Mott Haven's Women-Led Farm Contends with Weeds, Thieves and Wary Locals

By Patrick Wall on April 12, 2012 3:36pm 

Calletano Reyes, who grew crops on a farm in his native Mexico, has taught his daughter, Ruby, how to work the land in the Bronx.
Calletano Reyes, who grew crops on a farm in his native Mexico, has taught his daughter, Ruby, how to work the land in the Bronx.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

MOTT HAVEN — During a recent rush hour, cars barreled up a ramp onto the Major Deegan Expressway, racing to get home, while a few yards away, a silver Metro-North train streaked by in the opposite direction.

But in between the railroad and the highway, on a two-and-a-half acre patch of grass, a father knelt beside a bed of dirt and troweled a small hole, which his daughter filled with a tomato plant.

“This place has magical powers,” said Karen Washington, a member of the board of advisors of La Finca del Sur, or “The Farm of the South,” a women-led community farm on the industrial edge of Mott Haven.

Over the past three years, local environmentalists have transformed a vacant city lot at 138th Street and the Grand Concourse into fertile grounds where potatoes and peppers sprout from raised plots and poetry is recited on a wooden stage.

But certain setbacks remind the farmers where they work: in a poor, out-of-the-way corner of the Bronx, where thieves have stolen valuable tools from the group’s secondhand shed, and some tenants in nearby public housing lament the lack of available fresh food, but are reluctant to grow their own.

“In inner-city communities, people aren’t necessarily familiar with farming,” said Nancy Ortiz-Surun, director of the farm’s advisory board. To them, “It’s a weird thing.”

In an annual effort to make urban agriculture seem less strange to locals, La Finca will invite community members to get their hands dirty this Saturday by composting, mulching and touring the tiny farm.

In 2009, Molly Culver noticed an empty lot across from the 138th Street 4 and 5 subway station as she headed to the Mott Haven nonprofit where she worked.

She eventually asked the city for access to the land and, with local community groups and volunteers, cleared away shoulder-height weeds and a small homeless encampment to make way for dozens of raised dirt plots.

Today, a core group of 17 farmers — up from 10 last season — pay $20 for a small plot or $40 for a large one to grow fruits and vegetables that they can eat or sell at a local farmers market.

The farm is a registered nonprofit whose bylaws state that a majority of its advisory board members must be black and Latina women.

“Women make up the majority of household heads in the Bronx,” explained Ortiz-Surun, 53, a preschool teacher who lives in the northwest Bronx.

La Finca del Sur, a women-led farm situated on 2.5 acres squeezed between 138th Street, the Major Deegan Expressway and the MetroNorth rail line in Mott Haven.
La Finca del Sur, a women-led farm situated on 2.5 acres squeezed between 138th Street, the Major Deegan Expressway and the MetroNorth rail line in Mott Haven.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

She added, “And women physically do most of the agricultural work in the world.”

One of the group’s main concerns this season is to secure the property, which is bordered on two sides by stone walls and in the front by a gated fence.

But the rear remains exposed, with just a few aluminum poles attached to patches of chain link, which is likely how burglars were able to break in three times last October, stealing a power generator, lawn mowers, hand tools and an audio system used for events.

A contractor recently estimated that a strip of 12-foot fencing in the back would cost about $4,000 to install — roughly half of the group’s budget, which they had hoped to invest in a paid staffer who could manage farm logistics and keep the space open for more hours each week.

While operating costs are a concern, farm membership presents a more existential crisis: if La Finca can’t attract local residents, can it call itself a community farm?

Many of the farmers do live nearby, such as Calletano Reyes who was recently planting tomatoes with his seven-year-old daughter, Ruby.

Reyes grew corn, cucumbers, squash, chili peppers and more years ago in his native Puebla, Mexico. He brings his children to the small farm in Mott Haven now, he said, to remind them that harvesting their own food is part of their heritage.

“It’s hard for them to visualize when I just tell them,” Reyes, 38, said in Spanish. “When they do it themselves, it becomes more real.”

But other La Finca farmers live in distant sections of the Bronx and even Manhattan.

To draw more locals through the gates, the farmers have set up guerilla farm stands by the nearby apartment towers, passed out flyers on street corners and held public get-togethers on the farm, including open mic nights, group meditations and even belly dancing.

Alfreda Thompson, a real estate agent who lives in Harlem, walks across the Madison Avenue Bridge to La Finca each week to tend to her cucumbers, cabbage, watermelon, cantaloupe and tomatillos, which she discovered when seeds blew over from Reyes’ plot.

She said convincing other locals like Reyes to buy plots will take time, since many work long hours and raise large families and some, still, remain wary of farms.

“People hear farm and they think heavy labor, hard work and getting dirty — and it is that,” said Thompson, 43. “But it’s also so much more.”

La Finca del Sur's fourth annual open farm takes place this Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the corner of 138th Street and the Grand Concourse. The event will include games for children, refreshments, agricultural workshops and storytelling by Bronxite Bobby Gonzalez.

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