Text by Rory Gunderson
Rob Stephenson is a documentary photographer based out of Brooklyn, New York.After receiving the 2011 Design Trust for Public Space, Photo Urbanism Fellowship, Stephenson spent a year visiting hundreds of agricultural sites throughout New York’s five boroughs, ranging from informal community vegetable gardens in The Bronx to sprawling modular rooftop farms in Manhattan. The results of his project were published as the book From Roof to Table.
How long did this project take, roughly how many farms did you visit, where in New York were they?
The fellowship lasted for a year though I ended up continuing the project for a few additional months since I didn’t get much shooting done during the winter months. I visited hundreds of gardens and farms throughout all five boroughs and probably ended up photographing around 120 of them.
How did the Design Trust for Space define urban agriculture, how did you or do you define urban agriculture. i.e. when does a backyard vegetable garden become urban agriculture?
I can’t speak specifically for the Design Trust, but in my proposal I set out to document all the possible approaches to urban agriculture and considered any activity that involved growing food in the city as falling under that umbrella.
What was your relationship to plants, gardening, farming, urban agriculture before getting the grant and how did it change after you completed the project?
My cousins are dairy farmers in upstate New York and I spent time up there as a kid so I was somewhat familiar with how small farms work, but nothing I experienced during the course of this project was reminiscent of farms of that scale. Personally I have never been able to grow much besides basil and rosemary, but seeing what is possible has gotten me eager to at least attempt something a little more ambitious this spring. Maybe oregano.
What did you learn from the experience of a year spent documenting Urban Agriculture — as a photographer, as a New Yorker, as a city dweller?
As a photographer I learned that a tomato plant in the middle of a garden in the city looks pretty much like a tomato plant in any other garden and that putting things in context was often the key to an effective picture. As a city dweller, I found the possibility that an urban rooftop can provide better produce than a rural farm fascinating. Farming has such rural associations, that the phrase urban agriculture seems almost oxymoronic. The fact that a city can provide suitable, even preferable conditions for growing food blurs the line between traditional roles of urban and rural environments.
Whitney Ott is a food and still life photographer based out of Atlanta, GA. Growing up in the woods in rustic Georgia, she developed an appreciation for hidden details and natural lighting. Turning passion into profession, through photography, Whitney captures the subtle beauty of images.
Wilder Quarterly first discovered Whitney through her gorgeous Instagram feed, which features her food and botanical photography. In typical social media fashion, Whitney and Wilder became fast friends. We were eager to learn how she captured such luscious shots of food and, more importantly, does it taste as good as it looks? Wilder also can’t get enough of her take on flower arranging. Whitney was kind enough to chat with us about her process, even offering some insider tips on how to achieve greatness behind the camera.
Wilder Quarterly: At Wilder, we love food, flowers and photography. Your profession combines all three. Can you talk a bit about your creative process and how it came to be? Also, what kind of a camera do you use?
Whitney Ott: I feel like my creative process began when I was a 13 year old kid clumsily fooling around with my first 35mm film camera. My family home is located in the woods, so most of my time was spent exploring the great outdoors through the lens. Because I grew up surrounded by nature, I developed a keen sense and appreciation for natural light and learned to focus on the intricate details that it has to offer. All of this knowledge I have carried with me into the professional world of photography–and I’ve upgrade to a 5D Mark II. My preference is to use natural light, as much as possible–for me, it just looks the best. When I prepare for a shoot–whether it be of food, flowers, or yarn– my first thought is always about color and how I want it to read in the image. Lately, I’ve been shooting and exploring colorful pieces on dark surfaces. I get inspired by a lot of different things and there’s almost a constant stream of ideas in my head, so you never know what I may shoot next!
WQ: Your photographs are breathtaking, and it appears you are not afraid of what I refer to as “the beautiful mess” or “a wild perfection.” Is this something you chase as a photographer?
