These NYC Farms Are Growing More Than Food 2018-05-10T10:26:36+00:00

BROOKLYN, NY — Paul Philpott works inside a shipping container tucked in a parking lot across from the Marcy Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Inside, dozens of white plastic columns hide a bounty of radishes, kale, lettuce, beets and tatsoi, an Asian cabbage similar to bok choy, all lit by bright pink lights. It’s humid and warm, a respite from an unseasonably cold April afternoon.

The vertical hydroponic farm that Philpott took over in late 2016 yields an average of 35 pounds of produce a week. He sells about half to restaurants, caterers and personal chefs through his business, Gateway Greens.

The futuristic farm is a far cry from the community garden he helped his grandmother tend as a boy in East Harlem’s Lexington Houses, the public housing complex where he grew up and still lives.

He learned to water and weed in the roughly 100-square-foot plot where tomatoes, carrots and other plants grew and where his family gathered.

That experience planted a love of agriculture in Philpott that helped lead him to where he is today.

“I feel that the greens that I grow are the gateway to a better, healthier future,” Philpott said.

Before he got into hydroponics, Philpott helped build farms similar to his grandmother’s garden — only much bigger.

Philpott, 26, is one of dozens of New Yorkers who have become urban farmers through Green City Force, a Bed-Stuy-based organization that creates fertile ground for healthy foods in New York City Housing Authority complexes.

GCF’s Urban Farm Corps, an AmeriCorps program, teaches three dozen NYCHA residents each year how to cultivate crops and maintain a farm. It’s open to all NYCHA tenants between ages 18 and 24 who have a high school diploma or an equivalent degree. Green City Force is funded in part by a grant from the Citi Foundation.

GCF has built five farms at NYCHA developments in Brooklyn, East Harlem and the Bronx since 2013. The organization plans to break ground this week on a sixth in Staten Island and have it running it by June, said Bahij Chancey, GCF’s development and communications manager.

The farms are part of an urban farming community that advocates say is a vital link to healthy food, jobs and education for New Yorkers.

“We’re focused on the fruits and vegetables, yes, but we’re growing people and we’re growing hope and opportunity,” said Tony Hillery, the executive director of Harlem Grown, a nonprofit that manages GCF’s East Harlem farm at the Wagner Houses.

GCF’s farms, built in raised beds on open NYCHA lots, range from about a third of an acre to two acres in size, Chancey said. They’re managed by neighborhood-based nonprofits that work with the Urban Farm Corps members to grow a cornucopia of crops including cucumbers, squash and greens, along with herbs like rosemary, parsley and lavender.

The farms yielded about 20,000 pounds of produce last year, Chancey said — all of which went straight to NYCHA tenants. The farmers give away what they grow at each development to residents, who give compostable food scraps or volunteer at the farm in return.

The setup creates access to fresh, healthy foods in neighborhoods where the only dinner options might be Chinese food or McDonald’s.

“Growing up in NYCHA, I suffered from not having many choices and healthy places to eat,” said Tyrone Robinson, 23, who graduated from the Urban Farm Corps in March. “But when I started serving in Green City Force I started being able to eat a lot more healthier and started to try new things.”

GCF aims to create a “community space” in each farm by installing benches where visitors can sit and making them easy to walk through, Chancey said. Some tenants are skeptical at first, he said, but in the end, “residents really love the results.”

Last year, Robinson helped build GCF’s farm at the Forest Houses in the Bronx, where he grew up and where several of his family members still live. The work was hard, he said, but it gave him a chance to give back to the community that raised him.

“It just feels really good knowing that that’s there for them,” Robinson said.

A 2013 survey found more than 300 urban and suburban farms across the United States, about a third of which were in the Northeast. New York City is home to the nation’s largest urban agriculture system, with close to 2,000 gardens as well as farms and rooftop growing spaces, according to a 2016 brief by the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.

Harlem Grown has 10 farms in Harlem, Hillery said. Many kids the program works with don’t eat vegetables at first because they don’t know what they are, he said, but they learn to love the crops they grow.

At NYCHA houses, where young people have few opportunities and resources, Green City Force is helping to create the next generation of farmers who are “primed and ready” to keep agriculture going in the city, he said. Harlem Grown recently hired two of them.

“We’ve been farming lands for generations and we have been and still are,” Hillery said at a recent panel discussion on farming. “But now there’s a viable industry out there, right here in New York City, in conventional food deserts, where we hire people and pay living wages to farm. Where would I get that person without GCF?”

Green City Force helps its Urban Farm Corps members figure out their next steps, often with great success. Some 91 percent of graduates in the program’s last three cohorts have found jobs or gone to college within six months, Chancey said.

GCF helped connect Philpott with Square Roots, the company that owns his hydroponic farm. He’s among six Square Roots entrepreneurs who run businesses from shipping containers in the Bed-Stuy parking lot.

Running his farm is intense — he’s spent some nights in a hammock inside the container so he could stay with his crops. But he hasn’t forgotten about Green City Force.

Philpott helped set up a six-month apprenticeship at Square Roots for GCF graduates. The three current apprentices shadow the Square Roots farmers, giving them experience that will help them start their own businesses or even join the company in a future season, Philpott said.

The walls of Philpott’s shipping container are covered with drawings and notes from friends he’s made in his nascent farming career: GCF members, alumni and other visitors.

After Philpott sells half his harvests, he gives away the rest to a nearby church, his family and others who need some fresh food.

“Whatever I can do that can help in any kind of way, I just do,” he said.

(Photos: Paul Philpott grows a variety of produce in his vertical hydroponic farm inside a shipping container in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Photos by Noah Manskar/Patch)