custom-made by a local craftsman. Commercial milling uses steel grinders and filters that make flour white yet remove fiber and nutrients from grains.

Stone ground flours have superior flavors, texture and nutrition as less of the germ is removed. Lewis was honored by with an award from Slow Food in October 2008 in Italy for his commitment to artisanal production methods and his vertically integrated model of production. Surprisingly, Wild Hive seems to be the only exclusively organic operation of its type in New York State that I could find.

Union Square Market. Photo by Walking Off the Big Apple

Apple pie!  What could be more American? Luckily for locavores, New York State produces a lot of apples. New York apple growers rank 2nd nationally making about $185 million each year. All the more strange then that most grocery stores carry apples from California (Met Food), Massachusetts (Trader Joe’s) and even as far away as Chile and China!

My sister-in-law is a serious baker : seriously good.  Not surprisingly, she is the designated “Pie Master.” Dean & Deluca is her source for the best in baking, Macoun is her apple.

Dean & Deluca sources their Macoun apples from Terhune Orchards, Princeton, NJ.  I spoke with Terhune Farmer Richard Czech about organic labels and apples:

Organic is tough for apples when grown on a large scale as they are highly susceptible to pests and fungi. We use biodynamic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) process recommended by Cornell University. Also, we will soon be using the GAP system to publicly disclose which crop protectants were used, labeling produce ‘red, yellow or green,’ based on the health hazard represented by the spray or treatment.

IPM, promulgated each year by Cornell University, sets standards updated each year to respond to specific pests and diseases.  IPM standards are not as tough as organic certification but provide for light judicious spraying intended to protect consumer health.

GAP is an acronym for “Good Agricultural Practices.”   GAP can include “organic” farming standards or alternatives to organic. I was impressed with Czech’s attention to the details of the issue of consumer health.  Our discussion shows  just how complicated changing the local food system can be.

For those of you who want local and organic apples, including Macouns, you can purchase from Red Jacket Orchards, Geneva, NY, available at Whole Foods, many supermarkets and NYC Greenmarkets.

Black Walnut on the Tree

Tough one to crack. I struck out with all my personal contacts, so I called Liz Perillo of NYC Greenmarkets who told me “Some folks have chesnuts but our growers don’t bring in tree nuts much.” Perillo recommended I contact Northern Nut Growers Association, Inc., established in 1910 to bring together people interested in growing nut trees and to publish articles, research papers, and monographs on nuts, nut tree growth, and nut tree culture. Wow! Representative of the NNGA, Thomas Molnar of Rutgers University responded to my query for almonds and hazelnuts as follows:

I do not think you will find any almonds grown within 100 miles of NY.  Nearly all of them are grown in California – they are not adapted to the northeast.  You might be able to buy walnuts (Persian/English and black walnuts) from Francis Woodward of Medina, NY –

I run a hazelnut breeding/research program at Rutgers and might have a pound or two of nuts to spare, if that would help.  They are not grown commercially yet in the northeast, but we are changing that.  We have a wild hazelnut in this region, but the nuts are smaller than that of the European species which most people are familiar.

Our native nuts are the eastern black walnut and hickory.  Hickory nuts are hard to come by commercially.  I bet these local nuts were included in early Thanksgiving feasts.

I contacted Francis Woodward and ordered five pounds of Black Walnuts, shelled by hand. My father-in-law and I planned the menu with a walnut recipe. Then, we remembered that some of our family members are allergic to walnuts! Despite our best efforts, we will use organic California hazelnuts falling under the “Marco Polo” exception.

Side Note: Black Walnuts are native to North American and do not taste like English or Persian Walnuts, which you might purchase in a grocery store. Black Walnuts have a sharp flavor — reminiscent of a pine nut — musty, bittersweet and oily, making for an excellent pesto. Black walnut meats are about two-thirds oil, containing antioxidant omega-3 fats. Roasting mellows the intensity of flavor but does not remove it. The small size of the meat and the difficulty of extracting it from the shell have made black walnuts less commercially viable and rarely available in stores.


Chardonnay Grapes at Castello di Borghese

Over the last twenty years, the North Fork of Long Island has come to be known as one of the premier wine-producing regions in the US, home to dozens of award-winning vineyards, abounding with wine tours and tastings.

Long Island’s first grape vines were planted by Hargrave Vineyards in Cutchogue, NY, which was subsequently acquired by Anne Marie and Marco Borghese. Castello di Borghese has maintained production of a unique red wine consisting entirely of Cabernet Franc, usually known as a blending grape in Bordeaux when mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Vinified alone, Cabernet Franc is known as Chinon from Loire. Borghese’s Cabernet Franc has a smooth, slightly earthy finish with no jammy richness, making the wine a natural pair for the mild flavor of turkey. For years, I have been talking up the charms of Borghese Cabernet Franc to anyone who will listen. And here I am doing it again.

