In the heat of the New York summer and in the thick of a pandemic, there are a few Edens hidden in plain sight where you can spend time outside while giving back to the local community. Photographer Jasmine Clarke visited three urban farms in New York City’s boroughs to ask people—from a distance—what they’re planting, growing, and harvesting, and how they wound up here in the first place.


UCC Youth Farm

Established in 2000, the UCC Youth Farm is a half-acre site that produces over 70 varieties of vegetables in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s a part of the “East New York Farms!” network of urban farms.

Elise Dahan, 36

Farmers

So how did you get involved with the UCC Youth Farm?
Elise: I’ve been farming on and off for about 10 years and working in food waste for a lot of that time, too. I was initially drawn to the organization because I wanted to get into kind of more of an education role in some capacity.

I’m the assistant farm manager. My work mostly revolves around scrap, composting, and also helping to be a point person at another community garden that we have, Wortman Avenue Community Garden, about a 15-minute bike ride from here.

At Wortman, we also have this awesome program that’s running where we’re holding a bunch of clean soil for the city, and we do soil testing over there as well. Lead is a pretty big problem in the city—lead in people’s backyard gardens and stuff like that.

Cool. Can you tell me a bit about what you guys do here at this farm?
Elise: We grow food for the community, run a youth program, and then there’s also folks from the community—gardeners who have their own beds—who are growing food.

And what are you guys harvesting today?
Elise: Today, it looks like they were harvesting bok choy, Japanese turnips, and chard. I’m processing the compost today.

What’s your favorite vegetable?
Elise: I feel like the vegetable I eat the most are cucumbers, and I know it’s kind of boring. Eggplants are also really great.

What do you like most about working here?
Elise: The community, and learning from all of the gardeners who’ve been gardening for a really long time.

What would you say are the biggest challenges of the farm?
Elise: Keeping up with the workload, and the weeding. There’s not that many of us on staff, so that’s true especially right now.

[A train goes by.]

That must be nice, when you’re on the train and you can see the garden.
Elise: Yes. I was telling somebody the other day that there’s a conductor who rides the train who also volunteers here. He waves his hand from the train and slows down. It’s really, really sweet. He actually did it this morning.

 

Helen Liu, 16

Farmers

What do you like about harvesting?
Helen: It shows how much you grow over the years and how they come up. And it feels satisfying, pulling them out and selling them.

What’s your favorite vegetable?
Helen: I like the tom… No, I guess I like any vegetable, except for carrots.

Jeremy Teperman, 31

Farmers

Can you tell me a bit about what you guys do here?
Jeremy: The main focus is to give youth exposure to growing food, to doing something good for the community. From my perspective, it’s a place to build teamwork, to build personal leadership skills, a sense of responsibility coming to work on time, coming to work prepared, learning how to work with other people in groups, learning how to do things by yourself—all these different kinds of personal skills you can gain here.

What are you guys harvesting?
Jeremy: Today, we’re harvesting a bunch of stuff: Kale, Swiss chard, scallions, carrots, beets, green beans, basil, and… Did I miss anything? Turnips, collard greens, yeah.

What kind of produce grows best in a city like New York?
Jeremy: Well, the nice thing about New York City is, it’s hotter than the surrounding region because of the urban heat island effect, which isn’t always a good thing, but for farming here, it’s nice, because we can really grow nice, heat-loving crops. So on this farm, we grow a lot of hot peppers. We grow a lot of bitter melon. We grow a lot of long beans, and these are all crops that like the heat of the summertime.

What do you enjoy most about working on the farm?
Jeremy: A lot of things. When I get a comment of gratitude from someone, from a gardener that I’m able to help out with plants, or someone who’s just really enamored with the space, or someone who tries a vegetable and is like, “Oh my God, this is so delicious.” Yesterday, we harvested the very first ripe tomato of the season.

We have an intern who was just raving about the taste of the tomato. And it’s like, yeah, that was grown right here in Brooklyn, on what was once an empty lot with the subway running overhead, but you can still grow really delicious food. And then also seeing the youth become more and more independent and capable as the years go by.

How can people get involved?
Jeremy: If you’re a young person in East New York, between the ages of 13 and 15, you can apply to be part of our youth program. If you just want our produce, you can come to our farmer’s market. If you want to learn about gardening, we have workshops throughout the year. Right now, they’re all virtual, but normally we have them on the farm or in different gardens around East New York.

