Raised Beds, Raised Consciousness

Cover crop on the field at Snug Harbor Heritage Farm

Staten Island does not grow very much food of its own. According to the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University, the island has community gardens on 3 lots, totaling 1 acre. That’s not a lot of food for the over 400,000 people living there. In addition, much of the island exists in a food desert, without easy access to fresh, healthy food. Snug Harbor Heritage Farm at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden will change that, and in the process will seek to make urban agriculture a mainstay of the island’s economy and cultural life.

According to farm manager Gus Jones the farm will do more than grow food. It will advocate for the spread of urban agriculture by renting out equipment to aspiring farmers, by consulting to help get farms started, by giving tours of the farm to prove that food can grow on Staten Island and to raise consciousness about the benefits of working the land to grow healthy food. The farm will educate aspiring farmers through apprenticeships and school class visits. It will look to sell food at a farm stand, to restaurants, and through work shares, and will give a large portion away to local food pantries. Ultimately, it will seek to keep young, idealistic Staten Islanders on the island, working the land, increasing local residents’ access to healthy food, strengthening the bonds of the community around healthy food until they are as tight as the roots that clutch deep into the soil.

This is the farm’s first full growing season. The 2 acre farm will need about 5 growing seasons in order to get all of the systems in place producing to their full potential. On Saturday, Gus discussed a big step towards getting that started for this season —  the process of mowing down and then tilling the cover crop into the field, which last fall was filled with compost brought in by the NYC Department of Sanitation.

I helped do my part in laying the groundwork of the farm, shaping woodchips into planting beds, shoveling soil into the newly formed beds, and raking them out as smoothly and as evenly as possible. We carved the beds into rows with the back end of the rake, and seeded radishes and lettuces into the beds. Where we found a pile of woodchips waiting for us on Saturday, we will soon find fresh vegetables emerging, reaching for the energy of the sun. Here we built something lasting: beds to be planted, harvested, tilled; a source of sustenance for the community, a source of fruitful work for people looking to connect to the land. Here we were on a Saturday morning, building up beds that will inspire a neighborhood kid searching for meaning, or maybe an adult looking to step away from the desk and instead get down on his hands and knees, get dirt under his nails, trace life from seed to stomach.

To take control of our food system, it is possible that all it takes is looking not far out into the distant future but simply looking directly under our feet, to the land that will do so much for us if we build it and shape it, if we spread the knowledge like we spread the soil. Let us begin to grow, begin again the task of repairing our relationship to the earth. Let us raise consciousness, let us pursue meaning in seeds and soil all over this city and cultivate beauty in the form of plants sprouting up as we look down to the ground.

Empty beds

Beds filled with soil, ready for seeding

Carving rows for seeds

Little gem lettuce transplants, staggered

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