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Derek Denckla

There’s an undeniable buzz surrounding the blossoming of urban agriculture in Brooklyn. Added Value Farm in Red Hook first broke earth over ten years ago, and since then, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Brooklyn Grange, BK Farmyards, Tenth Acre Farms and over twenty others have set roots on rooftops, playgrounds, vacant lots and backyards throughout the borough. Last summer, the New York media got wind of the action, and stories on urban farming started appearing everywhere from The Post to The Wall Street Journal and beyond.

Derek Denckla of Carroll Gardens has become one of the movement’s most ardent and most productive promoters.  As an artist, lawyer, activist, investor, blogger and pioneer of green development in the borough, Derek’s talents for provoking, engaging, connecting and exciting people over the possibilities of urban agriculture and food system reform have had an undeniable impact on Brooklyn’s much-hyped food culture.

We met with the man himself at Karloff, a Russian café near his home in Carroll Gardens, to get the low-down on urban agriculture in Brooklyn, and to take a peek at the many projects he’s cooking up to keep building momentum behind the buzz.

So Derek, tell us how you came to start your green building business, and how that led to your interest in urban agriculture and food systems in general.

Well, I came to New York for college about twenty years ago, so I kind of consider myself a New Yorker now. My dad was the one who started me on the course of thinking about the environment a little differently. He was an organic farmer in West Virginia, and a big alternative energy guy – his farm was off the grid. He was one of the first to do that sort of thing. This was back in the late 70’s and early 80’s – you had to be kind of crazy to do that back then. He was a little crazy and a little bit of a visionary at the same time.

I didn’t grow up on the farm – my dad was a dropout and my parents split and I stayed with my mom, but I spent a lot of time there. I always really respected what he was doing but it was always tinged with a little bit of skepticism. I think every kid has that kind skepticism about their fathers – it took me a while to get over that. Plus, he was extremely anti-urban. He was one of those back-to-the-land guys who thought that cities were just a decaying model.

I don’t share his pessimism. I’m really committed to urban life. I moved to Brooklyn in ’98 and it really actually gave me a lot of hope. Brooklyn has this really interesting fusion of urban and country qualities…It’s nowhere near as country as where my dad’s farm was, but there are trees, parks, empty lots where people garden…There’s a possibility for greening here that just didn’t exist in Manhattan.

So I began to see a possibility for creating a different vision of our urban life that matched some of the ideals I had been brought up to believe in, but that wasn’t quite so negative. I began to think about environmental projects that I could pursue in Brooklyn, and the first thought I had was, “How am I going to do this and make a living?” A lot of environmental causes are non-profits – they’re advocacy oriented. I was from an arts background, and it just seemed improbable to move that into advocacy. I also had a legal background, but I wasn’t really interested in lawsuits or anything like that. So I created a company to do green building. I thought that would be the best response to the building boom happening at the time, which wasn’t very environmentally savvy.

Now everybody thinks about green buildings, but at the beginning of the boom the stuff they were putting up was just total garbage. So I wanted to offer a way to build in an environmentally conscious manner, and I found that there was a market for it. My company grew, and after a number of projects we ended up building the first LEED Gold certified green building in Brooklyn.

It’s funny – when we started in 2004 we just assumed that there were other green buildings out there. We assumed there had to be. Actually, even now there are only five LEED certified buildings in all of Brooklyn – a city of four million people with probably 20,000 edifices. We learned a lot during the course of that project. We had to convince ourselves that we were experts in something no one was really expert in at that time.

As the business grew, I got more involved in working with arts groups and art curation. I never wanted to just sell green buildings or green products – I always felt compelled to have an educational or activist component to my practice. So we did a whole bunch of public interventions and events…just to try to move the ball forward. We did a project called Greenhouse Effect where we did a series of events that looked at how to green every aspect of your life. We had a green fashion show, a green party…And now the ball has actually gone very far forward. I just saw in the news yesterday that they’re creating a certification system for garments – to score them in terms of their environmental sustainability. Wal-Mart is a partner. So the ball has moved very far in terms of awareness, but it hasn’t really moved much in terms of changing environmental practices.