If you are interested in vending at our farmer’s market, you can contact our market manager and set up a time to show off what your product is. If you want to be a community gardener, you can contact us and we can help you find a garden in East New York that might have open space for new gardeners. If you’re like, “Oh, I want to bring my church group or my neighbors to come out and volunteer,” we definitely welcome that.

Last question: what’s your favorite vegetable?
Jeremy: That’s so hard. I always say winter squash, but… yeah. I think it’s winter squash.

Nile Borja, 14

Farmers

How did you get involved with UCC Youth Farm?
Nile: I was walking down the street and I saw a sign and, yeah.

Can you tell me a bit about what you like to do here?
Nile: I like the learning experience, it’s pretty nice. Working in the garden is not that hard, really. It’s good pay and I like the people here.

What are you harvesting?
Nile: Right now I’m harvesting scallions and making bunches of it. And I just harvested beets and turnips.

What do you enjoy most about working on the farm?
Nile: Harvesting is probably my favorite.

What’s your favorite vegetable?
Nile: Beets. Yeah, beets are good.

Pink Houses Farm

The Pink Houses Community Farm is a partnership between Pink Houses Resident Green Committee and East New York Farms!, providing fresh food for the community.

Amir McFarlane, 15

Farmers

Can you tell me a bit about what you do here usually?
Amir: Some days, normally Wednesdays, we do farm work. The other day we did trellising for the cucumbers. And Saturdays, we normally do distribution, which is what we’re doing today.

What’s your favorite thing to do here?
Amir: Distribution, because it’s nice to get food out to the public, and for free, because a lot of people in this area don’t have it like that. So I feel like giving free food is beneficial to both you and them.

What would you say are challenges on the farm?
Amir: The heat. And sometimes when it rains, we can’t really do a lot of work.

Sarada Ravinuthala, 62

Farmers

What do you like the most about working on the farm?
Sarada: When I was a kid, we had so many plants in the house. After we moved here, I didn’t have any chance to work with soil, and plants, and growing vegetables. Living in Manhattan I cannot afford to have anything like that kind of stuff. Farming is one of my passions, so that’s what I like about being here.

Naisean Banks, 16

Farmers

What do you like the most about working on the farm?
Naisean: Being outdoors. This gives me a feel of nature. It’s different than living in the city.

What’s your favorite thing to do here?
Naisean: I like distribution days. Giving food out to the public. It gives me a good feeling, like I’m doing something.

Khaya Cohen, 23

Farmers

How did you get involved with the farm?
Khaya: This is my first time. I’m a New York Cares volunteer. I’m just, like, super unemployed and have a lot of free time now.

What kind of work have you been doing here so far today?
Khaya: We harvested some collard greens, so we chopped them off, and now I’m washing them. That’s it, that’s all I’ve done so far.

Saratoga Urban Agro Ecological Center 

Saratoga Urban Agro Ecological Center is a victory-garden-turned-urban-farm operated by The Campaign Against Hunger and produces roughly 7,000 pounds of produce each farm season, on the east side of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Janae Russell, 27

Farmers

How’d you get involved with Saratoga Farms?
Janae: I started working for the Campaign Against Hunger about eight and a half years ago. When I was a senior in high school, I started volunteering in the food pantry. I was the checkout person. I did that for about six months. I would leave class at Hunter College and come here and do the checkout and then go home to Bushwick.

As a teenager, I just wanted something to do with my free time in college and then wanted to do something to give back. At that time, our executive director came up to me, and she was like, “We have a youth program here. It’s very small, four or five kids in the neighborhood, but we’re starting a farming project behind the office and I would really love you to join it. I’ve been seeing you around and I love how you man the line and you have really great leadership skills,” and stuff like that. So I became an intern and nine years later, I grew from intern to site leader, to foreign leader, to the green team coordinator and now I’m the farm manager of the Campaign Against Hunger Farms.

What do you enjoy most about working here?
Janae: I enjoy working with the youth. In the case of our older youth, that’s our workforce program, they’re between the ages of 18 to 22. Sometimes young people find themselves in that awkward transition into college and they just don’t know what they want to do yet and we’re like, “Okay, this can be like a little pit stop until you figure it out.” I personally believe the garden speaks and when you’re by yourself and you’re doing something in your thoughts, you get to hear from the universe. So they just use this as a pit stop in the meantime, learn how to grow because I believe that’s a super crazy survivor skill, and for them to find themselves a little bit. They can stay here for two years, and then we have to ship them off and take in a new cohort, but we try our best to guide them through those stumbling blocks and rough patches.

