When I agreed to take the job as instructor of the Intro to Urban Agriculture course I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The idea of designing, leading and building a brand new farm was both thrilling and terrifying. Yet, just like all things in life, we learn by doing and won’t know if we like something until we try it. And that is exactly what this course is all about.
It’s hands-on, experiential, and tangible “real world” learning. As a class we explore everything from seed to seed, and together we figure out what works or needs to be fixed. For example, the indoor grow system needs a better timer for the lights to provide warmth to the germinating seeds, and next year we need to buy a pitch-fork.
Thus, we learn. We learn how to irrigate, test soil moisture, look for pests, weeds and disease, direct sow and transplant seedlings, harvest properly, build compost, and choose cover crops. And we write a crop plan, plan for winter crops to extend seasons, learn basic farm business planning, how to grow food in an urban setting and what it means to the communities in which the seeds are sown. The list seems never ending.
Despite the blood, sweat and admittedly tears that came with the purchasing, planning, and building of this farm and the course, the inaugural class and I transformed and built the bones of what will be the first urban farm connected to a university in not just any city, but New York City. I am overwhelmed by the support and dedication of my students. So many of them came to every volunteer day and spent their free time helping to spread compost, mulch paths, weed and double-dig beds on hot, humid days in September and rainy, bone-chilling days in November.
We began the semester by breaking bread together with a summery spread of potluck dishes in the early fall, and we ended the semester with a bounty of lovingly prepared dishes to celebrate how far we had come in less than 15 weeks. On the last day of the class, students shared their “legacy project”, which was an assignment to design and create something that would leave an impact on the farm. Projects ranged from a soil amendment plan and a worm compost bin, to a seed binder and farm cookbook. The time, love and dedication the students put into their projects demonstrated just how much our little piece of land on Houston and Wooster Streets meant to them.
I was literally speechless by the end of the presentations. I put my heart and soul into this course and farm, and I think it paid off. It paid off because my students were able to absorb and learn the basics of farming, and because I was able to see the evolution and potential for a farm that is only just beginning. There is so much more to learn and to grow, and fortunately we get to keep on experimenting. We have the opportunity to prove that growing food in a city is possible, that it builds community, adds beauty and is a model for education. It gives students the opportunity to engage and relate to the world and to farmers in a different way than they did before.
I hope, and I believe that I am accurate in saying, that when my students finish the course they will have a better grasp of the time, costs and challenges of growing food in a meaningful and intentional way. They will have learned a growing method that preserves precious pieces of land where we as inhabitants can nurture the soil and demonstrate that harmony between humans and nature can exist in the city.
As the second semester begins, I am reminded of just how much work goes into farming, and also how much we are at the mercy of the weather. With only a semester to sow, nurture, plant and hopefully harvest, we must be patient and take each week as it comes. Preparing for the upcoming season has many challenges and bringing a new cohort of aspiring urban agriculturalists onboard is also a task that has posed a myriad of unknowns. For now, we are slowly adjusting to mother nature’s never ending winter this year and figuring out how to gear up for a late spring groundbreaking. Despite the weather obstacles and yet another semester of troubleshooting and creative problem solving, there is a budding sense of growth and beauty ahead. And so, we must wait patiently until the first tulips emerge and springtime sun begins to shine.