If every time you see a vacant rooftop or lot, you envision a lush oasis filled with enough fresh vegetables to feed a community, then you might see the world like the students at Farm School NYC.
The school’s urban agriculture program, run by the local food group Just Food and funded, in part, by the USDA’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, recently finished its pilot year.
“It’s great to learn about farming on the beautiful California countryside, but it’s so different here in the city,” said Jacquie Berger, who oversees the school. “Here, you have to know how to deal with political bureaucracy and community organizing that you might not need out in the country.”
Students also learn the logistics of getting bags of soil to a rooftop and maximizing the crop yield of a tiny lot—all in the name of making the city more sustainable.
Before the school launched its two-year certificate program in January 2011, many city dwellers traveled to an urban farming program in Santa Cruz.
The certificate program’s first crop of 15 students range in age from their early 20s to their early 80s and come from all sorts of backgrounds, including marketing, teaching and graphic design.
That kind of variety was intentional, Berger explained. Organizers wanted the school to reflect the diversity of New York City. Tuition is on a sliding scale based on income, which ensures that would-be students aren’t excluded by finances.
The classes are also non-traditional, revolving around discussions and feedback rather than lectures. The courses, which admit non-certificate students, are capped at 25.
“In class, solutions come from us—we don’t know everything, but we’re experts in our own lives,” said Farm School student Taireina Gilbert, a graphic designer. While most students have careers and plenty of passion, many lacked knowledge of basic agricultural techniques.
The school connects them with urban farms around the city, like the Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm in Long Island City, Queens; the Red Hook Community Farm, in Brooklyn; and the Battery Conservancy, in Manhattan, to help students get hands-on experience. Students are also required to complete a certain number of volunteer hours and take classes on social justice and community organizing.
“What we’re trying to do on our end is to expand our farms to create jobs for them when they graduate,” said Gwen Schantz, one of the founders of the Brooklyn Grange. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Other four-year schools around the city, such as the New School, in Manhattan, also offer urban agriculture classes. Colleges like Hunter, in Manhattan, have rooftop gardens that students help to run.
Farm School students and organizers say it’s the combination of farm training and social-justice education that sets their program apart from others in New York City.
“It looks like an amazing experience for people without a farming background,” said City College Junior Elizabeth Kelman, who helped to found a community garden with other students from City College and their neighbors in Harlem.
“Our tomatoes started rotting, and I was like ‘Ahh!’” she said. “Luckily, someone suggested adding calcium to the soil.”
Farm School students say they’ve learned similar lessons and now appreciate the importance of combining their knowledge and experience to make an idea work.
“Have you ever tried to put a chicken coop together by yourself? It’s impossible,” said Farm School student Rafael Aponte. “Urban farming is all about helping out and finding your niche.”
Aponte said he is looking forward to seeing the school expand in the future and take in even more eager urban farmers. For now, admission is capped at 15 students each year, although there is additional room for students not enrolled in the two-year certificate program to take individual classes.
“It’s been such a great expansion on my education,” he said. “I can’t wait to see [Farm School NYC] become more inclusive.”