Near the corner of Hallek and Otsego streets in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, inside a chain-link fenced lot across from the new IKEA superstore, a man bundled in several thermal shirts and a parka was aerating a windrow of steaming compost with a pitchfork. It was barely 30 degrees out; I’d ridden a bicycle there on cobbles and rutted pavement and then squeezed past a parked van to get inside the fence. The man’s name was David Buckel, and he took me around what had once been a paved urban field where a correction officers' league gathered to play softball. A blanket of frigid black soil more than a foot deep lay right on top of the asphalt, and I could still make out a white foul line.
In midwinter, the Red Hook Community Farm may not look like much, but come summer it will produce some of the freshest and most sought-after produce in New York City. Next season, the gritty city block will sprout turnip greens, heirloom tomatoes, broccoli rabe, purslane, collards, honeydew melons, peas, and dozens of other varieties of fruit and vegetable. Nearly all the crops will be raised and harvested by local teenagers.
Buckel started out on the farm as a volunteer. Until recently he was also a practicing lawyer, but when President Obama asked citizens to make a commitment to public service in his inaugural speech, Buckel decided to work here full-time. When I got home later that afternoon, an email from Buckel waited in my inbox: “Too bad you couldn’t see our final product. It was five feet tall, perfectly blended and proportioned for air circulation, steaming in the amber light of sunset, set off by the white snow.” David Buckel was the first man I’d met who wrote poetry about compost.
Farming nearly didn’t happen in Red Hook. Ian Marvy and Michael Hurwitz, who worked with local kids that had run afoul of the court system, almost literally stumbled across it. In 2000, while supervising a group of teenagers weeding a neighborhood garden as part of their community service, Marvy bent down and ate a dandelion green. “That’s gross,” a teen remarked. Marvy explained the health benefits of the greens and said they tasted particularly good when sautéed with bacon. The kids weren’t moved, so Marvy tried a different tack. He told them that if they planted a 10-by-10-foot plot with 50 heads of dandelion, and sold them at $1 per quarter head, three times a summer, they’d make more than $500 from $1.25 in seeds. “When can we get started?” one replied.
The original plan was to sell produce from a rolling cart, but then the Big R – the neighborhood’s lone grocery store – closed, leaving the more than 11,000 residents of Red Hook with nowhere to shop for fresh vegetables. Marvy and Hurwitz decided to upscale their plan to a farmer’s market. They convinced a handful of upstate farmers to sell their produce on the weekends in nearby Coffey Park, and they recruited kids, many from George Westinghouse High School in downtown Brooklyn (where Hurwitz also worked) to help out. That year they also managed to secure some land – a quarter acre in Far Rockaway and a community garden on Wolcott Street, in Red Hook – and hired nine local teenagers, who would receive an actual wage, to plant and grow baby lettuces, flowers and tomatoes.
The neighborhood needed the help. Family incomes were among the lowest in the city; the diabetes rate was among the highest. Much of the industry that had once flourished there had moved away or been abandoned. One afternoon Marvy and Ben Balcolm, a farmer who sold his produce in Coffey Park, walked to the waterfront to have lunch. As they crossed Columbia Street, Balcolm paused and looked at an empty baseball field: broken bottles and weeds covered it, the fence was sagging and breached, and joyriders had been leaving burnt-out cars nearby. It was the definition of blight, but Balcolm, who drove to Brooklyn from a rural stretch of New York State, saw an ideal site for a farm. The field offered plenty of exposure to the sun, protection from wind and a fence for security. In 2002, with the help of neighbors and the city’s Parks Department, Marvy began planting with his organization Added Value.
In the coming seasons, groups of local teens could be seen at the old field; they seeded, composted, mulched, and harvested mizuna greens, arugula and cucumbers. Thousands of city schoolchildren that had never been near a working farm arrived on field trips. No one doubted the farm’s efficacy as a youth training program, but what took many Brooklynites by surprise was the quality of the organic produce grown there. Sohui Kim, chef and owner of the acclaimed Red Hook restaurant Good Fork, was among the first to use it in her cooking.
“I loved that I could get fresh produce from three blocks away,” she says. “When we started working together, I knew that the quality and quantity weren’t going to be picture perfect, but every year they get better.” Today, Kim says, the herbs and vegetables from the nearby farm are the best she has access to. Added Value included Kim in their planning meetings, and recently she asked the farm manager to plant 60 to 70 heads of Napa cabbage for the kimchi that the Good Fork offers on its menu.
Other chefs were quick to catch on; the farm now supplies many of the borough’s most ambitious restaurants, as well as 70 households that buy its produce weekly through its community-supported agriculture program. “Once you taste the freshness, there’s no going back,” says Catherine Saillard, whose restaurant Ici, in Fort Greene, specializes in locally sourced ingredients and sustainable wine. “On days we receive deliveries, we stand outside waiting for the truck. Five hours after the vegetables are pulled from the ground, they are on our tables. The fact that we are helping a local community is like the cherry on top.”
Farming has put down roots in Red Hook. Last year, Added Value sold $53,000 worth of produce. There’s a new three-acre farm across the water on Governor’s Island, and a beekeeper on staff. When I visited, David Buckel flung open the lid of a wooden box to show me a tangle of ruddy earthworms. “We’re good farmers,” he said, “and this little field has shown people that it’s possible to grow tremendous food in a crowded city.”
Buckel is also responsible for spreading the word about the farm, and healthy eating, to the surrounding community. He admitted it could be a challenge; he told about a high-school student from the nearby housing projects that had dropped by the farmer’s market and sampled locally grown food for the first time. “I wish someone had told us that vegetables can taste good,” she exclaimed. Buckel all but hummed with excitement when he related the story. I asked him if he missed the law.
“Every time I walk past these gates I get a tingle up my back,” he replied. “That never used to happen at the office.” He shook my hand, picked up the pitchfork, and headed back to work.
Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.