“We didn’t go into this expecting to make a profit at all. We just wanted to get the stuff we like cheaper by buying in bulk! Ha ha ha.” Megan Paska, co-founder of Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply
Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply, the first shop dedicated exclusively to providing soil, seeds, chicken feed, shovels and anything else a Brooklynite might need to get their urban farm on, opened a couple of weeks ago in Greenpoint. The shop, a collaborative effort by Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn Homesteader and Domestic Construction, represents a milestone of sorts.
When Eagle Street Rooftop Farm opened in Greenpoint in 2009, it was the first of its kind…on the planet. Joined the following year by Brooklyn Grange, a larger one-acre farm on a rooftop in Long Island City, the rooftop farms seemed to serve as a catalyst, igniting the imaginations of latent urban gardeners throughout the borough, who soon began busily growing food in previously unimaginable locations – backyards, schoolyards, windowsills and their own garden-sized rooftops.
The arrival of Hayseed’s seems to signal that after weathering an initial bout of skepticism, snark and outright scorn, Brooklyn’s urban farming and gardening movement is here to stay.
We spoke with Megan Paska, one of the Hayseed’s founders about the shop, and the secrets to growing food in the city.
So Meg, what all led to you opening Hayseed’s? How did you become interested in this stuff?
Well, I moved to Brooklyn from Baltimore, where I’d been doing some gardening and homebrewing. I had taken a beekeeping class and I’d hoped to start keeping bees in baltimore, but I ended up moving to New York for work.
I had put the beekeeping on the back burner because it was illegal here then, but at some point I discovered there were actually a bunch of people out there illegally keeping bees in the city. So that inspired me and I started keeping bees on my rooftop in Greenpoint around 2008.
And one thing led to another. We ended up building some raised beds in the backyard and started growing some vegetables. Then we made a chicken coop out of an old dog house and started raising chickens.
What was the reaction from your neighbors? Anyone complain?
My landlord’s really cool about everything, and our neighbors loved it. I’ve been really fortunate that nobody has every really complained about any of this stuff.
So what planted the seed to open a farm supply shop?
One problem that kept coming up was that I was having a really hard time finding chicken feed that I liked, that I felt produced better quality eggs. Being in a backyard in Brooklyn, you can’t really let your chickens pasture, so they rely on you to feed them. All the feed I could find locally was GMO and soybean-heavy commercial feed.
So I started ordering feed from a place down in Virginia. I was really into their feed. They have this great soybean-free organic feed, but I was paying like fifty dollars for a fifty pound bag, which is crazy expensive.
With all the growing interest in farming and gardening in Brooklyn, it seemed like all of a sudden there were all these people out there raising chickens, and they all wanted good quality feed at an affordable price too. So I started ordering full pallets of it and having it delivered to Brooklyn Grange, where we’d distribute it to all these people keeping chickens. That brought the price down to a much more reasonable twenty five dollars a bag from fifty dollars.
That planted the seed for the farm supply shop. And also, all my classes lately have been selling out. I teach classes on everything from beekeeping to gardening and raising chickens at 3rd Ward and the Botanical Garden. When I first started two years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have to cancel classes because I didn’t have enough people sign up. That hasn’t happened in a long time. A few hundred people who live in Brooklyn have taken my classes now. So that was another indicator that there was a lot more interest in gardening and growing food.
And the emergence of the rooftop farms like Brooklyn Grange and Eagle Street Rooftop Farm definitely pushed urban farming to the forefront of people’s awareness. They’ve both gotten a ton of press, and they’re also just really striking to see. The rooftop farms are incredibly visually appealing and Visually striking things seem to appeal to New Yorkers, so both those projects got a lot more people interested, I think.
Chase Emmons from Brooklyn Grange and I had talked about opening an urban farm supply store last year, but the interest in farming and gardening hadn’t quite hit the fever pitch we’re seeing now. So we just waited it out.
This year, we felt like there was enough real interest to do something, but we didn’t want to commit to a full-season retail space. A temporary pop-up shop seemed like the perfect solution for the first year. We ended up meeting the girls at Domestic Construction after they’d gotten funding for a garden development project next to their studio in Greenpoint. The idea of doing a temporary pop-up farm supply store came up and they were really stoked about it.
We ended up subletting a portion of their studio space for three months to do it. So we opened a couple of weeks ago and we’ll be here until the end of June.
The shop has gotten ton of press. Seems like just about every major media outlet has covered you in some way, shape or form. Were you surprised?