WO: I love the idea of them both. It sounds cliched to say this, but I truly believe that there is beauty in everything. Whether it is a decaying flower, a finished meal with morsels left over on the plate, a smashed piece of fruit–there’s something fascinating and attractive about it all. In a way, I try to stay “true” to the nature and form of whatever it is I am photographing.
WQ: You must be surrounded by delicious food and gorgeous flora all day long. Who makes the food and who provides the flowers?
WO: I try to keep flowers in my loft as much as possible–they are so uplifting! Sadly, my refrigerator is a different story. The flowers that I buy usually come from The Dekalb Farmer’s Market–they always have a great variety and at very good prices. A lot of the food I buy comes from the same market, but there are also a lot of great bakeries in town that I like to go to as well. Everything on my site has been styled by me and most of the food on my site has been made and baked by me–a friend of mine happens to be a wonderful baker and she has been kind enough to bake me some pies and other tasty treats to photograph.
WQ: Can you talk a bit about staging your photographs? In terms of spontaneity, is a photograph ever an afterthought to a very hungry moment?
WO: In the past, my photography came to life in one of two ways: exhaustive planning and spur of the moment. I still do a lot of shoots that are planned out, but ever since I started using Instagram it has become another way in which I think about and stage my photos. When I’ve planned a concept ahead of time, I’ve already hunted down the right background, props, and food that I want to use and I stick to it. When there is no plan, it’s because I’ve gone to the farmer’s market and picked up things that piqued my interest. When I get home, I take my time and explore the object from all angles.
WQ: Your Instagram feed is one of my favorites! What role does it play in your process?
WO: Instagram is almost like my personal mood board–or the place where my “first draft” images live. Every image on my feed is spontaneous and there are plenty of after thought images to meals on there. Lately, I’ve been going through my feed and taking notes on what I shot with my phone and what about it is interesting. Then I try to re-create similar images with my actual camera. I am also trying to force myself to bring out my real camera to start shooting when I find that I am spending more than 5 minutes on an image I’m taking with my phone.
WQ: Food photography requires those magic ingredients: lighting, angle and drool-worthy content. I imagine the perfect combination of these three qualities leads to the genre one might call “food porn.” Is there a fourth element?
WO: Composition. Everything about creating an image is deliberate even if it seems like a happy accident. You want your composition to be powerful enough that it evokes a feeling from the viewer.
WQ: These days it seems as though everyone takes photos with their phone of what they’re eating or perfectly arranged flowers. At a point, everything begins to look the same. In what ways do you attempt to distinguish yourself from everyone else?
WO: I try to stay true to myself and my creative vision. The phrase, “write the book you want to read,” carries over for me–I photograph the images I want to see. My end goal is to photograph things in interesting ways that will give someone else a new found appreciation for whatever is in the photograph. A quote that inspires me to be creative is said very plainly by Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
All images by Whitney Ott.
Good things come in small batches—just ask the folks behind Dandelion Chocolate. Run out of a factory in San Francisco’s Mission District, Dandelion is a small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate maker. “Make” is certainly one word for it. Try: roast, crack, winnow, conch, temper—all the many artful steps that go toward prepping the cocoa beans for the final product. Only one other ingredient is added, cane sugar, before each bar is molded and packaged by hand. Dandelion has recently opened a retail space, where they offer their signature treats: three single-origin, 70% cacao, tasting bars. Nutty, fruity, peppery—there isn’t one we wouldn’t want to melt directly into a cup of hot milk, creating the most delicious hot chocolate imaginable.
Who knew that, much like viticulture, the study of chocolate was so complex? Indulging our sweet tooth, we recently chatted with Dandelion chocolate maker Alice Nystrom and did some tasting of our own.
WQ: We all have a childhood notion of what it would be like to work in a chocolate factory. As a chocolate maker, you have first hand knowledge. What exactly are the steps that go into chocolate making and what is the significance of Dandelion’s “small-batch?”
