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.”
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.
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.
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.
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