I spoke with Anne Marie Borghese, spouse of Marco, asking if Borghese produced a vinegar too. “We did,” she said, “and we have one bottle left of a limited edition vinegar, produced in partnership with nearby Satur Farms to dress their greens. I know it’s around because it’s in my pantry. I’d be glad to give it to you.” I thought it only fitting to invite her and her family to our Thanksgiving feast. Graciously, the Borgheses accepted. Now that’s getting to know your local farmer!

For white wine, I plan to select a White Label Chardonnay from nearby Lenz Wines. This wine is produced without oak which gives it a nice dryness, clean on the palate with a citrus fragrance. The Lenz Chardonnay aligns well with the turkey, tasting light on fruit and lacking the oaky-buttery finish that might overpower the food.

Now, I know that the Pilgrims would have brought cakes or cones of salt with them from England. However, after a while, I would guess they harvested sea salt. The producer of sea salt closest to Brooklyn is Maine Sea Salt. I ordered myself a pound of coarse grounds. Local salt! It’s interesting to think that we rely on this staple and have no idea where it comes from. Obviously, it’s pretty hard to adulterate salt.  So even if it comes from Nepal, usually, it’s only sin is the transportation costs.

The Elusive Cranberry arrives in my kitchen

The piece de resistance!  The cranberry, along with the blueberry and Concord grape, is one of North America’s three native fruits that are commercially grown.  According to the Cape Cranberry Growers’ Association:

“The name “cranberry” derives from the Pilgrim name for the fruit, “craneberry”, so called because the small, pink blossoms that appear in the spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill crane. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water. Instead, they grow on vines in impermeable beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These beds, commonly known as “bogs,” were originally made by glacial deposits.”

In addition to Massachusetts, the major growing areas for cranberries are New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Quebec. Very few cranberries are grown in NY.

To find a local grower, the Cape Growers’ instructed me to contact the Cranberry Institute. Who knew there was such a place? When I asked them for a local cranberry farmer, the representative, who declined to be identified, gave me the telephone number for Cliffstar Corporation located in Dunkirk, NY.

Cliffstar is not a farm, it is the largest independent grape, cranberry, and prune juice processor, and one of the largest private label beverage suppliers in the United States. Cliffstar buys cranberries from partipating farms all over the northeast. Melissa Slavin at Cliffstar shared the name of one of their farmers located in NJ who gave me the name of his neighbor who still had the fruit.

When I called Bill Poinsett of Poinsett Cranberry Farm in Browns Mills, NJ, an hour and half south of NYC, he educated me further about his trade:

The cranberries that you want for cranberry relish are “dry harvested.” Very few growers dry harvest because it is done by expensive machines or by hand. Most growers flood their fields so the berries float to the top to get a greater yield. Wet harvested berries can only be frozen or made into juice. I sell dry harvested berries locally out of my wife’s beauty salon, Edie’s. We put a sign in the window and an ad in the local paper. We sell 12-15 pounds of cranberries a day out of her shop.

Bill agreed to send me 2 quarts of his cranberries by mail. “Oh, they’ll keep for two weeks left outside this time of year.” And he was right. Poinsett’s cranberries were the biggest reddest berries I had ever seen.  How much? $2.00 per quart and $6.00 for shipping for a total of $10.00.

Right after I received my cranberries, I got a call from Chloe. “I’m at the Union Square Farmer’s Market and, guess what, they have local cranberries!” So, if you want to spare yourself my interesting but now pointless odyssey, you can head over to Union Square and get your local cranberries from Breezy Hill Farms.

Research for “A Locavore’s Thanksgiving,” has given me renewed sense of the bounty of our local farmers and the variety of producers that exist within 100 miles of NYC.

I am impressed with the breadth knowledge of the people who work at NYC Greenmarkets and their determination to find solutions with me.  I have a renewed respect for the local food commitment shown by Whole Foods and other establishments less known as locavore-friendly, like Garden of Eden and Dean & Deluca. Could these grocery stores and specialty markets buy even more locally? Certainly. I was inspired by people and by resources about food from Northern Nut Growers Association to Cornell University Extension and everything in between.

Even with all these amazing discoveries, there remain many challenges and opportunities for positive change.  Local food is still too expensive in terms of product costs, information costs and transportation costs, effectively putting a totally local diet out of reach for most consumers.

Product Costs
Local products usually cost two times as much as comparable standard ingredients in the supermarket. Local plus organic drives the price even higher. Most Greenmarkets take food stamps and EBT cards. However, the consumers in between rich and poor will find it hard to justify spending up to four times as much for local, organic products.

Information Costs
I loved the hunt, spending hours chatting with farmers, browsing markets, and grilling friends to find the missing pieces for the Thanksgiving feast. Who has time to spend on in-depth food research during the work week? A central, reliable clearinghouse for information about local food options, like LocalDirt, would make research more intuitive and quicker. Right now, there are too many different sources — all relaying small slices of the local food information pie.