AN: We make our chocolate in “small batches.” This means that all of our machines are much smaller than their industrial counterparts. It also means that we have more room to play. When we first get a bag of beans, we’ll use our test equipment to make a series of 1 kilo batches, roasted to various lengths of time. We decide which of those batches has the best flavor and scale it up to work in our production equipment.
Our production begins by hand-sorting raw beans. We then roast, crack, winnow, grind, melange, and temper our bars by hand. We foil each of our bars, use a machine from 1955 to wrap them in paper, then add our labels.
WQ: When I tasted my first cacao bean, it tasted very bitter (hold the sweet). How is the bean integrated into chocolate production? What effect does the bean’s origin have on the final flavor?
AN: We’d all love to be able to taste finished chocolate when we sample raw beans. It takes a very well-trained palate. If we could taste raw beans on a farm and have a vision for the final product, it would be a great help. When selecting beans, we can taste for a certain level of quality and then we rely on other indicators. Generally, we learn as much as we can about the beans, the farmer’s practices, and the consistency of his production. We then get samples, make tiny batches, and evaluate whether or not these beans will work with our process.
The bean’s origin and the farmer’s practices have significant impact on the final flavor we can create in our chocolate. For example, I was lucky enough to visit the farm that grows our Madagascar beans last year. These beans grow in the Sambirano River Valley. The Sambirano River overflows frequently, leaving the soil fertile and rich. The farm that grows our beans, SOMIA, also has great biodiversity. SOMIA grows fine cacao, bananas, ylang ylang, peppercorns, and vanilla. These factors together produce bright red cocoa beans with powerful, fruity flavor. The farmers at SOMIA work hard to develop the flavor of their beans through fermentation and drying. The farmers carefully control the temperature and length of fermentation, developing flavor precursors. They then dry the beans in a way that releases some acetic acid, but does not mellow the flavor. By the time the beans arrive at our factory, we work hard to process the beans very lightly and to highlight the flavor they developed on the farm.
WQ: As a chocolate maker, what are you tasting for when you taste chocolate? Is it, for example, like wine tasting? Is there a ritual? Terminology? Any mouth sensations? Aftertaste?
AN: We try not to make our tastings too strict. We have our process, but there’s no wrong way to taste chocolate! We like to take a square of chocolate, bite it a little to break it up, then slowly let it melt. This way, we notice a distinct beginning, middle, and end of the flavor.We also pay attention to the texture and melt. Finally, if the chocolate’s particularly acidic, we often notice a puckery mouth sensation. The vocabulary for tasting chocolate is very similar to wine, beer, or coffee. We often notice sour, roasty, bitter, tannony, fruity, and nutty notes.
WQ: Not everyone has a sweet tooth (full disclosure: I’ve only developed mine in the past few years or so). What would you say to those savory inclined folks out there that might convince them to nibble on some Dandelion Chocolate?
AN: Not everyone loves dark chocolate right away. We work hard to create a variety of flavors in our bars. Some of our bars are easy to love, real crowd-pleasers. Others are bold and striking to tasters. Hopefully, everyone can find something they like.
Our cafe will be all sweets, all made with our chocolate. We’re sticking to what we know and love. We’ll have a full menu that covers dense and rich, light and fluffy, hot, cold, gooey, and crumbly.
WQ: I can imagine that your taste for chocolate has evolved over the years and that you’ve tried chocolate of all shapes, origins, and flavors. What’s an unexpected food that is perfectly complimented by chocolate? Do you have an all-time favorite chocolate shop or favorite chocolate recipe?
AN: I’ve learned a lot about pairing chocolate from our neighbors! I paired chocolate with cheese at Mission Cheese, chocolate with beer and savory food at 18 Reasons with the folks from Abbot’s Cellar. I have quite a few favorites from those nights — pork belly dressed with mole definitely stands out.
I’m excited for our chocolate cafe to open! Our pastry chef, Phil, shares treats everyday. I can’t wait to cozy up in the front of our space with a hot chocolate and a pastry. Hopefully our cafe will become my all-time favorite chocolate shop.