Eventually we started getting interested in alternative planning approaches to development. We got a grant to try to promote alternative and somewhat arts-driven development in Bushwick, specifically to prevent what happened in Williamsburg from happening in Bushwick. By the time the money came through the bust had begun, so instead of looking at ways to push back against developers, we were looking at how to use the spaces that they’d left empty.

We did a survey in the neighborhood and everyone surveyed agreed that they wanted to green the space and improve the local food economy. We thought, “Wow – what if we merged those together and had it be about urban agriculture?”

So that’s the story of my long and somewhat circuitous route to becoming very interested in urban agriculture and our food system in general. I began writing about urban agriculture on my blog, The Greenest, to try to understand what it all meant, and it does mean a lot of different things to different people.

You mentioned that you wanted to find ways to prevent what happened in Williamsburg from happening in Bushwick. What did happen in Williamsburg?

Williamsburg is sort of a victim of its own success story, and it’s also a cautionary tale about top-down planning. About 30 years ago in the 70s when people began to burn buildings for insurance and manufacturing began to leave the city, the city began considering doing a wholesale rezoning of Williamsburg to allow for greater residential development. In 2005, they did it.  That’s how long that conversation has taken place.

In the 70’s, due to a perceived lack of support from the city and other economic concerns, manufacturing began to disappear from the city. Artists began coming into those abandoned industrial spaces in the late 80’s, looking for lofts, studios, and low rents. And they created a pretty vibrant arts community that actually worked well with the local community to fight city projects like a waste transfer station and things that both groups knew would not benefit the community.

The neighborhood was changing slowly, gradually, in an organic way. You can rezone places as you go, and it was happening gradually – in a way that made sense. Cut to the Bloomberg administration – they decided to take up the old rezoning proposition at a time when it just wasn’t needed. They let the genie out of the bottle with a wholesale rezoning in 2005 and it caused this major land grab. Everyone who had been sitting on those industrial properties for 30 years cashed out and retired and developers bought everything up to build high rise condos.

This all happened just before the market crashed. Williamsburg is now home to the greatest number of stalled or abandoned development projects in the city. Last year there were about 80 stalled projects in Williamsburg – that’s more than in all of Manhattan.

We wanted to find a way for the community in Bushwick to come up with their own plan, based on their own needs and interests. And it turned out that focusing on urban agriculture was a way to do that.

Let’s talk a bit about urban agriculture, particularly here in Brooklyn. What excites you about it? What does it all mean?

There’s a lot of excitement. I think urban farming is exciting in part because it’s one of the most provocative things you can do in a city. Urban farming is sort of an oxymoron. Farms are supposed to exist outside of the city. But by joining them together or juxtaposing them, you provide the most radical stimulus for thinking about how you alter the food system. That’s why I’m attracted to it and I think that’s why the media is interested in it. It’s provocative – something you just want to understand.

So people ask me all the time – “You support urban agriculture…do you actually think you’re going to be able to feed the city with this food?”

And the answer to that is that I don’t care. It’s a good question, but it’s not the point. The point of urban agriculture to me is that it’s a catalyst or a gateway for people to enter into an understanding of how the food systems work – either an alternative or sustainable food system, or the dominant  agribusiness-driven system. When I see kids, or adults,  go to an urban farm, it’s a ‘show don’t tell’ experience. I can tell you day in and day out to eat an organic carrot, but if I show you that I can either grow it in the ground, and spray a chemical on it that’s basically impossible for you to get off, or that I can grow it in the ground in an organic way without chemicals … you can’t walk away from that unchganged.

Not that it’s just educational – it’s important that these farms be real farms. The minute it doesn’t smell like a real farm, people will discount it. So I think it’s important to have working farms in the city as a way for urbanites alienated from their food system to reconnect with how the food system works, from the core place of production and also, very importantly, waste processing.