What are some of the biggest challenges of the farm?
Janae: Pests. Although we’re not certified organic, we are certified naturally and locally grown, so we don’t use any kind of chemical or hazardous fertilizer and pesticides. Everything we make on our own, it’s a lot of concoctions. There’s a lot of buckets, mixing up a whole bunch of elixirs, that’s what we do. A lot of it is trial and error and doing research, the kids do their own research.

How can we expand urban farming?
Janae: We need space. I was just having a conversation with a volunteer the other day, Lucy, and she was talking about this project she wants to start on rooftop gardening. And I know for the newer buildings, there was already an initiative for rooftop gardens, but she was like, “What about the old buildings, the old brownstones?” There’s space in Williamsburg or certain parts of Bushwick where we know that the buildings are sturdy, that they can handle the weight of a rooftop garden and just have volunteers take over it and have us donate food to whoever is in need, to local food pantries, local churches, wherever, local non-profits. And if we have the space, I know there are young black and brown kids that are ready to invest their time into growing food.

Jihae Byun, 30

Farmers

So, how did you get involved with this farm?
Jihae: I actually heard about it through Bed-Stuy Strong. My girlfriend lives in Bed-Stuy and I live in Williamsburg. They were looking for volunteers for this pandemic. It’s also an excuse to be outside and do something good. You’re feeling hopeless and helpless. So, that’s how I heard about it.

What kind of work do you do here?
Jihae: It varies. It’s a weekly volunteering opportunity and sometimes we come into this greenhouse to seed, other times we’re weeding, and then there’s times when we’re actually planting. Recently we’ve been harvesting. The harvesting actually is really, really interesting because some of it gets donated to the pantry. And when you’re doing the work, you can see the line that’s wrapped around this corner. And you see that your work is directly impacting people that are being fed and it’s this empowering and also the sense of urgency of, “Oh my God, we’re not doing enough. How is this going to feed all these people?” And then there’s a farmer’s market that happens every Saturday. So then you give the community an opportunity to buy the fresh produce and the financial support gets put back into the program.

What have you learned here? Do you have a history of gardening, or…?
Jihae: Oh my God. Well, I work with plants as a profession, but houseplants.

I think it’s like just going back to the basics of how everything contributes. I was playing around, trying to weed this out and then I see a roly-poly, and then I learned that the roly-polys help with the irrigation in the soil.

I just feel like with farming, there are so many life lessons. You have to keep watering it and sometimes you may not see the benefits of it until you give it some time and then some beautiful things come out of it. And then just appreciation of food, knowing how much love, effort, and sweat goes into each and every vegetable here. It helps me engage in mindful eating.

Monica Koh, 29

Farmers

How did you get involved with this farm?
Monica: I was a part of this community Slack group, and somebody there posted that this farm needed some volunteers. This was during the early part of COVID.

What kind of work do you do here?
Monica: I’ve been lucky to be a part of a full life cycle. So, everything from weeding to seeding, to transplanting seedlings, more weeding, harvesting, planting wood chips, maintaining the garden. I’ve helped both here and in the Rockaway farms.

And what do you enjoy most about working on these farms?
Monica: So many things. Just tending to the earth, in this time where everything feels like there’s a lot of decay and destruction… It feels amazing to put your hands in the earth and feel grounded and proximate to that, but also to help things grow and to bring about new life. To appreciate things that you never did before, like bugs. I’m like, “These critters are amazing.” I used to be scared of them, but millipedes are amazing.

What would you say is one of the biggest challenges of the farm?
Monica: Maybe sharing it’s magic, and I think that’s probably a challenge for a lot of nonprofits: How do you really convey the magic of what is being done here and what I feel as I’m here?

Tyrone Mccalom, 19

Farmers

How’d you get involved with this farm?
Tyrone: Last year I volunteered to do some farm work and I enjoyed being outdoors. So I took the opportunity this year to start working in the workforce to cater to the farm.

What do you like to do here the most?
Tyrone: I’m not going to lie: I like to water the plants. It’s pretty calming. When you come in the morning and it’s quiet, you can just look around and it’s peaceful. It puts your mind in a state where you can focus. If you have any personal situations, I think this is the right place to just release all of the negative thoughts.

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