Growing Food & Urban Farmers

To explore those issues, Freiberg moved to Brooklyn and worked for Added Value, a two-acre farm in the heart of the blue-collar Red Hook neighborhood, and then at Stone Barns, where he studied how nonprofit and for-profit partnerships can strengthen local food networks. In the fall of 2008, the inexhaustible Freiberg enrolled at F&ES.

Successful farms have access to land, markets and capital. Freiberg has his land (vacant lots) and his buyers (local restaurants), and his need for capital has, so far, been minimal (thanks to his partnership with the Urban Resources Initiative). But this calculus is bound to change if Freiberg decides to scale up. “Farming in vacant lots with city support isn’t sustainable or scalable,” he said. “We want to get off public funding, but we think the kids should be rewarded for good work.” Asked if any other retail-oriented urban farm manages to survive without foundation or government support, he said, “I haven’t seen it.” (Community gardens, which lack the retail component, flourish with nominal membership dues.)

And if the Urban Foodshed Collaborative failed, this past summer, to send a significant amount of healthy food into the inner city, it did “demonstrate both the need and the demand for good food and good jobs in the community,” said Freiberg. “Policymakers and urban planners will see there’s a role for young people to play, and the private sector will see there’s a chance to make some money.”

To that end, he is planning to try something a little different this summer. Piloting his grandmother’s Saturn station wagon, loaded with muddy pallets, plywood and ThermaGlas, toward Sage Hall, Freiberg mutters to himself, “I hope someone brings the nails.” This afternoon he’s roped a dozen Yale students—from as far afield as architecture, public health, forestry and environmental management—into his afternoon charrette, or design workshop. “We’re trying to design portable beds to set up in sliver lots,” he tells the group. The planting beds, up to 30 of them, will be used exclusively for microgreens, a crop that brought in $1,500 last summer (the money went toward building supplies). Freiberg lists the beds’ constraints: “They have to be light enough to be moved easily to other lots, in case the city sells the property or interest in tending the beds wanes; too heavy to steal; and aesthetically interesting. And they have to contain an educational component and collect rainwater.” The sliver lots don’t have water hookups, and microgreens need about an inch a week. Oh, and if the beds can serve as cold frames, extending the growing season at either end, so much the better.

Setting aside their metal mugs and Mason jars of tea, the Yale students settle down to work. Over the next three hours, drawings are produced, Freiberg is con-sulted, a power saw whines. Once a design is established, mass production will begin. “We could employ 30 teens this summer,” Freiberg said, hopefully.

But will they grow anything beyond microgreens? That’s an open question. If Freiberg wanted to grow vegetables to sell to the community, he’d need to deal with permits, and he’d need to build his beds several inches deeper. He’d need more water, and he’d need to set a price for his produce that justified the extra labor. It was far easier, at this point, to stick with the microgreens, which grow quickly and at high density and have eager buyers at upscale restaurants. It’s a dilemma that many new, small farmers contemplate daily: the people Freiberg would most like to reach with fresh, wholesome food are the ones who can least afford its real (that is, unsubsidized) price.

* * *

The Urban Foodshed documentary, which was directed by Giovanni Paolo Autran and was shown last April at Yale’s Environmental Film Festival, was shot in full sun. At work in the plots, Freiberg’s teenagers appear relaxed and happy. Their basil is knee-high; their tomatoes are staked with perfect rhythmic parallelism; and the precious microgreens are as dense as shag carpet. Noel Colon speaks to the camera: When the program is over, he said, “maybe I’m going to start cleaning up the gardens, recycling, taking out the basil and use them in the kitchen.” Kevin Taylor, a graduate of Common Ground High School, pulling weeds from the Stevens Street garden, hopes that people from the neighborhood will visit, plant and meet their neighbors. “It will probably bring the community together instead of keeping them apart.” A pit bull chained nearby barks and barks.

Gordon Epps dumps a wheelbarrow of soil as rich as devil’s food cake into a raised bed. “I think it’s gonna pay off,” he said. “It’s gonna look good.”

“It’s already looking good,” Christian Ramirez, a high school junior, tells him, smiling.

“I like it already,” Gordon said.

Christian nods. “Me too.”

You can also watch the Urban Foodshed documentary at www.urbanfoodshed.org, and an accompanying short video is available on the home page at environment.yale.edu. At press time, Freiberg received an Elm Ivy Award for his work with youth and gardening from the offices of the mayor of New Haven and the president of Yale University.

Email This Article           Print This Article

Top of Page | Spring 2010 | environment:YALE