Urban farming returns to its Brooklyn roots

By John B. Manbeck

for The Brooklyn Eagle

Professor Babette Audant pulled a carrot from the earth, brushed the loose dirt off and took a bite. Her students looked on, mildly horrified.

“But it’s dirty,” one exclaimed.

“It’s cleaner and healthier than most of the foods you eat,” she responded.

Audant — petite, lively and dedicated — supervises the Urban Farm program at Kingsborough Community College on the former sands of Manhattan Beach.

With the assistance of a staff of dedicated gardeners — Andrew Casper, the Farmer, an employee of Active Citizen Project, the college’s partner; Mara Gittleman, assistant farm manager and KCC instructor; plus a crew of volunteers who don’t mind getting their fingers dirty — Audant has succeeded in coaxing seedlings and sprouts out of the ground this first spring. Much of the cold weather nurturing is performed in a plastic-coated longhouse-like hothouse set up next to the seed beds.

Eventually, the produce will be served in the school’s kitchens and sold in local farmers’ markets.

Prof. Babette Audant. Photo by J. Manbeck

Brooklyn’s association with the soil has a long history. Until post-World War II, farms scattered through southern Brooklyn raised vegetables, fruit and even marketed milk from cows and goats. In 2000, a book, "Brooklyn, Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn," by Marc Linder and Lawrence Zacharis, neither of whom came from Brooklyn, revealed the scope of agriculture in Brooklyn’s history. They concluded that Brooklyn’s ties to agriculture helped shape its future.

Kingsborough’s farm started in March 2011 with raised beds of seedlings that were then transplanted. The urban garden, in a remote area of the campus, between two temporary buildings, broke ground in March with 15 beds and a goal of 27 beds to be filled with greens.

Audant, executive director of the KCC Center for Economic and Workforce Development, broke off a leaf and offered it to me. “It’s chocolate mint,” she explained. And it did have a taste of chocolate.

As an extension of the culinary program in the college’s Tourism and Hospitality Department, the program has an important educational goal.KCC Hothouse at Urban Farm. Photo by J. Manbeck

Audant, whose field of study is geography, realizes that food is central to the spaces we inhabit. She said that hot sauce is the champion food basic to Brooklyn cultures, so chili peppers will be a prime food item in the garden. Future plans call for an expanded herb garden (because of the smells and colors) and a therapeutic garden used in hospitals and nursing homes. We all have food memories and appreciate layers of flavors.

“The act of gardening can be used in therapy,” she said. We are what we eat — and perhaps also what we grow.

She hopes that another element will incorporate beekeeping to understand pollination. In classes, students learn about the benefits and dangers of food. Some classes are paired with academic subjects to broaden horizons of the students.

 (left to right) Mara Gittleman, Desi Robinson, Andrew Casper, Prof. Babette Audant

The Kingsborough program is the most recent of programs with an agricultural focus that are seeping into the academic curriculum of Brooklyn’s colleges and public schools. While KCC expands horticulture on the southern shore of Brooklyn, City Tech is stimulating a similar interest downtown.

The New York City College of Technology, in Downtown Brooklyn, doesn’t have the luxury of garden space on its campus, so its Hospitality Garden, tied to the school's culinary program, is in the DeKalb Market, according to an article in the Brooklyn Eagle. As at Kingsborough, students learn that vegetables do not grow in cans or in the freezer. When they harvest them, and discover and appreciate the exciting difference between fresh and processed produce, according to City Tech Professor Patrick O’Halloran.

Brooklyn’s secondary schools are returning to the soil as well. Farm projects have surfaced in Bushwick and East Flatbush where Farm School NYC and the Urban Farm School have opened. The rationale behind these new educational incentives is to re-introduce city pupils to their foods and educate them on how nutrition is a vital component of our lives.

Earlier generations of Brooklyn pupils worked in the victory gardens of World War II, when gardening appealed to patriotic pride. Schools often boasted of a strip of green growing at the back of the school yard. In those days, agriculture was a familiar commodity with the city markets in Wallabout and Washington Markets within easy transportation access.

But with the new focus on our agrarian roots emphasized at Kingsborough, farms have returned to Brooklyn with an educational element; tomorrow’s students will be better informed about what and how to eat, and be healthier for it.