Urban Farms Across N.Y. Focus on the Sustainability of City Life

Many New Yorkers have no idea how much of their bustling city was once farmland. As the population of New York City expanded, the soil in the “Big Apple” stopped growing fruits and vegetables and began to grow skyscrapers.

But in New York City and all across America, a resurgence of urban farming has taken on a life of its own. Urban farms can be found in large numbers across New York’s five boroughs, with varied farming models.

Most urban farms were started to combat food insecurity. Now, they meet a variety of needs across communities: helping to expand access to healthy food, fighting food insecurity and building strong community bonds. Additionally, they seek to improve environmental conditions, offer educational opportunities, facilitate therapy and rehabilitation, generate commercial economic development and provide much-needed jobs for those who struggle to find meaningful work. A few of them are profiled here.

Harlem Grown: Since 2011, Harlem Grown has operated local urban farms, helping residents of the Uptown Manhattan neighborhood increase their access to and knowledge of healthy food.

Harlem Grown uses facilities like its hydroponic greenhouse to help students think about sustainable change. Jason J. Armond/NYT Institute

Latonya Assanah, greenhouse hydroponics manager at Harlem Grown, said she was proud of the work they are doing.

“Tony Hillery, our founder, discovered that the most effective way to change a community was through its youth,” she said. “This is why we focus a majority of our efforts on providing services and programs to Harlem youth.”

Even as Harlem Grown produced and distributed 650 pounds of produce to the community last year, they understand that this is not the primary goal.

Students get hands-on knowledge at Harlem Grown’s outdoor garden beds. Jason J. Armond/NYT Institute

“Food justice is more than just giving someone a bag of kale or spinach,” Mrs. Assanah said.

While Harlem Grown does distribute food, it also seeks to positively affect the entire community through its youth-focused programming, mentorship, job training, and other partnerships to create sustainable change.

Bed-Stuy Farm and Urban Harvest Center: Many of New York’s community urban farms do not see themselves and others like them as the only solutions to ending food insecurity in the city. Rather, they view their much-needed work as a form of community building and as a springboard that will inspire change in the community, while also bridging the food gap. The mission of Bed-Stuy Farm and Urban Harvest Center in Brooklyn is to establish a food chain at the grass-roots level through leadership development, family services and advocacy.

The Rev. Robert Ennis Jackson and his wife view their work as a necessary means to improve the community and environment around them. Jason J. Armond/NYT Institute

The Rev. DeVanie Jackson and her husband, the Rev. Robert Ennis Jackson, founders of Bed-Stuy Farm and Urban Harvest Center in Brooklyn, believe that food justice, hunger relief and youth leadership are vital. Their organization provides members of the community with free, fresh organic produce grown at the Bed-Stuy farm as well as emergency food at the Urban Harvest Center food pantry.

Alvin Morgan, left, 18, and Matthius Babajew, 19, are part of an internship program at Bed-Stuy Farm and Urban Harvest Center designed to help them learn gardening skills. Jason J. Armond/NYT Institute

Reverend DeVanie Jackson hopes the need for organizations like Bed-Stuy Farm and Urban Harvest Center Food Pantry will fade with progress.

“Honestly, I hope one day there will be no need for our farm or pantry,” she said.

The Rev. DeVanie Jackson focuses on building community at Bed Stuy Harvest Center in Brooklyn. Jason J. Armond/NYT Institute

Brooklyn Grange: “Urban farming has been practiced in New York City, well, since it became a city. At the turn of the century, there was a rooftop farm atop the Ansonia Hotel in Manhattan that was home to a couple hundred chickens, ducks and even a bear,” said Anastasia Cole, a co-founder and chief operating officer of Brooklyn Grange.

In 2010, Ms. Cole, along with Ben Flanner, Gwen Schantz and Chase Emmons, co-founded the grange, a privately owned commercial urban farm with multiple rooftop locations in Brooklyn and Queens. Brooklyn Grange’s mission from the start was to “create a fiscally sustainable model for urban agriculture and to produce healthy, delicious vegetables for our local community while doing the ecosystem a few favors as well.”

Seth Johnson manages the leading urban agriculture rooftop farm in the country.
Jason J. Armond/NYT Institute

Brooklyn Grange is not only the largest commercial urban farm in New York City, but the leading rooftop urban farm operating in the country. Last year, the farm grew over 80,000 pounds of organically cultivated produce. The flagship, 43,000-square-foot farm is in Long Island City, Queens, on top of a 1919 warehouse.