Trevor Lowell brings some thoughtful skepticism to the farm.
There is a nagging cynicism that creeps in as I push heaping wheelbarrows of compost along garden rows littered with concrete artifacts. It is an unwelcome guest and one I struggle to evict from my thinking about this postage stamp farm. On this eighth of an acre, surrounded by eight feet of wrought iron, at the foot of a skyscraper and adjacent to four lanes of rumbling screeching New York City traffic… we are farming.
The source of my cynicism is complex. It is in part a result of my pre-established notion of farming, a notion embedded in scale and landscape. I grew up in rural New Hampshire where farms were measured by the whole acre and the stonewalls and gambrel-roofed barns were more prevalent outside the window than on our packages of butter and milk. This is reconcilable though; it is unreasonable and unproductive to reject the reality of the current landscape. New York City is not bucolic, full stop.
A more troubling source of cynicism is a result of critical thinking rather than personal history. I find myself questioning the viability of this endeavor and urban agriculture on the whole. I am constantly involved in a quantitative input output analysis. X amount of capital, labor and resources equals Y amount of produce. The problem is this type of thinking is myopic. The benefits of urban agriculture reach far beyond the amount and efficiency of food capital produced.
There are difficult and complicated questions that need to be considered regarding urban agriculture and our food system as a whole. Some of these questions are embedded in the thousands of scholarly articles circulating through the world of academia. These are the questions we direct to our biologists and economists. They are analyzed on bar graphs and projection models. They adorn our power point presentations and echo through our lecture halls.
These are not the only questions though, and by no means are they the most important. Other questions are less tangible, their answers more elusive and far less likely to fit neatly into a pie chart. The intent of this urban farm has never been to generate profit or to efficiently and sustainably produce as much food as possible. These are noble and important goals but our measure of success is more complex than that. It is as much about the amount of dirt under our fingernails as it is productivity.
Growing food in any setting has the powerful effect of connecting us to one of the most fundamental and important components of our human experience. This connection has been disintegrating for decades and the effect, gone largely unnoticed, has had dire consequences. When I consider the amount of resources, labor and capitol that went into this fall’s urban farm harvest I am aware that those might have been some of the most expensive vegetables in New York City, and undoubtedly worth every penny.