Visiting students investigate a worm bin with City Growers. (Photo courtesy of Cara Chard)
In 2010, the Brooklyn Grange arrived in New York, promising city-grown produce from the previously unharnessed rooftop of the Standard Motor Products building in Long Island City; and then, in 2012, from the roof of Building no. 3 in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, too. And as soon as there were farms, there were hungry and curious city folk clambering to get a look at and a taste of New York City’s first commercial, for-profit rooftop farms. An overwhelming amount of the interest came from community groups and school groups that wanted to show city kids what a farm — especially a farm as urban-minded as the kids themselves — is like.
“We were bringing groups up for tours, but soon realized that we couldn’t meet the demand,” said Anastasia Cole Plakias, the Grange’s vice president and one of its three co-founders. “We realized it wasn’t our wheelhouse — none of us are trained educators.”
Thanks to Grange co-founder Gwen Schantz, now the farm’s COO, who has a background in nonprofit work and development, the Grange secured a grant through the Greening Western Queens Fund. “Enter Cara Chard,” said Cole Plakias, “and here we are four years later, and City Growers has hosted over 10,000 New York City youths on the farm.”
City Growers is the name of the Grange’s nonprofit cohort, its educational program that turns both farms into a “learning laboratory,” said Cara Chard, who is at the organization’s helm. Chard was a school teacher in New York City before delving into urban agriculture, “and [food education] was definitely not happening when I was there [in the schools]… I’m just excited that even teachers are taking steps to include agriculture and urban farms in the classroom. I think it means good things for the food movement, and it’ll help these kids have a better sense of not only environmental education but food education.”
With its two full-time employees leading the charge, City Growers tackles the project of showing New York City students of all ages what farming is, how it works and why it should matter to them. “We give students the opportunity to have experiential, hands-on learning in the garden to reinforce what they’re learning in school — biology, ecology, food systems, nutrition education — and get to encourage them to explore the intersection between ecology and health. What’s good for our environment is also good for our bodies,” said Chard. “We’re trying to get kids to come to their own conclusions, and giving them the opportunity to engage on the farm.”
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall, City Growers has grown from two to five programs, each geared toward introducing New York City children to urban agriculture and the relationship between farm and fork: Farm Explorer, a basic introduction to farming; Insect Investigator, which educates participants on farm bugs both beneficial and pesky; Honeybee Education, which allows students to peer inside one of the farm’s active beehives; Rainbow on Your Plate, a farm-to-table education program; and Growing Urban Farmers, a sort of urban farming boot camp.
Chard, a self-proclaimed “bee nerd” and experienced beekeeper, is most excited about Honeybee Education. “We’ll have an observation hive,” she explained of the class. “How that works is that there’s essentially a glass structure that is built to hold multiple frames of live bees. You go into regular hives and pull out frames of bees and place them in the observation hive… In the observation hive, you can watch baby bees being born, which is really cool. It’s cool to share with these little kids.”
Both she and Cole Plakias emphasized the importance of exposing the visiting children to the bees, as well as to other insects on the farm. Awareness, and combatting a fear of bees and other insects, is crucial not only to supporting bees and other communities of beneficial insects, but also to illustrating a necessary and often unseen part of the food production process.
Cole Plakias, who grew up in New York City, remembers being terrified of bees as a kid. “I was really quite scared of bees, thought worms were disgusting and soil was dirty. We can challenge these preconceived notions that New York City kids hold,” she said. “The only insect interactions they have are with bothersome insects in their apartments, like cockroaches. So seeing them interact with the insect world in a positive way is really great — just being in nature in general.”
Cole Plakias also recalled a visiting student in pre-City Growers days who, when asked by Cole Plakias if he was studying the environment in school, said yes before telling a startled Cole Plakias, “That has nothing to do with us. That’s out there in the country with trees and stuff.”
“Their whole lives are sort of in boxes,” said Cole Plakias, “the apartment, the elevator, and lobby, the subway. Over half the youth in the world might have this life where they’re devoid of experience in the natural world. But it’s really important that we stress this experience with the environment. If we can get kids thinking about how urban and natural environments interact and how the effects of that relationship present themselves, maybe we can get them to effect the necessary changes.”
City Growers encourages its visiting students to think outside of those boxes; there’s as much learning as unlearning to be done when the children visit the farms and are challenged to think about the natural world differently. “There are all kinds of little victories,” said Chard, “like realizing that a kid might be a future leader in the food or environmental movement, or there are the victories of getting a kid to put her professionally manicured hands in the soil and realize that it’s life-giving instead of something to avoid.”
And this is what’s at the heart of City Growers’ lessons: “It’s instilling a sense of wonder for nature, for where our food comes from,” said Chard, who feels that this is the most rewarding work she could have dreamed up, and who has seen bug-shy third graders’ delight at worm balls (exactly what it sounds like: a writhing, baseball-sized cluster of earthworms) and surly high schoolers become starry-eyed while working on the farm. “Farm education kind of naturally instills a sense of wonder, but that we’re on the Brooklyn Grange, and there are these absolutely gorgeous rooftop farms with a beautiful skyline — it definitely facilitates that. All kids are naturally curious, and awakening that and celebrating that are our main objectives. We have a lot of problems with our food system, so we want these kids to think of themselves as future problem solvers of these issues.”
Chard and the City Growers team are passionate about being able to provide these programs and experiences for free; a kid’s excitement about agriculture and the environment should not be hampered just because he or she doesn’t have a backyard or a house in the country. Thanks to donations (learn more about sponsoring a class here) they’ve been able to do so, and over 85 percent of the programs’ participants are from Title I public schools, which have particularly high concentrations of low-income or homeless students.
“It’s so rewarding to be able to do this for kids who don’t have as much access to the outdoors,” said Chard. “It’s a way of really giving back, and you can see exactly where your $20 is going: you’re giving kids an opportunity to really dig and to find the worm ball.”
Cole Plakias echoed the sentiment, and is grateful for City Growers’ presence on and relationship with the Brooklyn Grange: “[City Growers] was so close to the heart of what we wanted to do with the farm. We’re not just a production-based organization. We wanted to give back to the community that was so supportive of us when we were starting out.”