Learning from Farmers: 5 conferences in 5 months!

Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners–November 8 to 10, 2013

Making Brooklyn Bloom–March 8, 2014

NYCHA Grows With Its Gardeners–March 14, 2014

GreenThumb GrowTogether–March 29, 2014

Just Food–April 5-6, 2014

BUGs Conference 2013

Welcome to my scrapbook of a five month period. During that time, I learned a lot from farmers. It all began at the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference from November eight to ten in 2013. Aside from re-uniting with fellow food democracy activists, I had the privilege of having my mind blown by great minds like Tiffany Taulton who had this to say on education:
“I’m a member of the New York Permaculture Meet-Up. One of the focus areas of permaculture is to promote biodiversity: polyculture over monoculture. We need to end the monoculture of our educational system that locks our children up for twelve to seventeen years of their lives. They are locked away from their communities, not taught about their culture and community, and then expected to actually care about their communities. We need to take our education back into our own hands and teach our children the skills they need.
There should be more skill sharing, and apprenticeships so that children get the skills they need to succeed in jobs before they graduate. Maybe there should be some involvement with gardeners and education! There are a lot of students not served by conventional schools and a lot of people are unemployed. There should be a way for us to work together on this!”

Karen Washington



Next, I attended Making Brooklyn Bloom. It’s an annual celebration of community horticulture at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This year, it was enjoyed on March eighth. Noted community gardening spokesperson Karen Washington provided the keynote address. I was honored she featured me in her power point as she emphasized the importance of storytelling in our field. She flashed images from the central Bronx tours of Easter 2012 which was videotaped and published by Bronxnet. I remain surprised and honored!

Butterfly Project-Charles Vasser
March fourteen saw the New York City Housing Authority annual conference called NYCHA Grows With Its Gardeners. Chuck Vasser dazzled his audience of veteran gardeners as he led them in a discussion of the essential role pollinators play in fruit development and fertile gardens. One by one, he named moths, butterflies, and bees’ impacts on the gardens we love. Find this wisdom on-line at The Butterfly Project  The Butterfly Project is a grass roots, volunteer-led, organization of New Yorkers with a common goal—to promote and assist in the planting of native plants in urban gardens and other public areas in order to create and strengthen resources for native pollinators. They strive to increase education about native plants while supporting the active participation of people of all ages in local community, school, and public gardens. By collaborating with local, city, and state organizations, the Butterfly Project seeks to advance efforts to sustain and increase habitat suitable for local wildlife. Thanks Chuck for distributing this knowledge with your network for all to apply!

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s community garden assistance program GreenThumb hosted their annual conference on March twenty-ninth. It’s called GrowTogether and attracts large numbers of participants from all five boroughs of New York City.  Ray Figueroa (seen talking to the chicken keeper of Brook Park at right) was a featured speaker.  The vast array of support and networking that characterizes this tradition is reflected in those who table their services. This year, they included:
Cornell Cooperative Extension,
New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets,
New York City Coalition Against Hunger and their Bronx CSA,
Five Borough Farm II of the Design Trust for Public Space,
Farming Concrete,
Urban Garden Connections representing both the Bronx Land Trust and Manhattan Land Trust,
Farm School NYC of Just Food,
New York City Beekeeping,
Brooklyn Queens Land Trust,
NYCHA Garden and Greening Program,
NYC Compost Project,
GreenBridge of Brooklyn Botanic Garden,
Citizen’s Committee for New York City,
Grow to Learn NYC,
Grow NYC,
City Solar,
NYCHA Resident Green Committee,
Bronx Green-Up,
New Yorkers for Parks,
Programs for Sustainable Planning and Development (Compost training),
596 Acres,
New York Restoration Project, and
student soap makers whose adult teachers provided them no promotional materials. Their hand made soaps are charming and practical!


Finally, Just Food hosted another well attended conference from April fifth to sixth. This year, it was held at Teachers College of Columbia University.

Lil of Harlem World

Lil Nickelson must have been the most fluid food promoter I met during the whole conference aside from Dennis Derryck of Corbin Hill Farm.  She writes a column in Harlem World, the on-line magazine.  Look for her food shopping tips and stories which are usually accompanied by mouth-watering recipes.  Dining with Miss Lil is sure to be essential reading once you get a taste.


I had the honor of brief interviews with one featured speaker and a farm student who attended. Suga Ray and Raphael Aponte are both attached to Just Food’s Farm School as current student and alumnus respectively. Here’s what they had to say!

Rafael Aponte

Rafael Aponte (Just Food Farm School class of 2012)
Rafael Aponte (age 30) of the Bronx, founded Rocky Acres Community Farm in May 2013 where he’s raising goats, peppers, onions, carrots, potatoes, basil, Mexican herbs, and cilantro varieties perfect for making sofrito. Other offerings like mushrooms are in development for future seasons—stay tuned! The interview below was conducted on Monday, April 7, 2014 at Giovanni’s Restaurant (579 Grand Concourse, Bronx).
Morgan Powell: How did you select your farm’s name?
Rafael Aponte: “Rocky Acres” was already a sign on site. We kept it. I would rather have a more revolutionary name but the neighbors wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. It’s pretty benign but we added the “community” part.
MP: What exposure to plants and farming did you have before Farm School?
RA: My mother maintained a “jungle” of houseplants which I played G.I. Joe in as a kid. We lived together near the Brook Avenue stop of the no. 6 train. At that time, my dad gardened in the Bruckner right-of-way before his garden got bull dozed, but I was not interested in his garden at all. When I got older and got my own apartment near Yankee Stadium, my mom gave me clippings or her plants. I got bitten by the gardening bug and I maintained those plants. Eventually, I was growing chili peppers and basil plants hydroponically. [laughter]

MP: Where did you attend high school and other schools?
RA: LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. I focused on visual arts: printmaking, illustration, graphic arts, and photography.