Each issue, Wilder partners with brands we love. We also make sure that someone on staff feels strongly about the brand and its product. This time around, we were lucky enough to buddy up with California Olive Ranch.
We wanted to share with you some of things we love about them from the story of their beginning to their owl habitats, we’re pleased to introduce you to Adam Englehardt, VP of Orchard Operation, and the California Olive Ranch family.
Nary an olive grove can boast pressing their fruit within hours of picking — but that’s just the kind of promise California Olive Ranch makes. In a market where bright, fresh, green oils are either exorbitant, genetically modified, or require a three-thousand mile trip across the Atlantic, California Olive Ranch attempts to address all three of these olive oil qualms from their sixty-plus farms roosted in the Sierra Nevada foothills. With an emphasis on both sustainability (from greywater irrigation to owl habitats for rodent control) and affordability, Wilder Quarterly took an interest in this honest and “full-bodied” company. Founded in 1998 by a small group of friends — a nurseryman, a grape grower and a banker — Adam Englehardt, VP of Orchard Operation, says, “the rest is history.”
How do you see your work in the context of California olive-agriculture history? How long has this region been producing olives?
I joined California Olive Ranch because it’s a great chance to play a leadership role in a relatively new olive oil industry here in California. We are on the cutting edge of finding better ways to grow olives by combining age old techniques with new, innovative technologies. It is a very exciting time for us.
Although there is evidence of olive trees planted as far back as late 1700s, the US currently imports approximately 98% of the olive oil it consumes. That said, the US consumer is starting to ask the right questions — where does their olive oil comes from, how are the olives grown and how is it produced? And, as folks become more educated about their choices, and understand that you can in fact find high quality, domestically grown olive oil, we are well on our way to changing that picture.
How many contracted farmers/farms are there? In what ways does California Olive Ranch work with them to ensure quality — or choose to be hands-off?
California Olive Ranch partners with over 60 quality local growers near the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California. We visit our growers weekly throughout the growing season to provide ongoing support, conduct field testing of the olive maturity, as well as to ensure they adhere to our growing standards. Each truckload of olives as it enters our facility is QA tested before it is allowed to move along in the process. Growers are our partners, and we are there to help them be successful every step of the way.
Can you describe harvest season? What happens in a day? What are the numbers (workers, farmers, pounds, gallons)? What does it look like, smell like?
Our harvest season is quite a busy time, however, it is extremely rewarding. Our dedicated team works 12-hour shifts, 24-hours a day, rotated 6-7 days a week for 45-50 days in a row. What does it look or smell like? Depends where you are. In the mill, it smells like a burst of bright green, fresh olive oil that was just pressed from the trees outside the mill doors. On the ranch, it smells like freshly cut green grass.
Interview by Adrian Shirk . Photos by Jessica Nash
At last, Le Fooding has set up shop in the ‘Borough of Trees.’ This last weekend the culinary French upstart, famed for its annual guide and down-to-earth approach to gastronomy, hosted The Le Fooding Brooklyn Fling, it’s fourth New York City festival since 2009. This year, Le Fooding has taken it upon itself to champion the cultural and culinary “second winds” that fringe districts like East London, L’Est parisien, and waterfront Brooklyn have provided their cities:“This simultaneous force has been translated, in foodie terms, into the birth of a new race of chefs and cooks: better read but less well shaven, some with tattoos, all young (for now) and totally radical…”
Over the course of four days, they’ve cobbled together a series of succulent spectacles: they’ve planned dinners prepared by collaborating chefs, brunches at Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema, and a sampling of vintage recipes at the Brooklyn Flea, to name a few. Unlikely duos, like chef Brian Leth of Vinegar Hill House and Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Los Angeles’ Animals will serve a never-before tasted repast; internationally-celebrated Bertrand Grébaut (among many others!) will be “reinventing yesterday’s palate” on the warm asphalt in Fort Greene. It’s no surprise that the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik has described Le Fooding’s events as a fusion between “a dinner buffet and a Woodstock festival.”
