Picture this: a sunny corner lot near a school in Brownsville, transformed into a city farm with vegetables, fruit trees, bees, and chickens. Kids from the school maintain the garden, getting their hands dirty, growing food in the unlikeliest of places. Teachers use it as an outdoor classroom, providing their students with a real-life experience of nature, and a deeper appreciation for real, fresh food. And the farm’s bounty is shared with the neighborhood, improving access to fresh produce in a place where it’s not easy to find.
Sound like a dream? It’s not – it’s real. Urban farmer Nora Painten has done the dirty work. She spent the past year working on an urban farm in Brownsville founded by Slow Food USA, and she’s already gotten permission from the city to take over another corner for a new farm project. Now, she just needs the cold hard cash. Clearing weeds and trash from the abandoned lot, rerouting water from the main lines, constructing raised beds, bringing in soil and compost, and building a new fence is going to take a chunk of change, and Painten has turned to Kickstarter to raise it. She has just over a month to reach her $23,000 goal. Here’s a video with more information:
Thinking of lending a hand? Pledge $30 for a farm t-shirt and an invite to the groundbreaking, or up to $2,000 for a donors’ dinner at 61 Local and a day of help from an urban farmer to turn your own backyard into a salad machine (aka food garden, but doesn’t Salad Machine sound fun?).
We had a chat with Nora to learn more about the project.
So Nora, how did you end up running this project to develop an urban farm with a school in Brownsville?
I was a farmer in Connecticut for about three and a half years before moving to the city. I moved to the city to be around people again. That was the one thing I missed in Connecticut. It’s beautiful out there – I loved it, but I guess I’m really a city person at heart.
So you were a lonely farmer?
Yeah! So I moved to the city and got a job with Slow Food NYC growing a farm and teaching kids about gardening out in Brownsville. I’d never heard of Brownsville before that – it was my first introduction to the neighborhood.
I biked out there every day over the summer. Every day I passed so many vacant lots that were sunny and on well-travelled corners – I just found myself lamenting the waste of all that valuable growing space.
My boyfriend kept encouraging me to do something about it, so I started looking up information about some of the lots. I never thought it would be so easy to find so much information on vacant lots! I used this website called oasis.net. It’s a really valuable tool. You can look up any lot in the city, find out who owns it, find out its dimensions…
The lot I found seemed perfect. It’s owned by the Department of Housing and Development. There’s an amazing public school a half block away. I just started emailing people. I got in touch with the right folks and it just started to snowball. Everyone I spoke to was really supportive and people in several city governments started advocating for the project – HPD, Grow NYC and Green Thumb all had people who were instrumental in helping me get permission to develop a farm on the lot.
So the process of getting approval to use the lot went a lot faster than I thought. And then I realized – OK, now I have to raise some money.
The permission to use the lot was contingent upon finding a school to involve. There are two options for using city land for this sort of thing. You can start a community garden, which means you have to find something like a minimum of ten members who want to grow vegetables in different plots. That’s definitely an attractive option, but my vision for the project was always to have it be a teaching garden.
I got in touch with them, and the principal and teachers were unbelievably enthusiastic about it, But they couldn’t really offer any financial assistance. So I went back and applied for all kinds of grants, with varying degrees of success. So I’m still looking to raise funds for things like the fencing, building an irrigation system, raised beds, buying soil, and some other construction projects, like building an outdoor classroom for the kids.
Green Thumb is going to donate enough wood and soil for about ten beds, which is fantastic. But the plot is about 8,000 feet so we’ll have space for well more than that and we’ll have to purchase some materials.
Luckily I’ve got a lot of friends who are really interested in the project, and who have varying degrees of experience with woodworking, architecture, construction…so I’ve got a lot of help which will make it more affordable.
Tell us more about the involvement with the school.
We’re planning on breaking ground in March. Once the beds are up and the construction is done, we’ll get the plants in really fast with the goal of starting classes in the spring.
But over the winter we’ll start seeds with the kids. I think it’s great for them to see that part of the process – seeds becoming vegetables.
How much food do you expect to produce?
The plot is 8,000 square feet. Some of that will be taken up by things like a tool shed, a gazebo and benches, but we’ll be producing a ton of stuff. The garden I worked in this past summer in Brownsville was about 2,700 square feet. We were feeding a hundred kids and about fifteen adults a week on that and we still had way more than we could use. I was putting buckets and buckets of food out for people in the neighborhood to take.
So what will happen with the food you produce in this garden?
We’re still figuring out all the details, but we’ll be doing cooking demos in the cafeteria and having kids take produce home during the school year. During the summer, we’ll do farmers markets. The plot is on a really well-travelled corner, and there are blocks and blocks of big apartment buildings right there, so it’s a perfect opportunity to showcase everything we grow and to get it into the community.
To learn more about Nora’s student farm project, or to donate, visit her Kickstarter page.