Today’s post is written by a Food Studies MA candidate, Leanne Brown. She was kind enough to share her reflective essay, which describes her experience working at Snug Harbor as part of my spring food systems course:
“A conventional farmer is a miner,” says Gus Jones, who runs the Snug Harbor Heritage Farm on Staten Island. “But an organic farmer is a farmer.” To prove this point — which is not self-evident to urbanites who have little understanding of agriculture — Jones is patiently teaching New Yorkers the techniques he learned as an anonymous farmer in Illinois. There, Jones worked with the natural biology of the soil and an arsenal of conservational methods to create the best conditions for growing food while doing as little damage to the Earth as possible. His reward for this was satisfaction and money. Now, on Staten Island, he still does all of those things, but his farm also acts as a model for the area. He has become a teacher as well as a farmer, and his reward now is not just money, but, he hopes, a change to a more just and secure food system.
Jones believes that local organic farming is the only viable solution to the country’s food problems, from the poor state of national health, to food insecurity, to the current system’s impact on the environment. He is incredulous that Staten Island, which was once mostly farmland, is now home to more than 400,000 people yet hosts just two tiny non-profit farms and one for-profit farmer. Jones says that just as there are fewer community gardens on Staten Island than in the other boroughs, there are also fewer food banks, and within those few, fresh food is a rarity. Snug Harbor is a non-profit farm started by the Active Citizen Project, which helps create vegetable gardens in underused lots in New York City. The farm’s intent is to provide fresh food for those few Staten Island food banks and inject some life into the system as a whole. Although the island is now almost entirely covered in suburban neighborhoods, Jones is sure there is room for farms again; the parks department has offered land to any community group willing to care for it, and many underused pocket parks would make fine community gardens. Snug Harbor, where I spent three Saturday mornings drinking in the agricultural experience, is Jones’s training ground and testing ground for ways to rebuild the food system.
Healthy soil is crucial to a successful organic farm, and here lies Jones’s first challenge: until this year, Snug Harbor was a forested park. Many of the techniques needed to enrich the soil so that it can serve as farmland will be detrimental to the environment as a whole — which is contrary, of course, to the whole point of organic farming. When Jones and a group of volunteers cleared the forest, the result was a mountain of dirt, filled with garbage, large rocks, and cement chunks. After sifting the dirt to remove the debris, Jones began enriching it by planting the field with grass, a cover crop that is efficient at drawing nitrogen from the ground, then tilled the field to replenish the soil with the nitrogen-rich plant matter. The problem is that aggressive tilling releases some of the carbon stored in the soil back into the atmosphere. Since atmospheric carbon dioxide contributes to climate change, and since the values of organic farming are deeply rooted in environmental sustainability, responsible farmers try to mitigate the damage of tilling through “conservation tillage.” In Managing Soil Quality, Carter, Andrews, and Drinkwater describe conservation tillage as “an umbrella term covering a very wide range of diverse tillage practices that have, as a common characteristic, the potential to reduce soil and water loss relative to some form of conventional tillage” (268). Although Jones uses a special tiller that is only minimally disruptive, he cannot afford to be stingy with tillage at these early stages of rehabilitating the soil. It may take years to find a balance between cover crop and tillage that is good for both the environment and the soil. Jones’s primary goal is to enrich the soil, but he will remain aware of the carbon he emits each time he tills.
Nearly all organic farming methods are structured around improving soil conditions in the long term. The organic farming historian Philip Conford writes that early organic advocates were united by concerns over soil fertility (22). Without the crutch of fertilizers and pesticides, the quality of food hinges on the soil, so it’s no wonder that Jones seems to have an almost obsessive interest in soil health: the farm depends upon it. Whereas conventional farming reduces soil to its chemical components, organic farming depends on soil biology so complex that scientists still don’t completely understand it. As Carter, Andrews, and Drinkwater write, “Organic agriculture is a biologically intensive agricultural system that aims to optimize biological processes that are both directly and indirectly important for maintaining crop productivity” (272). For Jones, increasing the diversity in his soil is paramount. His eyes light up when he talks about the eminent soil biologist Elaine Ingham. He uses the word “biology” as shorthand for anything that increases the diversity of the soil, saying “I’ll just spray biology onto the field” when misting the dirt with compost tea, or “we need to increase the biology” as he turns the planting medium.
