When I first arrived at the NYU Urban Farm, I was quickly struck by one thing in particular- how orderly everything seemed to be. My only previous experience in agriculture had been at a permaculture-style farm community called Gaia Yoga Gardens on the Big Island of Hawaii. Needless to say, the farming practices and were quite different, for reasons of environmental conditions,labor ability, and general ideas surrounding the ways in which one should produce food.
The NYU Urban Farm, in my opinion, serves as a place where students can learn about sustainable, organic practices in a condensed, controlled environment that allows for clear instruction and example. The emphasis is on education, rather than how much food we produce- though I thoroughly enjoyed the bounty of kale that I was able to take home from class. The situation at this farm community was quite different. The community was an off the grid, communal living space that attracted people who desired to live outside the mainstream, with an emphasis on living as close to the earth and as sustainably as possible. The end goal of the community is to live completely off their own land, with no necessity for outside food suppliers. They are definitely approaching this goal- about 70% of the food I ate while living on the commune had come from the land. There was an enormous abundance of bananas (of many different varieties), avocados,jackfruit, durian, tangerines,honey, eggs, milk, and herbs. Vegetables such as lettuce and staples such as nuts were bought from other farmers in the area, as well as grass fed beef.
The concept of food access and security is one that is incredibly fascinating to observe in this community. The farm that I lived on is located in Puna, a district known for its beautiful beaches and cheap, cheap housing cost. Because Puna is essentially built on an active volcano, acquiring insurance for land or a home is incredibly difficult and often impossible. This results in an extremely small economy, with many people using their land as their source for food. Because of this ideology and the affordability, the district has become an enormous hub of sustainable intentional communities. These communities typically have large plots of land in the jungle, ranging anywhere from 4 to 30 acres. The communities are often quite transient, with one or two families living there full time, and young “traveling kids” who may stay for a few weeks up to a couple of months. Almost all communities follow a similar work-trade structure, where the resident commits to an agreement of a certain number of work hours per week, often with a small cash supplement. Typically the resident will work anywhere from 15 hours a week to 40 hours a week, and many communities will waive the fee if the resident desires to work longer to make up the fee. I typically opted for work such as clearing areas of forest for fruit trees, harvesting fruit, or weeding our small taro patch.
Because these communities are often anti-authority in their nature, the resident often has a choice as to the kind of work they would like to do. Most of this work is farm related work, such as weeding, harvesting, foraging, and planting. There is also often carpentry and upkeep work to be done, such as repairing a the door to a chicken coop or fixing the solar heater. As I mentioned before, the layout of the farm is quite different than what one may experience on an urban farm. Most of the time, these communities are blessed with more land than they are able to realistically use, so this allows for a lot of experimentation in planting- there is no scarcity of land space. It can also make traditional, garden style farming difficult. Though I did visit communities that had small gardens, most intentional communities place a larger emphasis on fruit trees, creating more of a fruit forest atmosphere than a garden atmosphere. This is because of the transience of the communities. Fruit trees can be easier to upkeep than a garden, as they don’t typically require daily labor. Because many of these communities aren’t able to count on there being a consistent resident population, many of them opt out of gardens as they simply don’t have the time or ability to tend to them.
There are a great amount of local farmers who do have gardens, however, and these farms are often for-profit farms that sell their produce at farmers markets and to communities, rather than being intentional communities themselves. This creates a sense of unity among the farmers, people in communities, and local people who are neither farming nor living communally. The produce is available to everyone and is priced very competitively, especially when considering the exorbitant supermarket prices in Hawaii and high cost of commercial organic food. Barter and trade systems are also prevalent, as I observed one of the owners of my community trade some of his fresh honey for bunches of kale. This system of living outside traditional, capitalist means is prevalent in other areas of the community as well. If you would like to attend a dance or concert that normally costs $10 and you are unable to pay, you can typically trade with fruit, art, or work trade. Generosity is extremely celebrated and expected among the community. On any given day, there are farm centered activities at different communities. There may be a drum circle with tacos made with salsa from the land, or a pizza party at the Hare Krishna farm using vegetables and cheese from the land
This farm impacted me in that it showed me that it is indeed possible to live comfortably and sustainably. The fact that the community of Puna is able to thrive because of the willingness of its residents to work is pretty incredible, and it shows that sustainability is indeed possible if those involved play their part. I think the same attitude is present at NYU. Though our farm life looks completely different, the emphasis put on education and passion for sustainability remains the same. To me, my experience has shown that your ideals can be manifested quite literally wherever you go- whether it’d be a hippie commune or a bustling New York City street.
BY: Arielle Solomon