While in New York we met with Stacey Murphy, founder of BK Farmyards. She’s been connecting farmers, consumers, landowners and developers in order to establish a strong local food movement in Brooklyn.
Stacey locates available land throughout the city and hires locals to farm that land. Available land can include unused patches unsuitable for other businesses as well as local backyards. She also meets with developers to encourage consideration of community gardens in future development plans. We talked with Stacey about her progress, the obstacles that she faces and her plans for the future of BK Farmyards.
OGP: Stacey, it seems that Brooklyn is seeing a lot of growth with their urban food movement. What changes have you noticed in the time that you’ve been here?
The food landscape has been completely altered in the last year. BK Farmyards, Eagle Street Rooftop Farms, and Gotham Greens all started businesses to try for a financially sustainable urban agriculture. While Gotham Greens did not grow this year, they are ramping up for a rooftop hydroponic farm this season to sell to Whole Foods. The Brooklyn Food Coalition created neighborhood activist groups as well as issue-focused groups that debate food issues with local politicians. A group in Bedford Stuyvesant has mapped all vacant lots and their owners in an attempt to identify new sites for urban agriculture. New food co-ops are being organized in Fort Greene, Bushwick, and Bay Ridge (those are just the ones I know). Journalists like Jill Richardson and Novella Carpenter are including Brooklyn stops for their book tours. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has been working with others to create a Farm School for urban agriculture. Slow Food NYC has been working to develop its first youth farm in Brooklyn. When I go to brunch it is not uncommon to see ‘Red Hook eggs’ on the menu. I am ecstatic about the growth in the movement this year and I am sure that next year holds many more surprises.
OGP: Brooklyn residents appear to be very receptive to the idea of sustainably grown local food, but are you getting the political support that you need?
There are many people in local government who are sympathetic to our cause: Scott Stringer, Catherine Quinn, Marty Markowitz, and Senator Montgomery to name a few. Some of these politicians are trying to rectify a giant oversight in PlaNYC, when food was completely overlooked as an element to a sustainable city. In the last two months, the FRESH initiative was publicly announced and Scott Stringer hosted a NYC Food & Climate Summit. I am hopeful that some of the discussion from the Food & Climate Summit will make it back to policy planners to promote urban agriculture. While it didn’t make any sense to seek political support with the backyard farms, we are now seeking support for a project in Crown Heights where we have partnered with the High School for Public Service to develop a 1-acre farmyard. We are hopeful that we will get some funding since the project covers so many agendas: food justice, environment, health, and education. Wish us luck!
OGP: Where would you like to see improvements made in order to facilitate the local food movement?
Specifically, to increase the number of urban farming ventures, I would love to see the Department of Agriculture do a land study of any state-owned land that could be used as farmyard, but they are completely overworked. The New York State Department of Agriculture is fielding all NYC urban farming requests, so we desperately need a city position, one that also reports to the mayor’s office. There needs to be a new section of PlaNYC that is dedicated to food. The ‘comprehensive’ plan to make New York City an unparalleled sustainable city is completely flawed without addressing the link between food and climate. The first item that should be included in that plan is to reinstate compost collection and leaf collection in the city to close the loop on our local food system and bring food waste back to build our soil.
OGP: Congratulations on being a finalist in The Buckminster Fuller Challenge this year. Has that nomination opened any doors or provided more visibility for BK Farmyards?
The Buckminster Fuller Organization has been immensely helpful in the formation of BK Farmyards. The entry process is something I highly recommend to anyone starting a new venture. They were vested in the success of the project even if they could not award us the prize. As we got promoted to semi-finalist and finalist standing, we noticed a lot of spikes in the number of people visiting our website from all over the world, and we continue to get notes from people who found us through the Buckminster Fuller Organization’s website.
OGP: How many properties has BK Farmyards acquired and roughly how much produce are you providing to the community at this point?
Acquired is a funny word: the more fitting term is borrowed. Last year, we were only selling produce from one site, because we got such a late start: June 15th! We had a 6-member CSA last year. Several clients that we found last year, we had to put off starting until this growing season, because it was going to be too expensive to set up and not grow for the whole season. We have approximately 15 sites that are pending contracts for this growing season. We have been focusing a lot of energy on the 1-acre farmyard at the High School for Public Service, because we think it is a very important project. The number of other sites we take on will depend on how much of our time this project takes. We anticipate having at least 25 CSA members this year.
OGP: How do you get the produce to local residents? Are you selling at the farmer’s market or distributing through some other method?
In 2009, we worked solely through a CSA: members purchased a weekly share of the produce for the season. We contemplated selling produce from a wheelbarrow at the subway stop after work, but logistically, we wanted to ensure that we sold all the produce. CSAs have their challenges too: ensuring that members get a consistent amount of produce each week and that there is enough diversity of crops. We harvested on Tuesdays and Saturdays to ensure we were picking produce when it was ripe, and three members showed up on each of those days to pick up their produce. With a CSA there are no rained-out days at the farmers market, and the consumers help weather any failed crops. CSAs build an important connection between the farmer and the consumer in which they are both linked in the sustainability of the business.
OGP: Can you tell us about the Gowanus Project?
Our longer term plans are to work with developers to include farmyards into new construction. We are partnering with Peter Moore Associates to renovate an old printing warehouse in Gowanus for 2011. There will be lofts, a chef community, hostel, and café all surrounding a farmed courtyard. There will be a resident farmer who organizes the farm-to-table program for the café and manages a community compost center in the cellar. We are ecstatic to move forward on this project, and we hope that more developers will want to include farming into new residential construction.
OGP: What other plans do you have for BK Farmyards?
I see BK Farmyards as a think tank somewhere near the intersection of food and architecture, so anything goes within that framework. New citywide systems are necessary as well as creative solutions to the age old question: how do we feed everyone? I entered the Buckminster Fuller Challenge again this year with a social network platform that would give new meaning to the term Community Supported Agriculture. So far, the field has been narrowed down to 35 projects, and we are among them. I did not foresee being involved so heavily in web development, but BK Farmyards work to date has raised certain questions for me regarding the viability of urban agriculture as a profession above the poverty line. Some minor tweaks to people’s lifestyles could significantly impact the farmer’s income. The mission of BK Farmyards will focus on creating a financially sustainable model for urban agriculture, and I suspect that nut will take a while to crack.
OGP: Well that’s a key issue and we’re really glad that you’re addressing it for the benefit of everyone interested in urban farming. There are a lot of projects that won’t get off the ground until people are assured that they can be financially viable.
You’re working on some amazing projects Stacey and making a huge contribution to the local food movement. Thanks so much for taking the time to update us on BK Farmyards. We’ll check back in with you down the road!
Check out this video on BK Farmyards