Illness informs my commitment to farming. My class was the last at the elementary school on the Grand Concourse at 148th Street; it was closed because of asbestos. I attended college before cancer made it impossible to sustain my academics. I’m fine now but it’s not normal to be diagnosed with cancer at eighteen year old. I’ve had asthma since elementary school. I grew up in a polluted environment with highways ringing the neighborhood, an active commercial incinerator, and other things in Mott Haven. Sometimes I have to pace myself to get through farming chores but I’ve learned to expand my lung capacity. It’s getting easier.

MP: How do you identify ethnically?
RA: Ethnically, I’m Puerto Rican. Racially, I self-identify as Black. My father is darker than me. Upstate, there are many places where people never see people of color. I think some people think I’m Pakistani. [laughter]

MP: What motivated you to attend Farm School?
RA: It happened by accident. I was working in after-school education in Washington Heights, helping the youth to prepare for and gain admission to college.  I took them to schools all around the region. Somehow, I developed an interest in beekeeping as it was becoming legal within city limits. I attended a conference at Hostos Community College (probably GreenThumb GrowTogether) where many groups were tabling on gardening. There was information about beekeeping there. I subsequently met someone through the Socialism Conference who connected me with Farm School NYC. I don’t think I’d be on a farm now if it had not been for Farm School. That’s where I met Jalal Sabur [seen to the far right in a panel picture that opens this article]. We went on to farm together with my partner Nandi Cohen, a Cornell U. professor, at Wassaic Community Farm.

MP: What is your food sovereignty vision?
RA: I want people to think about producing their own food. I think once you see what goes into your food, it’s paradigm shifting. I also want low income communities to choose where their food comes from. If I can meet them at the right price point to make it sustainable for Rocky Acres Farm, and their getting value for the volume of food they need to consume, I think it’s a win-win.

MP: What’s your strategy to produce and deliver veggies, herbs, and meat to low income communities?
RA: My market is low income residents of Ithaca, NY. New York City is too far away. Ithaca’s a small town and it’s different from the Bronx. It’s more people driven rather than institutionally-oriented. I’ve been talking to my barber about distributing out of the barber shop. In Ithaca, the farmer’s market is very well attended, but not by local people of color. I think it’s not inclusive.

MP: What has been your biggest surprise in farming?
RA: I almost feel my life has separated into before and after farming. I’ve had more than one friend visit me and be scared by the quiet of rural life. Also, there’s a grading system for livestock. It’s made me imagine how enslaved people were graded at slave markets in the past. The experience has grounded me.

MP: You’re seeing things a city person would not typically see. What are some things you wish were common knowledge in the Bronxes of America?
RA: I’ve become a steward of life. Everyone should be a part of that process: seeing seeds develop to maturity. I would like to see a student-centered approach to teaching. My exposure to other learning environments tells me a participatory approach is better than rote learning.


Suga Ray (Just Food Farm School class of 2015)
Suga Ray is passionate about community gardening as a vehicle to grow the best seeds of his beloved Queensbridge Houses on New York City’s East River. Originally from south Jamaica, Queens, his family moved to the iconic Long Island City public housing development when he was two years old. It’s been tradition there, like many neighborhoods throughout the city, to memorialize those who pass away before their natural time with bottles of alcohol and candles. But things are about to change in this corner of New York if Suga Ray has anything to do with it. In concert with a vocal local senior citizen, a more enduring ritual of remembrance is coming into view in the form of new community gardens at one of the largest public housing developments in all five boroughs. What became shabby with time will renew itself with constant love and care in the best traditions of community horticulture—that’s the power of living green that all the money spent on ghetto liquor can’t buy.

Suga Ray

These new spaces will serve many needs of a wider cross-section of local residents in all the color and joy of nature. Suga Ray sees these new spaces as therapy for the mentally ill, perpetual job training for an emerging workforce, seasonal work for the formerly enprisoned who need low barriers to career entry and a welcome environment, respite for the bereaved, and enhanced beauty for all to see! He’s dedicated to a multi-generational and multi-ethnic approach that’s already got precedent at Queensbridge Houses. A few modest green patches tended by residents exist. Now it is time to turn up the volume and expand the scale.

Suga Ray’s getting ready to lead this new era in local greening and he’s putting his time and other resources to work. He’s in his first year of training at Farm School with his eyes on the graduation prize for 2015. He’s also looking to share the message of health through life-affirming diet. Food related health and illness are foremost in his mind. A bell went off when an uncle and other cherished elders passed away from diet-related illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. That bell had rung even earlier when he endured may months not able to walk from a pinched nerve that only improved when vegetables replaced meats in his own diet. Nearly four years later, he’s feeling his young age without back pain! Success in such an ambitious venture must mean collaboration so he’s linking up with others.
He’s been appointed International Director to Sacrit Kingz by Nyeesha Williams who earlier founded a national network dedicated to young girls called Sacrit Devahood, Inc. Kingz will be a hub of culinary arts, etiquette, arts and crafts based in New York City.  These groups aim to assemble resources to raise a greenhouse at Queensbridge and pay the locals who do the work. They’re not looking to re-invent the wheel.  Colleagues in Newark (New Jersey), Atlanta (Georgia), Los Angeles (California), and Uganda will be providing technical support where applicable. Stay tuned as this man builds his dream through his entertainment company and his blog.




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