Transportation Cost
In order to obtain all of the staples and seasonal foods, I had to travel to many different locations or pay shipping. I am not certain, but I think that if I belonged to Park Slope Food Co-op (PSFC), the locavore Thanksgiving could have been close to one-stop-shopping. PFSC staff has spent many years researching local farmers and producers.

Recently, I tried to join PFSC. It’s nothing personal but PFSC has effectively closed its membership, struggling to accommodate its staggering 15,000 members. Few other markets or co-ops have achieved the depth and breadth of products available at PSFC. Admirably, PSFC is engaged in an effort to advise others about starting copycat co-ops. Maybe “Co-Ops For All” would solve all of the challenges with product costs and information costs.

Happy Locavore Thanksgiving!

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Urban Farming in the Public Interest

Posted: October 25th, 2009 | Author:

Source: RUAF – Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security

THINK GLOBALLY!  Mega cities need mega tons of food to survive.  Urban farming responds to a growing need as mega cities — like New York City — continue to expand around the world.  Urban farming can help increase the availability, access and quality of food for city dwellers.  

ACT LOCALLY?   Why promote the growth of urban agriculture in New York City?

A recent NYC report, Food in the Public Interest, issued by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, suggests that “urban food production” in NYC is one crucial strategy to address a broad spectrum of related local food issues.  The report outlines three major reasons why urban agriculture may be seen as increasingly important in improving the quality and quantity of good, fresh food to urbanites:

(1) “The Environment: Common commercial farm practices such as using chemicals and aggregating livestock in small spaces can contribute to air pollution.  Further, food that travels extraordinarily long distances from farm to plate requires more food, [packaging], storage and refrigeration all of which consume energy [and other resources].”     [Text in brackets added by The Greenest].

(2) “Public Health: Locally grown and distributed food is likely to be fresher, more nutritious, less subject to intensive pesticide use and less processed.”  

Note: The report emphasizes that NYC has a looming and serious health threat of epidemic proportions represented by the steady rise in the incidence of both diabetes and obesity in populations that generally lack access to affordable fresh food close to home. 

(3) The Economy: Enhancing the local food system would create more opportunities for local employment at all levels.  Urban agriculture could also contribute to food security for the City’s neediest.

In addition to these excellent points, The Greenest would add some of its own in support of promoting urban agriculture:

(4) Heat Island Effect – Cities are sometimes called “heat islands” because they are hotter than surrounding areas.    Greenery –like urban agriculture– helps reduce the “heat island effect” by cooling cities down, thereby reducing electricity used by air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.  

(5) Waste Water –   Green spaces absorb more rainfall reducing the amount of stormwater in the city sewage system.  Green spaces can also be irrigated by so-called “grey water” filtered from water produced by stormwater runoff, showers, sinks, diswashers and clothes washers, reducing loads on city sewage systems and doubling the benefits received from fresh water.

(6) Solid Waste  –  Gardens can create and use compost derived from solid waste to fertilize — diminishing the costs, energy and environmental impacts of a portion of the city’s solid waste production.

(7) Psychological benefits – Plants make people happy.  It’s a fact.  It’s a well established human response called “biophilia.”  More plants will make more people happy.  

(8)  “Foodie” Culture – NYC is one of the cultural food capitals of the world, home to many a sundry “foodie.”  Food is the second most talked-about topic in NYC — after real estate.  However, NYC produces less and less of its own food outside of restaurant kitchens.  The growth of urban agriculture will form part of a growing and intensifying local food culture that emphasizes better taste and better health together.  

Through my exploration of Urban Agriculture, I aim to understand what motivates the urban farmer to till the soil — the challenges and opportunities.  In the upcoming posts, I will look at other industries that are part of the “food system” that could be a source of increased productivity and market penetration for urban agriculture.

Filed under: Composting, Food Security, Green Roofs, Uncategorized, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning, Water Conservation | Tags: Air Pollution, , Biophilia, , Energy, , , , , Gardens, , , , Heat island Effect, , , , , , , , Public Health, , , , , | No Comments »

The Greenest Is Coming!

Posted: October 3rd, 2009 | Author:


The Greenest!

Hello and Welcome to the launch of TheGreenest.Net, a new project by Derek Denckla.  

 ”Superlative Ideas for a Sustainable Future”  is our motto.

Urban Agriculture will be the focus for 2009, exploring best practices and innovation for a large scale market.

I intend to create a dialogue to inspire action by delving into “one big topic” for a solid block of time.  

Time period: Topic “ripeness,” when all angles and nooks have been illuminated.

The Greenest hopes to send off a few sparks that might continue to inspire us to re-align our relationship to each other and our shared environment.

Comments make The Greenest a dialogue, so let the spirit move you.  Really!  Speak Up! 

Coming Soon: Superlative No.1: “Why Urban Agriculture?” hitting the screen-o-sphere sometime in the next week or so. 

Thanks for tuning in. . . .

Filed under: Uncategorized, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming | Tags: , , Future, , , , | No Comments »
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