Sustainable Urban Farming Facing Winter

By Xiaoran Liu for Northattan

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church has turned unused land into an urban farm on which church members and volunteers have nurtured carrots, snap peas, beets, arugula, tomatoes and lettuce.

The vegetables, however, aren’t planted in the actual soil, which is polluted. They grow in raised beds of dirt transported from outside Manhattan.

“The lead in the actual soil is dangerous, three times the regular level,” said Billy Adams, the senior gardener of the urban farm. “There was a garden before. People were growing things, but they didn’t know the soil was contaminated.”

Neighbors say a print factory used to be on the site. According to a 2010 soil test, the garden had high levels of arsenic and cadmium, for example.  Chromium and mercury were more than double the recommended maximum level of contamination and lead was more than three times higher, according to the test.   These chemicals in high doses can damage the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and reproductive and nervous systems, and are particularly toxic for children.

Now, church members and volunteers are “remediating” the soil by using special microbial products that break down the pollutants.

“Two or three or four years? It takes a long time for the soil to be de-toxified,” Adams said.  “We will have another soil test to see the improvement.”

The concern with contamination extends beyond the dirt.  “We have used organic fertilizer, no chemicals,” said Claire West, the coordinator of St. Mary’s garden. “That tends to be things like egg shells and bones, not necessarily plant-like, but from live things.”

But for the urban farm, there is another enemy that does come from nature: squirrels.  Workers at the farm speak of the critters with both love and hate. The squirrels are swift, cute and greedy.

Adams pointed at one trapped inside a wire cage built around the plants on a soil bed and said,  “See it there? They are everywhere.”

All the soil beds had similar one-meter-high cages that were designed to keep the squirrels out.

“Oh my god, they’ve eaten up this tomato,” Adams said, pointing. “I picked up some green ones yesterday and put them in bag to ripen. I forgot this one.”

The vegetables harvested in the urban farm go directly to St. Mary’s food pantry. Janet Dorman is in charge of the food pantry. She said the pantry started 30 years ago and most fresh food is from an upstate farm called Geblocki Farm.

“This year has been wonderful, because the garden has started to produce,” said Dorman. “We don’t get tomatoes from the farm upstate because it’s hard to transport. If they are vey ripe, they just get smashy.  And if they are green, they are just not tasty. So we get them fresh in the garden.”

The urban farm has four senior gardeners, who harvest the vegetables every Monday afternoon and bring them downstairs to the food pantry. Gardener Adams is also a client of the food pantry. “I love the tomatoes here,” he said  “In the supermarket, they are almost 3 dollars a pound.  I get them and there are soft spots and you can’t take them back.”

Dorman said people coming to the food pantry know that some of the food is from the church’s farm and they love the idea as “it gives them a close connection to the food.”

“Grown locally–that’s the trend for food pantries and soup kitchens now,” said Adams.

The urban farm started this past spring. As winter comes, it is facing a new problem.

“The grant we got is a one year grant,” said West. “So we can’t necessarily re-apply. It would be very unusual that they would fund us the second year.”  The funding is from United Way Seed Grant, a program that supports sustainable urban farms.

As winter comes, West plans to use ground cover to keep things growing. “We might have leftover money to purchase these supplies,” West said. “But for funding the neighbors to do that, we don’t have money. The grant is very specific on how much to spend on what things.” Senior gardeners cannot get stipends from the fund anymore.

“For next spring, some people are talking to local banks and businesses about this project,” said West, as the group looks for support. “What about next month? I guess we have to rely on our volunteers.”