Wilder Quarterly had the opportunity to speak with the Le Fooding US project manager, Anna Polonsky.
WQ: How many of these types of “flings” has Le Fooding done before?
AP: We change the format all the time. This is our fourth year in New York, but now we spread the event out longer than before. Typically, we host about ten events a year, in and around France, other places, but we started the events in New York in 2009, the first one being a single big event at [PS 1] MoMa. The theme was sort of an urban picnic. And last year we did a 72-hour nonstop restaurant with thirteen chefs. Now we’re trying to do lots of different events, but smaller and over a full weekend, which keeps it intimate and more curated.
Basically, we always make sure to have an editorial angle, and then we curate the event around it. Every year when we brainstorm, we try to think of what’s interesting right now, what’s going on this year. And after hosting these things in New York, Queens, you know, we thought, there’s an incredible cultural movement in Brooklyn. We’ve got to do something with it.
What does Le Fooding make of this cultural relationship between artists, up-and-coming neighborhoods, and “fooding”?
We see it as kind of a movement, where any kind of food, high-end or food trucks, all share a common space. We like to really mix up everything. And the people who read our guide are really not the same demographic as those who went to five star restaurants, etc… We love food, but we don’t consider ourselves foodies, and we try to do events that are also not only for foodies. We want it to be accessible, not only all about professional technique, but instead, mostly about fun. The [Brooklyn Fling] is centered around food, but there’s more here than that: maybe you like a particular featured chef or a musician or a graphic artist. We try to put the experience of food in a wider and more open-minded context.
What kind of effect is this “new race of chefs” having on the culture at large?
They’re younger and they’re cooler and they make food more accessible to all kinds of people. Most of these chefs are people you can hang out with! Food used to be not sexy at all, and anything special was reserved for connoisseurs. Until now, it was never really cool to be a chef, you know, wearing the toque and all — But these new chefs are famous! People are paying attention to them, and they’re still very relatable, unpretentious. I mean you go to a high-class restaurant in the city, even Momofuku, and every kind of person is welcome. They’re making food sexy.
We also want to make space in the Brooklyn Fling for great chefs who had to close their restaurants, or who got fired. This year we’re hosting these sorts of people in these ‘pop-up’ restaurants and it’s going to be cool to go see them working like this. We care about the chefs, not only the restaurants.
How did you choose the venues where the various Brooklyn events would be offered?
The method for tracking things down has always been mixed. Because we wait until we find something we like — in fact these events usually start with a venue. Like whenever I’d go to the Brooklyn Flea Market over the last three years, I was amazed because I didn’t have these things in Paris. I mean we did have antique markets, but they were very expensive, and not as lively. So we loved it and… we thought we could do something together.
In the mean time I moved to Williamsburg, right near the Nitehawk Cinema, and I thought ‘This is really amazing what they do’ — they can eat amazing food, and watch films. So, it’s step-by-step. We started making plans. After that we connected more proactively with restaurants, looking for ones that were in different areas of Brooklyn, not all in Williamsburg or Carroll Gardens. That’s what matters to us, not a particular kind of food or price point, but variety. We don’t go for Vinegar Hill House for the same reasons we go to Frankies. They all have different strengths. We don’t give grades or stars or name-drop. These places have one important thing in common — they have great chefs.
Since its inception in 2000, Mrs. Meyers Clean Day products have staked a place in our hearts, cabinets, and front-row window displays of supermarkets and corner stores alike. The retro, monochromatic labels and wholesome slogans (‘Wishing You a Clean and Happy Home, Cleans Like the Dickens!’), not to mention cruelty-free, low-impact manufacturing, has made the Mrs. Meyers brand all but irresistible.
It’s hard to have a brand this is drawn on horticultural, and more so, sustainability and green ethics. Wilder is always inspired by companies that are managing to deliver the goods. It’s one reason we wanted to work with Mrs. Meyers for our Summer 2012 issue. That and their amazing community gardening program that includes seeds, events and inspiration.
