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St. Mary's Urban Farm Reclaims the Land to Feed West Harlem Parish

By Jeff Mays | August 14, 2012 6:59am

WEST HARLEM — The Swiss chard looked fresh and crisp, the carrots delicious.

But neither held Randall Cord's interest.

As he browsed the table at St. Mary's Episcopal Church food pantry, he had eyes for only one thing. The tomatoes he's been watching grow for weeks.

"I've been waiting for these to ripen," said Cord, 51, as he picked up his weekly food allotment.

Unlike most food pantries where the produce is delivered, much of St. Mary's offerings come straight from the church's own farm on West 126th Street near Amsterdarm Avenue in West Harlem.

Using 26 raised beds to avoid soil contaminated with heavy metals, and with the help of funding from the United Way of New York City's Seed Grants, the church's urban farmers have transformed rundown space on a gritty block into an agricultural bounty.

Now they are cultivating radishes, beets, eggplant and collard greens among other vegetables in 1,000 square feet of space, just across the street from the 26th Precinct of the NYPD.

"It's amazing people don't realize how things can grow right in your own backyard," said Cord.

The food produced by the farm is used to feed 60 families a week through the pantry. The church  also teaches parishioners the ins and outs of growing fresh vegetables in the middle of the city.

"The first year is always the hardest," said Claire West, urban farm coordinator for St. Mary's.

But the farm has begun to produce. Last week, 30 pounds of tomatoes were harvested, one of the biggest single vegetable hauls to date. In a few short months they are on track to produce over 700 pounds of food for the pantry.

"It's been a really amazing project for the church because this one project cuts across so many different layers of the community," said St. Mary's interim minister Christine Lee. 

"Having something green and growing in the middle of Harlem is an amazing experience."

It's also part of a renaissance for urban agriculture. Much of Harlem was used for agriculture about 150 years ago, said John Cannizzo, director of Greenteam Projects for The Horticultural Society of New York and a consultant for St. Mary's farm.

Farms in Upper Manhattan used to produce 20 percent of the city's food, but times and food sources have changed.

"In New York City, 98 percent of the food has to come here from more than 150 miles away and 30 percent from more than 1,000 miles away," said Cannizzo.

"We have lost a tremendous amount of capacity," he said.

The church's vegetables are harvested every Monday ahead of the pantry's opening. Last week, Joseph Venturini, 50, one of the farm workers, dropped grape tomatoes into a bag for distribution, while farm worker April Jackson clipped leaves of lettuce and stacked them into a basket.

Venturini said working on the farm reminds him of working with his father as a child, in their giant backyard garden in the Bronx where they grew squash, eggplant, cucumbers and tomatoes. Back then, he didn't have much of a choice.

"You had to turn the soil as soon as it thawed, and wrap the fig trees if you wanted to live under his roof," said Venturini.

Turning soil and building planting boxes at St. Mary's is different. "It makes me feel great because all these vegetables are harvested with love and effort," said Venturini. "This brings things back full circle."

Growing an abundant harvest in the city is hard work, though, and West says they are having a difficult time with the squash and black-eyed peas, and pests.

There aren't the deer that plague suburban gardeners, but squirrels love to dig up the vegetable's roots, and caterpillars are always feasting on the garden, West said.

"We are still learning about what grows best where," she said.

"Harlem, once upon a time, was the bread table for New York City, but it's been a long time."

Cannizzo thinks the learning experience of the new farmers is at least as valuable as the food being produced.

Farm worker Billy Adams said he's been showing off the space to friends, bragging how he's learned how to build plant beds, manage plant growth and remediate soil.

"They are so surprised," he said.

"They are so used to going to a supermarket they don't even think about where the food comes from. They don't think that you can grow stuff in an urban area."

The farm is also a reclamation project for St. Mary's, which could not use the natural earth behind the church because it was heavily contaminated by heating oil from a leaky fuel delivery valve.

As a result of the project, the church is working with a soil scientist to restore the soil to health using processes known as Bokashi, which applies fermented food waste laced with microorganisms to the soil.

The organisms help convert the soil back to a healthier state by blocking absorption of heavy metals and protecting plants.

"The microbes eat our waste and what they produce, we need for life," said bio remediation expert Shig Matsukawa, who is working with the church.

"This technology is a symbiotic relationship."

Using their own soil would increase the amount of available growing space, and allow the church to feed more people. A rainwater irrigation system is also being set up.

"It's low-tech, low-cost, low-maintenance and in sync with nature," said Matsukawa.

"Instead of trying to control nature, we are taking something from nature and aligning ourselves with it."

Maybe that's why Clifford Goff, a member of the Order of Urban Missionaries which is stationed at St. Mary's, couldn't stop smiling on a recent visit to the site.

"We are reclaiming the sacredness of the land," he said.

"We were called to be stewards of the land and we messed up. Now, we are trying to fix things."