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City Boy Becomes Brooklyn Farmer

Mark and the Beanstalk!

I’m a city boy from The Bronx, born n’ bred near Yankee Stadium (during the Mickey Mantle years)  and dirt lots were for stickball, not growing things. But now, half a century later I’m a farmer in Brooklyn. I’ve owned a beautiful Victorian house in Ditmas Park, Flatbush for a quarter-century and raising a rambunctious family didn’t leave much time or energy for pastoral pursuits. The personal shift happened a few years ago; I remember looking at our hardly-used backyard, coupled with my empty nesthood and I thought, “Maybe I should grow some tomatoes.”

The Lefferts Historic House is from the late 1700s and in Prospect Park!

Brooklyn has a plentiful history of agriculture. In the 18th and 19th Century, Brooklyn was the breadbasket for New York. The Dutch towns of Vlackbos (Flatbush) Midwout (Midwood) and Bostwick (Bushwick) were farm villages. In 1879, Queens and Kings Counties produced more garden vegetables than any two other counties in the USA! As late as 1959, there were 147 contented cows producing over 300,000 gallons of milk in Brooklyn. But the onward march of urban development and the rise of industrial farming in the Midwest doomed the pastures of Brooklyn.

Hand-built Garden Soil Beds!

That first year I just dug out grass to create rectangular plots, planted some tomatoes, battled weeds and ended up with some tasty gazpacho mid-summer.  My knowledge base didn’t go past seeds, dirt, water and sun. The next year I bought some books, joined the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and took classes. Last year I went big time: Raised Beds!! Coney Island Ave provided the lumber and 10 yards of topsoil, ordered over the phone and dumped in my driveway.  Oh boy, I was hooked on the greenery of my garden. Next up: participating in the giant Floyd Bennett Field Gardens Association.

Red Hook Community Farm employs urban youth from the nearby Red Hook Houses

And I’m far from alone these days. There are probably thousands of backyard Brooklyn farmers, in every neighborhood, many far more ambitious than I. Community Gardens, a feature of many neighborhoods since the 1970’s are raking in the excitement. And locavore Brooklynites are making a more personal connection with NY’s regional farms by joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), like our local Ditmas Park CSA.  Commercial farming with a twist is also making a modest resurgence, mostly as a key element in job training and community development. Ambitious and progressive enterprises such as the Added Value Red Hook Farms and East New York Farms combine youth empowerment, skills training and smart nutrition.

Take a look at my gorgeous growing garden!

So my backyard can hardly be called a “farm” by anything other than my vivid imagination. On second thought, maybe my roster of edibles would prove me right: tomatoes, red and green peppers, Pole beans, snow peas, arugula, swiss chard, kale, melon, radishes, and a variety of herbs. And my favorite part isnt the good food (though that comes close) but rather, the cool early mornings when I inspect my greens and pull weeds and then again in the soft western light of late afternoons, encouraging greatness amongst the garden.

Hey Da Bronx, take a look at me here!

By Mark Levy

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Comments

  1. Brenda Errichiello says:

    Hi Mark!

    Not sure if you are familiar with this, but backyard gardening is something I love, too. This last year, I ordered some seeds from http://www.seedsavers.org/ which is a site where you can get non-hybrid veggies, so you can save your best fruits and plant again next year. Sustainability keeps costs down, and I like the “back to nature” feel of using authentic farming patterns. Just thought I would share.

    Hope all is well in New York!

    -Brenda

  2. linda barnes says:

    Hi Mark,
    I don’t know whether you remember me, but my husband and I booked a tour of Brooklyn where they had grown up, with Matt to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. You very kindly opened your house to us, served champagne and gave us a mini tour of your home. It was the highlight of the day and in meeting you I realized where Matt got his warmth and personality from. I read this blog and was pleasantly surprised to find out you are a Bronx boy because I am a Bronx girl. I grew up on Tremont Avenue, between Jerome and University. First 15 years of my life were spent at 1934 Davidson Avenue and I went to Taft HS. How brave you were to move to Brooklyn. In my Bronx heart Brooklyn was a place you needed a passport to enter.

  3. What a great story… but wait, its not a story. Its for REAL! Amazing what you have done with that yard, neglected for all those years. I remember Ruth growing something back there once, was it tomatoes? love, Reba

  4. Hey, awesome blog… Love the pics with this post. http://Back2Brooklyn.blogspot.com

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