A Farm Grows in East New York
by Daniel Bush
Mar 17, 2009 | 5954 views | 0 0 comments | 93 93 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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East New York Farms manager David Vigil on the farm.
Grass blade by grass blade, carrot by carrot, squash by squash, East New York farmers are working to improve their beleaguered, oft-neglected neighborhood.

Though the city's Union Square farmers market has received the most attention from environmentalists and foodies alike in recent years, other, lower-profile farmers markets have been sprouting elsewhere across the city with the speed of (pick your plant), and in the unlikeliest of places, too.

A closer look at the farmers market in East New York reveals the neighborhood - and other high-density, lower-income urban areas like it - does, in fact, represent the next logical front in the burgeoning green food movement.

East New York Farms, a project of United Community Centers, a neighborhood social service hub on New Lots Avenue, was founded in 1998.

Following the troubled 1970's and '80's, community activists in some of the city's most distressed areas - form the South Bronx and Manhattan's Lower East Side to Central Brooklyn - began transforming abandoned property lots into gardens where residents could grow their own produce.

The idea was especially popular in East New York. By the late 90's, said David Vigil, farm manager of East New York Farms, the area had more registered community gardens, at around 60, than any other city neighborhood. Local residents from Africa, the West Indies, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and South Asia were producing ever-larger quantities of fresh produce but had no place to sell them, recalled Vigil.

"There was a huge number of gardens and an existing network of people already creating change in the neighborhood in terms of developing abandoned lots into gardens," Vigil said.

Vigil said it became clear a farmers market would allow farmers to sell their excess produce for profit, provide residents with access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, and give area youth an opportunity to become involved in their community.

So in 1998, various organizations including the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Pratt Institute partnered with United Community Centers (UCC) to found East New York Farms. The organization, which today receives a combination of public and private funding, established a farm, a six-month-a-year farmers market, and an agriculture-oriented youth internship program.

"The market has been growing significantly every year,” said Vigil. “In 2008, there was a 20 percent increase in sales. Clearly there's a high demand for fresh produce.

"There's a misperception that farmers markets won't do well in low-income neighborhoods," Vigil continued. "We've been able to prove that there is a demand and you can have a very viable, vibrant market, and one that can be community-led, too."

Vigil, dressed in well-worn overalls and boots, donned a winter hat on a cold day last month to show off the group's main farm, located on a half-acre lot behind the UCC building.

The farm, enclosed by a chain link fence, its northern end shadowed by the nearby elevated subway tracks, is indeed an incongruous sight in the gritty neighborhood but colorful, hand-painted signs and neat plant beds hinted at a public open space that teems with activity during the warmer months.

Every Saturday from late June through November, East New York Farms runs a farmers market on the sidewalk outside the farm, which is bounded by Schenck and Livonia Avenues. The market sells produce grown there, at its second farm only a few blocks away, as well as produce grown on eight additional, unaffiliated community gardens in the neighborhood.

Over 35 farmers participate, said Vigil, paying $12 to 18 a month to the central farm organization for the right to sell their crops. Some growers earn up to $5,000 a year, Vigil said. The market and the organization's two farms are manned by local youth who are paid for their work, and who are taught organic farming methods by Vigil and his staff.

The market distinguishes itself from others in the city because of its crop diversity, a mark of the neighborhood's multicultural population. Shoppers there can buy callaloo, a bitter melon grown by immigrants from the West Indies, or a different bitter melon variety altogether grown by immigrants from Bangladesh. Vigil said growers with roots in the American South sell collard greens, Okra, and sweet potatoes, to name a few.

The market also offers staple vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, and lettuce grown by upstate farmers who have begun including East New York on their city market circuits. An average pound of produce at the market goes for $1.50.

In 2008, the farmers market sold over 80,000 pounds of produce, according to Vigil. He said the market could grow much larger, as more growers in East New York join up. If even half of the neighborhood's more than 50 community gardens still uninvolved with East New York Farms decide to sell produce at the central market, it could mushroom into the biggest farmers market in the city.

"We're still trying to educate people and encourage people to come to the market and see what it really looks like," said Vigil. "The community's role in making this farmers market is really significant. More people need to come and see that."
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