Last Friday, I had a chance to visit a small farm popping up in the middle of Brownsville, Brooklyn run solely by Nora Painten. The farm is in its very early stages. It’s not much to look at at this point: piles of re-purposed wood, rows of wheel barrels, bags full of garbage cleaned up from the lot and seed bags surrounding the ground.

When Nora walks out, she has the kind of beautiful, ethereal glow you wish you could have in NYC and can only come from working outside everyday. The moment she begins to show me around the place, I can tell that what she is starting here is something truly special. Although vegetables and fruits are yet to be seen at the farm, Nora’s passion for urban farming is something to see in and of itself history.  With a long history as a New York City farmer, she patiently and excitedly showed me layouts and explains her plan to build an outdoor gazebo classroom for the kids in the school next door.  Nora was kind enough to stop her work for a moment and answer a few of my questions about urban farming and her non-for profit, Student Farm Project.

TCM: How did you first get into farming?
NP: “In 2007, after coming back home from traveling, I was spending some time trying to figure out what my next move would be.  To help me clear my head, I started volunteering at an organic farm near my parents’ house in Connecticut. I fell in love with it and started reading everything I could get my hands on about our food system and our health as a modern society.  They hired me as a full-time, year-round farmer and I ended up staying there for over three years.”

TCM: What led you to start a farm in the middle of Brooklyn?
NP: “I moved to Brooklyn in February 2011 to live with my now husband. I knew I wanted to keep farming and I initially got a job through Slow Food NYC working on their garden in East New York, Ujima Garden. I knew I wanted to do more, so I started looking around for sunny, vacant lots on well-traveled streets.  The lot we are building our new farm on is one of the first ones I looked into and it’s perfect. Not too big, not too small, right near a school, on a very active street corner with great neighbors and owned by the city (HPD).”

TCM: How did you get permission to use this plot of land?
NP: “I found out that the land was city-owned through using the OASIS map – a very cool online resource that tells you loads about any property in the city, including who owns it.  I got in touch with HPD through a quick Google search. They agreed to enter into a usage agreement with me so I can use the lot free of charge to build a garden for the nearby school PS/IS 323. The next step was getting in touch with the principal. After much futile calling and e-mailing, I walked into the school one day with a basket of eggplant, hot peppers and marigolds. That got everyone’s attention and Principal Linda Harris happily signed on to partner with us on this project.”

TCM: What does the future of urban farming look like?
NP: “Urban farming has the potential to not only create green jobs, but also encourage and strengthen local economies. More and more people are becoming aware of not only the carbon footprint of food imported from distant locations, but the great difference in quality and nutrition between food that has been produced locally and sold to you within hours or days and food that is weeks old.  People are starting to understand that eating apples in April and tomatoes in December is a false luxury that they may be willing to do without.  When people can see what’s growing down the block and see what’s in season at their local farmers market, they feel much more connected to their food and are more likely to choose seasonal options.”

TCM: What is your goal with this farm?
NP: “My goals are simple: to grow food with kids, to share food with neighbors.  My goals are also complex: to use this project as a model that I can bring to other schools, to strengthen my own non-profit (Student Farm Project) to a point where I can pay people to help with this work and eventually train and hire community members to help run the farms, to develop relationships with city agencies and advocate for more of this kind of land use, using this project as an example.”

TCM: Favorite homegrown meal?
NP: “Too many to count! Nothing beats some fresh tomato sauce with basil, onions and peppers and a side of wilted raw kale salad. Or roasted eggplant and squash with olive oil and lemon – simple is usually best. I always lament that all the best foods are only in season for such a short time of year – and it also happens to be the hottest time of year when you don’t really want to be roasting things in the oven. But it’s worth sweating it out in the kitchen because it’s so good!”

TCM: Who or what inspired you to have the career in farming that you have today?
NP: “It just happened this way – I love food, I love plants and soil. I don’t really love offices, (although they are not so bad).  I like doing different things everyday. I really like working with people and meeting new farm neighbors’ everyday.”

TCM: Tell us about the different types of materials that are being used to build this farm sustainably?
NP: “We’ve gotten a huge load of donated wood from Build it Green! NYC.  They sell all sorts of salvaged material, not just wood. I highly recommend visiting one of their warehouses if you like cool old things. While the process of turning lots into farms is pretty complicated and not totally streamlined yet, there are so many city resources available to make it possible. We simply could not afford to build this farm without the donated wood and soil.”

TCM: Where did you get the soil and why did you choose to use beds instead of the soil on the plot?
NP: “The soil in the beds is DoS compost (not kitchen scraps, just compost made from park trimmings and such).   The ground at the site is definitely not something I would call “soil”. It’s very sandy, dusty with lots of rocks, bricks, debris (decades of buried trash), gravel and several huge patches of asphalt.  There’s also the issue of metal toxicity. I haven’t actually tested the site “soil” yet but there could be issues with lead or mercury.  This is one reason our beds are particularly high off the ground.  I also wanted the beds to be raised so high off the ground to give crops with larger, more complicated root systems room to grow, and enough soil to feed them throughout the season.”

TCM: Anything else you would like to add?
NP: “We have a lot of partners on this project. First of all, huge thanks to Kickstarter and our 280 backers! Secondly, our partners Growing Cities – architects Devin Lafo and Saranga Nakhooda – have been instrumental in designing and constructing the farm. Thanks also to our tireless volunteers! We’ve had over a hundred folks come out and we always need more! Of course, Green Thumb has given so much support as well as Slow Food NYC who gave me my start farming in Brooklyn.  Must mention my favorite bar: 61 local – check out this awesome beer tasting series  – proceeds from tickets sales go to us!  They have been huge project supporters. And check out our website, studentfarmproject.com, for updates and more information about how to volunteer or support the project.”

Photos courtesy Ellen Kyle and Kickstarter

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