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Crops in the City
An urban farm grows healthy food with no pesticides
Shateek Palmer

I always had in my head that all the fresh food we get in the city must come from the country. So I was surprised to find out that vegetables are grown at a farm in Brooklyn called East New York Farms! When I hear “Brooklyn,” I think of people fighting and things like that, not crops.

My peers at Represent and I visited East New York Farms! on a hot day. The neighborhood seemed nice: Across the street from the farm there was a basketball court where kids with talent were playing. We saw people walking their dogs and people cursing people out on the phone. There wasn’t a lot of green in the area besides the farm and the community garden across the street. The subway is above ground right next to the farm, and it made a lot of noise. Every time the train came we had to stop talking.

The farm takes up half an acre. It grows peppers, okra, beans, tomatoes, swiss chard, kale, collard greens, spinach, garlic, and other crops. It also has beehives that produce honey. They grow a weird plant I’d never seen before called bitter melon. It looks like a cucumber with spikes and it helps people with diabetes be healthier.

The farm was started in 1998 on a vacant lot they got from the city. Many of the people who work there now are teen interns, and a girl named Celeste Leandry showed us around. Like many of the teens there, she lives in the neighborhood and discovered the farm by walking past it. I was impressed that she knew so much about farms, and I couldn’t believe she was only 15 and going into the 10th grade.

The farm’s summer internship program is for kids 13-18 years old. They work five days a week, seven hours a day, and get $7.50 an hour.

image by Autumn Spanne

Healthy Farming

The farm is organic, which means that they don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers. One way they keep insects from eating the plants is to move the crops every year. For example, if a particular kind of insect likes okra, the farmers will plant something else where the okra was the next growing season, and when those insects come looking for the okra they’ll get frustrated. The farmers also put thick black plastic over the ground around the crops to keep out the bugs. They water the crops through irrigation—thin pipes that run under the black plastic and are attached to a water tank.

East New York Farms! sells their produce all summer at a farmers’ market right across the street from the farm. Farm manager David Vigil said, “We try to keep prices on par with other food outlets in the neighborhood, so we go to grocery stores, bodegas, and greengrocers, and we charge about the same. Sometimes we charge a little more, but we know it’s better food, healthier and fresher.”

Vigil said that the farm’s fruits and vegetables are the only produce in the neighborhood that’s both organic and local. Local is good because the produce is fresher and you don’t have to waste energy moving it from another state or country. He added, “Our ethnic crops, like bitter melon and long beans, are hard to find local and organic anywhere else in New York City.” Bitter melons and long beans are popular among two immigrant groups that live in the neighborhood—Bangladeshis and West Indians.

The farm gets funding from the United States Department of Agriculture and from private foundations. They make about 5% of their money selling their crops at the farmers’ market. Celeste said that okra is their biggest seller. The farm is beneficial to the neighborhood, not only because it provides healthy food, but also because it is beautiful and gives local teenagers a place to learn about agriculture.

image by Autumn Spanne

Grow Your Own Food

I already knew something about pesticides because I did a school report on Rachel Carson. She wrote a book called Silent Spring, which was published in 1962. Before that, not many people knew that weed killers and pesticides killed more then just insects: They also kill birds and other wildlife. Because of the book, a pesticide called DDT was banned in 1972.

Studies since then have shown that pesticides can damage humans’ nervous systems and reproductive systems, can disrupt hormone function and immunity, and lead to cancer. But most of the big farms still use those chemicals, so you should always wash fruits and vegetables.

And city farms are important because people in low-income neighborhoods like East New York, Brooklyn, don’t have much healthy food to choose from, even from far away. There’s a term, “food desert,” for neighborhoods that don’t have many options for buying healthy fresh fruit and vegetables but do have a lot of fast food restaurants. At a fast-food place, people can fill their stomachs for less money, and this is partly why obesity is one of the fastest-rising health problems in poor neighborhoods.

David Vigil wants to get more city people growing food. He and the others at East New York Farms! are looking for more vacant lots to expand their farm. He said, “We also encourage other people to grow food in their backyards, in other community gardens that might have fallen into disuse, and at schools, churches, and libraries. When you look around with an eye to growing things, you notice more land.”

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