We spoke with Kim Chisholm, VP of Marketing of Mrs Meyers, about their experiences.
WQ: For our readers who may not already know, who is the real Mrs. Meyers?
She is the founder’s [Monica Nassif’s] mother, Thelma Meyer – a Midwestern mom of nine kids. She is also turning eighty-years-old this August, so watch for some celebrations this month.
WQ: Does she have a major hand in creating product recipes, and/or the way products are marketed, or is she primarily a company totem?
She’s not directly involved in the day-to-day product development or marketing of the products but we are inspired by her values – things like being neighborly, practical, uncomplicated and hard-working. [Those things] really are the truth behind the products and brand. Whenever possible we like to feature true stories from her everyday life (like a recipe, craft or experience). I think she keeps us real and grounded in what’s important. She’s an amazing person and it’s easy to be inspired by her.
WQ: How are the products made?
The products are developed in-house (we have a great lab) and the products are made largely in a 100-mile radius of our office. They contain plant-derived essential oils and ingredients that are powerful against dirt and grime, but leave your home smelling like a garden. Most people are often surprised that [ours] work as well as conventional cleaners — and also by the uplifting aromatheraputic scents. We truly are inspired by the garden and think it’s practical that products have strong utility, so we work both these points into our messaging whenever possible.
Longwood Gardens was a partner in our Summer edition, so we had the chance to visit their current installation, Lights. The show is dazzling! We spoke with the garden’s director, Paul Redman, about the genesis of the program and the relationship that Longwood, as one of the leading voices in horticulture, has with the arts in general.
There’s a place where fiber-optic flowers and 200-year-old elms are living in harmony, at last. Nestled in Pennsylvania’s southeastern corner, the world-renowned Longwood Gardens is hosting Lights (through September 29th), a one-of-a-kind, site-specific installation by UK artist and light designer, Bruce Munro. Twenty-three of the conservatory’s 1,077 masterfully cultivated acres are devoted to Munro’s fields of twinkling orbs, acrylic stems, pastures of color-changing towers, iridescent raindrops fashioned from tiny bulbs, and greenhouse chandeliers of bundled glass balls.
The outdoor pieces are, for the most part, integrated into the natural landscape, peeking or sparkling through drifts of black walnut trees, English gardens, and grassy banks, provoking a sense of alien familiarity. For instance “Water lilies” is a series of large resplendent disks constructed from recycled CDs that share one of the garden’s lakes with the real variety, floating together in harmony. However, in other cases, a very different approach is take. For example, “Water Towers,” is made up of sixty-nine cylindrical towers placed throughout one of the central meadows each built from plastic water-filled bottles, fiber optics and a sound system that stimulates synchronized color change. It is in a piece like this where the suspension between nature and Munro’s artifice come together to create something entirely new.
Longwood sits upon land purchased by a Quaker family from William Penn has had several lives. In the past 250 years, it has been cultivated for farming, arboretums, nature preserves, and finally, to include a full-blown research institution and horticultural wonderland that draw thousands of visitors each year. Like many botanic centers, Longwood’s mission is to maintain the likes of rare clematis and fruit orchards, and engage in research toward preserving rare and endangered plants.
Unlike other garden’s, Longwood’s other big mission is to make the natural world comprehensible to the public. Redman, who became Longwood’s director after a long tenure at Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio, says, “I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to connect the people with the plants in the most meaningful way possible. You don’t want to dumb it down. And it’s not like a museum or a science center — you’re trying to interpret the story of a living, ever-changing ecosystem.” It was this principal that led him to working with Bruce Munro, after one of Redman’s colleagues came across an exhibit of his in the UK in 2008.