Jones is planting an enormously wide variety of produce — dozens of cultivars of tomato alone — as well as flowers and cover crops. This macro-level biodiversity improves the soil once again; as United Nations researchers Nadia El-Hage Scialabba and Maria Müller-Lindenlauf write, farms growing a wide variety of plants have more balanced soil nutrients and tend to have higher yields than organic monocultural farms (161). They also argue that variety can ensure that crops are more resilient to changing weather conditions, which will become more important as climate change soldiers on (160). A greater variety of plants also attracts pollinators and pest-eating insects, Jones says. His emphasis on biodiversity is motivated by social conscience as well: when the farm replaced forest, it removed biodiversity from the area, so Jones will put back as much as he can. Jones, like Sir William Howard before him (ch. 4), operates his farm as closely to the model of the forest as possible. Jones also hopes that the flowers he has planted throughout the farm will encourage neighbors to grow some of their own, which would increase the biodiversity of the neighborhood as a whole.
But there has been some tension with those neighbors — after all, creating the Snug Harbor Heritage Farm meant losing parkland. The neighbors miss the birds and the trees that the park provided, but Jones says this is the compromise of the farm: it took away forest, but it gives us food. Still, since the farm’s connection to the community is crucial to achieving Jones’s longterm goals, he takes their concerns seriously. Fundamentally, Jones believes that to sustain humankind while reversing the depletion of soil fertility, we need more farmers than we have today. Consequently, one of Snug Harbor’s goals is to train more organic farmers — and the neighbors are an obvious place to start. This summer, Jones has arranged to work with a local agency that marshals youths who have been ordered to perform community service. The hope is that by working off their obligation on the farm, the youths can learn a useful skill, come home with fresh vegetables, and maybe even develop a continuing interest in farming. This is only one part of Jones’s plan to recruit more farmers and to convince local government to invest in agriculture and sustainable food systems. He hopes to start a movement on Staten Island, with farmers educating and creating other farmers. In addition to social services, Jones has also been working with the sanitation department and farm stands, taking discarded or unsold fruit to enhance his compost. This is helpful because the farm-stand owners don’t have to haul the waste away, and, meanwhile, it increases the health of Jones’s soil. This sort of ingenuity is born out of commitment to sustainability and community. The farm and the community have a symbiotic relationship; it is a microcosm of the relationship between society and farms everywhere.
Although it’s unlikely that Jones will convert many students from our Food Studies class into farmers, teaching us basic farming techniques helped synthesize classroom knowledge with physical knowledge; his tutoring created a connection between policy and practice. Learning the process of nurturing plants was particularly illuminating. Before the new fields could be sown, an important process took place in the early, chilly months of February through April, with the propagation hut as the center of this activity. The hut is little more than a wooden skeleton covered by an almost opaque sheet of plastic, which created a warm, moist environment perfect for growing plants from seeds. Inside the hut were tables lined with trays. There was also an area for sifting the soil before it was mixed with rehydrated coconut husks, sand, leaf mold, and worm castings to make the planting medium. Volunteers lined the trays with newly enriched soil and carefully planted the seeds. These new seeds rested on a table until they germinated, with plastic stretched over them to create a miniature propagation hut. According to Jones, this replicated outdoor conditions that were, at the time, still two to three months away. Once the sprouts poked through the soil, they needed to be “pricked out” — a process of carefully removing the plants, roots and all, and transferring them to larger soil-lined trays. The seedlings were carefully placed in neat rows, leaving enough room on all sides for them to grow large and healthy. If the plants still outgrew their space, this process was repeated again. When the weather was warm enough, the hearty vegetation was replanted for good in the fields.
Jones says that we can’t rebuild our food system until we can envision it. That’s why the farm is reaching out to everyone from politicians to students to neighbors and young people to teach what it means to grow food sustainably — Snug Harbor can be a concrete example of what a better food system could be. It can be a farm that works with the natural world to create healthy food, that supports and is in turn supported by the local community. Most people are so divorced from the reality of their food system that they need this model to start to envision something better. Farming organically is complicated and requires a balance between biodiversity, community impact, crop yields, and energy use. As writer and farmer Wendell Berry wrote, “An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system: it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism” (143-44). The Snug Harbor Heritage Farm was built through tearing down and then rebuilding. Jones had a plan; he worked hard, and now he’s getting the community involved whenever possible. The same will be required of all of us if we are going to redesign our food system.