I guess I’m a little surprised about how generally glowing the response has been. We didn’t go into this expecting to make a profit at all. We just wanted to get the stuff we like cheaper by buying in bulk! Ha ha ha. And we wanted to make a place that would be fun and would inspire people. We’ve only got three months. We just said, “Let’s have fun and get people excited about growing food.”
It remains to be seen whether or not we’ll make a profit. We just want to break even. It’s looking pretty good so far.
So what sort of stuff are you carrying?
We’re getting really amazing soil from Long Island Compost and from McEnroe Organics. We’re getting soybean-free organic chicken feed from Countryside Organics. We have really nice tools for a really great price – tools that will last forever if you take care of them. We have amazing heirloom seeds from a lot of local seed companies. We’ve tried hard to carry seeds from small companies that aren’t otherwise represented in this neighborhood. So we’ve got some fun things like heirloom tobacco seeds and hop seeds for homebrewers, which are not too easy to find.
And we’ve got a lot of books. Lots of instructional books and lots of books for dreamers too. A lot of people who garden in the city daydream about eventually moving out to the country to farm, so we’ve got books on things like raising dairy goats and different breeds of pigs, cows, sheep…just for people who maybe want a coffee table book to daydream – to help them visualize their future! Ha ha ha.
And that’s the bulk of it. We’ve been selling seeds, soil and pottery hand over fist.
Tell us a little bit about growing stuff in Brooklyn. The challenge for most people obviously is the lack of outdoor space. What can you grow on a windowsill or a fire escape?
The real problem with growing in small spaces isn’t so much the light exposure, it’s the amount of time and effort that go into growing something that’s going to give you a very small yield. With many crops, it’s almost not worth growing unless you can grow a lot of it. So I try to encourage people who’ve just got a little space to plant things they can plant and harvest quickly.
Salad gardens are great for that. You can plant some seeds in a box, sit it on your windowsill or your fire escape…actually doing it on fire escapes is illegal, so I don’t encourage it, but people do it anyway! You plant some seeds in a box, the greens are ready to harvest in a matter of weeks, and then you plant them again. You can get several harvests throughout the year that way.
If you grow just one squash plant, that’s kind of cool in a way, but you’ll have to tend to it for the whole growing season and you’ll get just one squash. If it doesn’t make it to full maturity, you’ve lost the whole season. They need to be pollinated by insects too, so unless you have a lot of bees flying around your apartment, you’re going to have a problem.
So I recommend people with limited space grow a lot of green, pea shoots, radishes and things like that – things you can sow and harvest frequently throughout the season. You get more bang for your buck that way – more produce for the time you invest.
What’s the secret to being a good gardener?
Sticking with it. People get discouraged when something they’ve planted dies. Plants are going to die whether you do it perfectly or not. You plant things. Sometimes they thrive and sometimes they don’t. You try to figure out why they’re not thriving and you make an adjustment and plant and try again. That’s how farming and gardening work. It’s the cycle of life. Plants grow, they produce seed at maturity, and then they die. Sometimes they don’t make it and that’s ok. It happens. You just get more seen, put it in the ground, and keep truckin’.
You mentioned that you’re carrying books for daydreamers at Hayseed’s – for people who like to dream about leaving the city for the country to farm. I think I heard a rumor that you’re chasing that dream?
Yeah, it’s true. I got this amazing opportunity to start a small farm just an hour outside of the city in Monmouth County, New Jersey – right on the shore. There’s an acre for growing vegetables. There’s a mini-orchard. There are woods for foraging, and we’re going to have chickens and dairy goats too – the people who own the property are really keen on goats.
There’s going to be an educational component to it. There’s a six-bedroom house on the property that we’re planning on using to host intensive weekend workshops on growing food. And it’s super-close to the city. You can get there by ferry from Manhattan in an hour, so it’ll be pretty easy for people to come visit, learn about farming, and do some surfing or swimming.
I’m pretty excited about it.
So sometimes it’s not just a daydream…
Not at all. I think you just have to keep your eyes on the prize. I don’t think anything I do is every really calculated. If an opportunity comes my way and it seems fun I just do it. I follow my gut and that’s led me in a direction that has been really great for me. So dreaming can be a good thing. It can bring unexpected opportunities to you.
Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply is located at 218 India Street, between McGuinness and Provost, in Greenpoint. They’ll be open until the end of June. Check their website for information on hours, workshops and events.