“At the time,” says Redman, “we were embarking on a quest to find something that could help our guests to see Longwood differently — hopefully to a create an entirely new view of the garden altogether.” Throughout the installation process, a nearly two-year collaborative effort between Munro, Redman and the rest of the gardens’ curatorial team, Redman recalls, “The site and spirit of the place informed every part of the installation. We just had to keep asking, ‘How can we get people to see Longwood in a way they’ve never seen it before?’” The team had the unique task of blending two forms, a historically architected garden with sculpture, into a comprehensible dynamic, that both revealed things about Longwood’s flora and the artist’s work in its own right.
Redman enjoys bringing fine arts into conversation at Longwood, though he doesn’t believe that his love for a particular landscape artist necessarily warrants seeking someone out. “My goal is to find artistic partners — it’s about finding artistic partners who understand the gardens specifically. I never, ever want to impose something upon them. When [landscape art] is not imposed, it becomes part of the landscape, it has a life.”
The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is an advocacy group for new American growers. Like many grassroots organizations, NYFC was conceived by three good friends around a table: Lindsey Lusher Shute, her husband Ben (Hearty Roots), and fellow-farmer Severine Fleming.
When these Hudson Valley cultivators realized how little their interests as young farmers were accounted for in the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill, which is revisited by Congress every five years to amend or repeal previous agricultural acts, and put forth new policy, was preparing for a 50 percent cut to several development and grant programs for young or immigrant farmers. The group surveyed over 1,000 small growers nationwide and organized the results into policy recommendations to effect the bills principles. “Many young farmers can’t inherit the farm, so we need to make sure they can buy it or lease it for a lifetime,” said NYFC director Lindsey Lusher Shute. “The US needs to have a serious conversation about affordable farmland.”
Beyond the Farm Bill, the group has a triad of objectives — social, policy, practical use — Ms. Shute, and the advisory board of small farmers from across the country tackle the trials, obstacles, and dramas of independent American growers by creating programs like FarmHack where folks can come together and share tips, practices, and new technology. Lusher Shute took some time to discuss the hopes and visions of NYFC with Wilder Quarterly.
WQ: What is the coalition’s working definition of a “young farmer?”
LLS: ”NYFC’s focus is first career farmers, who are generally in their 20s and 30s, but the issues we work on are important to farmers and consumers of any age. A young farmer to me is someone who wants to devote her life to building and growing a farm business. Young farmers include 2nd generation farmers, farm workers and young people without experience who enjoy hard work and want to fix the food system by growing healthy food.”
WQ: Would you share one of most common and daunting obstacles of the trade, and how NYFC is choosing to approach it?
LLS: ”Transitioning farms to a new generation of independent farmers is no small task. Within farm transitions, farms can be destroyed by development, or taken off the market by speculators, big agribusiness or non-farmers. To keep independent farmers on the land, policy needs to incentivize farm transfers from one farmer to another…
The next issue that we want to delve into is land access. NYFC is committed to farmers owning their own land and we want to work with land trusts and policymakers on making land ownership a possibility for the next generation. Right now, land is priced many times beyond the reach of full-time farmers and this situation is getting in the way of young people starting and growing their businesses.
And, the best part, is that [since the 2011 survery] we’ve seen a lot of those ideas put in the Senate version of the Farm Bill that was passed a couple of weeks ago. This has been hugely exciting for us because we’ve taken immediate needs of farmers and taken them to Congress.”
WQ: How was the advisory committee determined, and how intentional was it to have a sampling of agricultural experts from a sampling of all/most US regions?
LLS: ”From the outset, we wanted to create an organization where farmers were at the helm. Three farmers founded NYFC, and our first step in creating a leadership team was to call farmers that we knew and respected for the success of their businesses and leadership within their communities. For instance, Sean Stanton runs North Wind Farm, Blue Hill dairy and serves on Great Barrington’s select board.
After bringing together a core of farmers, we then decided to invite service providers that were connected with our mission and doing something innovative in their field. For example, we recruited Michelle Hughes of the New Farmer Development Program in NYC. She helps farm workers, primarily from Central and South America, become farm owners. The [regional diversity] was intentional as well. We couldn’t call ourselves a national coalition without bringing in farmers and service providers from all regions. We are still working to bring on leaders from the South and California.”