The thing we produce the most of in the city is waste. As a city, our compost is potentially incredibly valuable, but it mostly all goes to waste. I read a book called ‘Of Cabbages in Kings County.’ It talked about how Brooklyn and Queens used to be the most productive farmland in the country until the 1920s, when they paved it all over.

Why was it so productive? First, it was very good-draining, flat land. It’s a giant glacial moraine. Perfect topography for agriculture, but it didn’t have the most fertile soil in the world. How did it become so productive? All the crap from New York City, which was right next door.  New York City was run on horsepower. Horses were this awesome way to turn waste, like a spoiled carrot or cabbage, into really rich fertilizer. The horses eat it right up and just turn it into this magical nitrogen-rich fertilizer that you put on your fields and suddenly your yields go way up! So they had this built-in hyper-local system or energy source driving incredible agricultural productivity by creating incredibly fertile soil in a totally natural way.

Today, our energy source actually depletes the soil. We pump all these artificial petroleum-based fertilizers into the soil and we get nothing in return. We get yield but not fertility. We get crops with less nutritional content. It’s an interesting story because the farms show us what production is like and also what composting and waste mean. I can tell you to compost in the abstract, but if you don’t see how you can change an abandoned lot into a fertile farm through the use of compost…it’s like magic.

So I think that people invested in change have to invest in urban agriculture to help make that connection. Since the majority of people live in cities, the majority of change in the food system will come from urban dwellers, which is good news because urban dwellers are more likely or willing to change. Urban farms give them an outlet to forcefully shift their consciousness through this understanding of how urban farms operate.

I want to see more of these farms develop. More rooftop farms and experiments of every kind. What I’m pushing to create is a consciousness that will allow people to invest in these sorts of things socially, culturally and financially.

I think it’s important to note that city dwellers don’t need to grow their own food to make those connections. I’m really interested in collapsing the distinction between being a consumer and a producer. Many people don’t even understand that they’re producers. Cooking a meal turns you into a producer. Composting your trash turns you into a producer. But we’re taught to be passive and think of ourselves as passive – that everything is sold to us and we take whatever we’re given.

I feel like people should be given license to be active in any space along the continuum in the sustainable agriculture system. Just by buying organic, buying at the local farmers market, having meatless Monday, getting involved in a CSA…I think all these things are as important as actually farming or growing food. They’re just as important.

Tell us about your Farm City project. How did that come about?

I wasn’t content to just write about the food system and urban agriculture – I wanted to engage people and do research by actually doing stuff. I wanted to create active networks through public events that connected people who wouldn’t otherwise be connected, and to give them greater opportunities to invest in each other socially, culturally and financially.

The Farm City project is our way of pushing that agenda. The biggest thing we did was a collaboration last September with a somewhat unlikely but awesome collaborator – The French Institute Alliance Francaise, on their ‘Crossing the Line’ program. They knew that I did this blog on urban agriculture and they approached me to work with them on an event. So we created this multi-modal festival called Farm City.

We opened the festival with Farm City Fair – we took the concept of an old county fair and revived it for Brooklyn. We brought together food makers, chefs, and urban farmers to set up shop and sell their goods..and more importantly, to create this whole new way of seeing Brooklyn as a productive potential agricultural space.  We had a cooking competition, great music, great food, and it touched a nerve that was really exciting. About 5,000 people showed up on Bergen Street  on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

In addition to that we did tours of farms in Brooklyn. We loaded people onto buses and visited eight out of the twenty five or so urban farms in the borough.

The final piece of it was something called Farm City Forum. We selected people who were doing sort of cutting-edge design, architecture and art projects that imagined the future of urban agriculture, and brought them together to present their ideas.

Ironically, Farm City is also the county fair entity run by the Farm Bureau, which for better or worse advocates for some of the worst of big agribusiness. So in a way we stole the name – we appropriated it. They haven’t sued us yet, but they might!

Your latest series of events is called Chautauqua right? Tell us about that.

The Chautauqua project is the latest iteration of the cultural investment side of Farm City. As I mentioned, I try to invest in three different ways: social investment – creating connections between people; cultural investment – we can’t change the way we do things without changing our cultural ideas;  and financial investment.

