Urban Farming: The Past and Present

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Selection of Tierra Farm items at farmers market.
Selection of Tierra Farm items at farmers market.

As a New Yorker, we are creatures of the concrete jungle. But even though the gifts of exquisite, man-made architecture surround our habitat, the gifts of nature are also vibrantly present. It’s easy for our minds to be often robotic and on auto-pilot. We sometimes begin to step in time and think industriously, like many factories and big corporations. However, we are not just mere beasts surviving in this city-like wild. For we all have choices. One of the most important choices we have are those concerning our health. Choose to go green and consume only the best quality foods, purchased from local farmers’ markets.

Although it is hard to imagine, the borough of Brooklyn was once made up of primarily farmland. The Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum gives New Yorkers the opportunity to look in the past to embrace our present farmers. Kings County was first established as a community in 1652 by the Dutch. Kings County consisted of very fertile land which grew produce such as cabbage, carrots and hard carbohydrates such as potatoes. The farmland continued to flourish as the 3rd largest farmland (Queens being the first) up until the 19th century. It wasn’t until the birth of railroads that with the increasing volume of the area, things slowly began to become more urbanized.

The farms were important during times of famine in Europe, as farms in the area were sending mainly grain, table produce and tobacco to Europe in the middle of the 17th century. “All of the farms in this area were sending back boat loads of stable grains to Europe for about a decade. That was the primary agricultural product,” said tour guide of the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum, Lucy Chin.

At the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum, Chin spoke about the family that had once lived on the very same property all those years ago, Peter Wyckoff, his wife and eleven children.

Today, the historical site is surrounded by hints of urban Brooklyn with a McDonald’s two door down and loud traffic coasting by, while the once fertile farmland reminds us of early roots.

The early Dutch farmers of the past would be driven with their obsession with tulips (a luxury item) which would lead them to study and embrace science and botany to uncover that crop rotation which would reoxygenate the soil to better their land. The farmers would have land designated for produce to be sold as well as kitchen gardens for their own needs which would have included herbs.

The farmers during the 17th century made great livings primarily as grain farmers. The grain, as Chin describes was “worth its weight in gold” at this time. The early farmers would seen various food items that were to be considered luxury items to Europe, one of them being the potato. Chin stated, “The early produce was going to Europe. The potato actually went over in the previous century. It was supposed to be a luxury item for the rich; they were singularly not impressed with it, so nobody didn’t really do anything with it until you get into this period in the middle of the century. Several things that people aren’t really aware of take off- one of them being the potato. The lower classes began to realize that they could make break with this stuff.”

Other items that were being sent overseas at this time period, not exclusively to this area as Chin adds, included chocolate and cane sugar. “Prior to that, beat sugars and marzipan, which comes from almonds and fruit sugars were the things used to sweeten  things with and now when we make jam, we add sugar,” said Chin.

But once the famine was over, the fruits of the farmers labor remained local. “They were supplying vegetables to everybody from the Carolina’s to Maine,” stated Chin.

Along with producing produce and  medicinal herbs, the early farmers of Kings County would also produce linen and wool, a privilege that wasn’t granted until 1750 because it was the basis of the English economy that the farmers of the colonies had to purchase it from them. However, after the Revolutionary War, the colonies had become self-sufficient and the farmers of Kings Country finally had freedom to grow what they pleased.

“That is something about the culture out here, the restrictions that they (the English) kept on them, what people could grow and what they could manufacture -it was a form of control and it wasn’t until that time that the colonies were self-sufficient to break away from that,” said Chin.

One could infer that history does repeat itself, whereas manufacturing in the past was tightly controlled and today we see the same control being placed on farmers by the big name corporations that display their labels all over our supermarkets.

Furthermore, as the now free farmers of Kings County flourished, there was plenty of farmland in Kings County for the working farmer to make a decent living. Tenant farmers would rent their land in a barter system, the opposite of today’s agricultural market that is controlled by factory farms and big corporations.

Today, the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum still grows herbs such as mint and various other plants in what would have been the Wyckoff family’s kitchen garden. They have previously internships with Tilden High School where students would learn the history of early farm life and have them growing and tending to the produce in the garden.

The Museum has also been the home to farmers markets over the years, however, the last big attempt was 4-years-ago . Local farmers joined in the growing, but heavy rains throughout the summer caused bad condition and farmers simply could not afford it. “Last year we tried, most of the people we approached were already committed either in Union Square, or Grand Army Plaza, or some other. So, we aren’t really not sure what the future for us for a market garden will be.”

Stepping back to a time of early farmers can give a New Yorker perspective on how we should look at our food. In this day-in-age, animals are pumped with hormones and antibiotics which make them more susceptible for disease. Our crops are often genetically modified which can cause a long range of effects on our health.

But even though we live in an urban environment, there are local farmers in New York. Every week local farmers markets are open across the five boroughs.

Knowing where one’s food comes from is important in order to eat healthy and “green”. When asked why it is better to sell at a local market instead of going through a major corporation, Casandra Theresa Maniotis, an art teacher from the south Bronx who sold for Tierra Farm at the Queens Botanical Garden Farmers’ Market until November 16 commented, “I mean who wants to support big corporations anyway.”

“It’s all about small businesses,” she added.

Tierra Farm is located upstate in Valatie, NY. All nuts are roasted at their facility and are fair trade, organic and dry roasted. They add no oils or preservatives. Furthermore, the products are all made in small batches.

“You’re getting something fresh. You know where it’s coming from; whereas, if you go to a supermarket, you have no idea where people are getting their stuff from,” Maniotis stated.

She continued saying, “They could be going down to little, petty market spots, getting stuff imported from all over. It could have been genetically modified, or roaches could have been living on them. It gets pretty gross.”

Maniotis, like many others, are strongly against GMOs, stressing how unnatural they are. She even grows her own fruits and vegetables, starting in late spring.

“It’s good to know that you’re getting something fresh from the source. It’s more refreshing.”

Consuming foods that are coming from a local farm is not only better for our health, but benefits the farmer and the environment. Whether we learn from our fore farmers, or from our current local farmers, understanding a greener way of life is certainly beneficial for a healthy lifestyle.


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