WQ:Will you speak about the work being done in FarmHack, and the general concept?
LLS: Farm Hack was Ben’s idea, who is a farm ‘hacker’ himself and wanted a venue for farmers to share great on-farm inventions… And the concept was fleshed out and is still in development around a table — filled with farmers like Ben, programmers and engineers who want to help.
We want Farm Hack to help independent farmers become more sustainable, both in terms of land stewardship and profitability. We’ll provide open source tools for independent farmers that will make their farms more efficient and support farming practices that build soil and promote clean air, water and healthy people. We want Farm Hack to be a place for farmers to get inspired, learn to build new things on their farms and give back to their community with modifications of existing inventions or new ideas.
And the [work charrettes] are critical. Events are where a lot of great ideas take off! For instance, at Farm Hack New Hampshire this year, we formed a group to talk about remote monitoring devices — and as a result, we have a farmer and two programmers working on the FIDO greenhouse monitoring project. None of these folks knew each other before the event, nor had they thought of building that specific project. The meetings inspire a lot of creativity and build trust between individuals that enables them to work as a team on specific projects.
Imagine 1970s East Village, populated by blown out buildings and vacant lots, when urban gardeners first moved onto the scene in critical mass. Fertilizing the metropolitan detritus were groups like The Green Guerillas and the Plant-a-Lot Program, haggling for abandoned lots and cleaning up Alphabet City. From the heroic beautification efforts of the late Liz Christy to the first municipal-funded school garden at Marion High School, a dramatic Gilded Age in city greening comes to mind, and figures like Gerard Lordahl are the keepers of these historical moments’ key.
Lordahl is currently the Director of GrowNYC’s Open Space Greening Program, which helps to establish multiple new green spaces in the city each year. He describes the Open Space Greening program as moving through annual “themes”:
“For a long time there was a green playground theme; and we’re coming out of a school garden theme; the next theme is food production, figuring out ways to design space holistically. Permaculture is big right now… We never wanted to be beholden [exclusively] to tax dollars… But we’ve always had the fortune of being this quasi public/private service… One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’re able to give material assistance as well as financial — we’re able to give concrete things.”
Lordahl has had the unique experience of scaling multiple decades of NYC gardening from the iron curtain of Robert Moses to an era where developers actually donate their undesirable plots. Prior to GrowNYC, Lordahl served in multiple posts across the city from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to grassroots operations in the Lower East Side.
Lordahl has also helped to establish Randall’s Island Learning Garden. What was once the command center from which Moses sat overseeing projects that threatened all manner of NYC neighborhood green space, now invites all NYC classrooms to come get their hands dirty, participate in nutrition and planting workshops.
“Sometimes I’ll stroll away from the garden and look at that magnificent Art Deco building where it all happened and think about how much things have flipped!… Back then we had to really bang on doors to get people involved. You know, only ten or twelve of us at a time… And now Developers and businesses are actually working with us.”
“I was always interested in the social service factor of gardening, as well as the scientific side. I’m an educator, primarily. I had that feeling, coming out of college, that I wanted to do something of real value — to make a difference — which I guess is what every post-grad feels. I wanted to work with people… My favorite thing was showing kids earthworms.”
One project that Lordahl is particularly excited about right now is People’s Food Project in East New York, a garden and farmer’s market in a predominantly underserved Hispanic community.
“It’s run by immigrants who are scientists, agriculturalists… The property it’s on was actually owned by a developer, but because of zoning laws, they couldn’t build anything on it other than a single residential building, and it just wasn’t profitable enough — so they donated it to this community and worked with them to bring it to fruition.” These were the people we used to fight against! And a lot of people think that these underserved communities are without people who really want to make this kind of thing happen, but it’s so untrue… People pretty much want the same things every where.”
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