People didn’t eat organic food twenty years ago unless they were hippies. People didn’t even know what organic was. Now Richie Rich is eating organic. That’s a cultural shift.

We took the name Chautauqua from a movement that came up in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s sort of a uniquely American popular education model. The Chautauqua movement came out of a populist urge to reject the notion that culture was only reposed in the elites of the cities. They thought culture should be available to a wide variety of people in an uplifting way. They were looking to bring high quality cultural and social connection to rural areas outside the cities.

It resulted in this really interesting thing where they would take these kind of intellectual circuses on the road. Like, the main event would be William Jennings Bryan giving a lecture on the gold standard. They’d bring orchestras, Broadway shows, and speakers on these travelling shows throughout rural America.

At the time, 70% of the people lived in the country and 30% lived in cities. That’s reversed today. With that reversal, we thought it would be interesting to bring the Chautauqua concept to the city. Its original impulse was to bring culture and connection to people who were spread out and unconnected. Today, most of our relationships around food are intermediated by agribusiness or stores or that sort of thing. We want to reestablish direct connections and culture around food – make personal connections around food.

Most of the events are inspired or run by artists. For example, Tracy Candido has an event called the Community Cooking Club where people come together, she brings produce from the farmers market, they make a meal together and she sends the recipes they craft together out to people afterwards to cement the idea that cooking is easy, food is best when it’s made with local, natural ingredients, and it’s all much more pleasurable when done with people. And Tracy is great at making it pleasurable!

We also have a group called Communal Table. They take a more thematic approach. Their next event is called the Covered Dish. They’re looking at this tradition of people bringing dishes to each other in times of need or want. They have celebrity chefs creating covered dishes for people to sample, and there’s a discussion about the traditions behind when people bring covered dishes to others. The idea is to spark a dialogue about how food creates community.

That’s the theme of all the events in this series – creating community through food, and creating food through community.

There are a total of 21 events. Nineteen are left in the season. The entire Chautauqua program is a collaboration with the Brooklyn Food Coalition – a great group. You can find all the details about upcoming Chautauqua events on the website.

You are a busy man, Derek Denckla. Anything else up your sleeve?

Actually, yes. I’m working on another project, as the coordinator for Slow Money NYC. Slow Money is based on a whole notion of investing in sustainable agriculture businesses. We are really making some interesting moves to try to build these conversations around making a change. We don’t want to just talk about it – talk isn’t bad, but we want to take tangible action, so with Slow Money, we’re going to be doing things like an entrepreneur conference in May where we’re going to have local food entrepreneurs present their projects to organizations like banks and SBAs, to network and seek funding.

On top of that, in January we started something called the Urban Farm Business Initiative. Our goal with that is to find a way to help urban farms find funding and investment from the financial community.  Most of the farms in the city aren’t really run as businesses. Most are non-profits. Only a couple actually succeed in making money. We want to help them to learn how to make a living, to be sustainable on the business front. So we started having those conversations with urban farmers, and we’ll see what comes out of it. We’d like to find a way to provide training to help the farms plan better from the business perspective. If they can do that successfully, they can pipeline into the Slow Money channel and potentially get funding there.

I’m really excited about kind of connecting all the dots now – the social, the cultural, and the financial. The social piece is the Urban Farm Business Initiative – we’re trying to create a structure for the farmers to connect with the financial world through Slow Money.  Chautauqua is the cultural aspect of it. Slow Money is the financial component. It’s exciting because I feel like I finally have all the pieces on the board. If I don’t lose my mind trying to keep it all rolling, it could be a very interesting year!

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3 Responses to Moving The Needle: Derek Denckla Talks Urban Farming in Brooklyn

  1. Tawnya says:

    You can certainly see your expertise in the article you write.
    The sector hopes for more passionate writers such as you
    who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

  2. Pingback: Derek Denckla Talks Urban Farming in Brooklyn – plotyourgarden.com

  3. Pingback: Derek Denckla Talks Urban Farming in Brooklyn « Plot!

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