Does NYC even need Upstate farms?


Is there a booth for Upstate agriculture at places like Union Square market in Manhattan? Or is NYC doing just fine on its own? Photo: David Sommerstein.

This week, I'll be in New York City doing some reporting on the reality of urban agriculture there, and how it relates to the farming practiced here in Upstate New York. I'll be blogging about what I see, hear and taste. I'm not sure what I'm going to find, but here's one hunch.

For years, Upstate and North Country farmers have been talking about the potential of millions of hungry consumers so tantalizingly close. In a recent story by NCPR's Sarah Harris, Cornell Cooperative Extension's Bernadette Logozar put it this way:

Are there farmers in the from the Adirondack North Country region selling products into New York City? Yes. Is it without its challenges? Absolutely not. Is that still kind of the diamond prize that’s hanging on the horizon for many? Absolutely.

Yes, hundreds of farms are indeed selling produce in NYC, from a meat CSA in St. Lawrence County to artesanal cheeses in Washington County to loads of inventive farms in the Hudson Valley.

And yes, 19 million mouths to feed in the metropolitan area means a whole lot of farms will be needed to make even a "local" dent.

But let's think north and west of the Hudson Valley for a minute (some Upstaters pause to even think of that region as "Upstate"). How much does New York City even think of all the dairy farmers and cabbage and lettuce farmers scattered from Buffalo to Binghampton to Malone? Do they have a place in the NYC local food revolution?

What might surprise many Upstaters is that the Big City is jumping ahead with agriculture of its own. Here are just five examples how:

  1. Gotham Greens in Brooklyn is one of the biggest rooftop greenhouses in the country. And it's stunningly big.
  2. Farm in the Sky, also in Brooklyn, is growing luscious, tender greens and more in recycled plastic containers on a roof. And it works.
  3. Just Food NYC is organizing dozens of CSAs and training the next crop of urban farmers.
  4. The largely West Indian community in East New York, Brooklyn again (!), has blurred the distinction between farm and neighborhood garden.
  5. New York City boasts the largest network of farmers markets in the country, including the immensely popular Union Square market.

So the questions I'll be asking this week have to do with whether there's a place for hip, new, urban agriculture to meet and mind-meld with good old fashioned Upstate farming? Does the urban agriculture movement even align itself with the traditional trappings of the Ag industry, like the Farm Bureau, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and 4H?

What do you see where you are? Your comments will greatly help inform our reporting as we dig into the world of urban agriculture. NYC, look out. Here comes Upstate.

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  1. Does Upstate Ag need NYC? If I remember correctly, George Pataki's big breakthrough was to win the governorship without winning Manhattan and surrounds. There are a lot of people who live closer to Malone than NYC who need food. Maybe that is a better focus for the local movement.

    Also, I hope you will explore the question of what makes a farm distinct from a garden? As someone with a foot in both worlds, I see how they learn from and reflect each other. The methods and trends in farming and gardening change over time, as culture changes over time. The backyard gardens of the 1950s were miniature versions of the squared-off, heavily tilled farms of that time. Today, farmers transplant corn and carefully prune and trellis tomatoes to maximize yield, mirroring trends in intensive gardening.

    • Agreed! we need to learn to feed ourselves and our community first. We have a long way to go.
      Movement is the key word here. It will take a movement to take back responsibility for our sustenance. Education of the consumer coupled with reasonable bio regional production expectations are critical. Moreover, I do not think feeding people is compatible with in a market economy. A couple of winners and many, many losers, sound familiar?

  2. There are a lot of mouths to feed in NYC – and everywhere else in the state. A 2008 study done at Cornell concluded that NYS does not have enough land to grow enough food to feed the state's population.

    The upside: lots of markets everywhere you look. We can grow food EVERYWHERE and not run out of mouths to feed. The continuing challenge: can people afford to pay a living wage to local farmers? I bet that those glorious greens being grown by Gotham Greens are more expensive than the head of lettuce from California down at the Price Chopper.

  3. Cute storyline, but let's look at this in reality. It's nice that NYC is learning to grow some vegetables, and maybe even a few eggs. What about the other ~ 90% of a normal human diet? Dairy, meats, grains, tree fruits, etc. etc. Good luck growing those on roof tops and vacant lots.

  4. We have very large gardens here at our little homestead in Potsdam, and we harvest, process, and store a LOT of food. Three freezers, and five hundred jars however, won't feed a family of 12, and so we go outside, and purchase from those nearby who raise pigs, chickens, lambs, and cattle. We go to the farmers market to buy those things that we don't have in our own garden. It takes a lot of land to feed a dozen people.
    If those in NYC planted every rooftop, and every empty lot, and every backyard in the suburbs, they couldn't raise enough to feed but a tiny fraction of the population.
    It's simple arithmetic. we have the fields, they have the mouths to feed. They need us.

    • Well the notion is a little non-sensical really that the city could grow all it's own food. Funny enough – a lot of the commuter rail lines that serve NYC used to be freight… and a lot of that freight was from farms in the Hudson Valley and Long Island carrying agriculture products to the city. Now much of that land has been replaced by housing and such… and the freight cars replaced by trucks.

  5. I am pretty sure I could feed myself on .6 acres of decent farmland. That's about 26,000 sq ft. Leave 20% fallow and you have about 21,000 sq ft. Put 5000 sq ft in grinding corn, 5000 sq ft in potatoes, 5,000 sq ft in permanent orchard/berry bushes – apples, pears, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb..; 6,000 sq ft in vegetables. On the fallow ground keep a few chickens and a hive or two of bees. Chickens eat a lot of food waste and some of the corn while also enriching the soil and bees help increase yield as well as providing honey. Of course it would be a full time job and then some. And if a crop failed it would be stone soup.

    NYS population = 19.57 million x .6 = about 11.7 million acres needed. Actual acres in agriculture = about 8.7 million acres leaves us 3 million acres short or about 5 million people. NYC = about 194,000 acres . If 5% could be farmed as rooftops or reclaimed lots it would feed about 16,000 people.

    But did Cornell account for fishing and hunting? If I read the chart right it looks like there were over 220,000 deer taken in 2011 in NY. What about fish in streams, lakes, tide waters and ocean? Clams, mussels?

    And what about the value of NY ag products vs other states? We produce higher value crops than many states considered agricultural powerhouses. Products like wine, cheese and yogurt, fruit, and syrup. If we trade some of our higher value products for grain and even meat from other states we can easily provide enough food for ourselves.

    • well stated knuckleheadedliberal……….

    • to your last sentence… well in reality – that's exactly what used to happen. hopefully we'll get back to it.

  6. To points #3 and #5. A lot of the farmer's markets and CSA's source from the Hudson Valley, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut… so of course NYC needs regional farms.

  7. I don't want urban grown food if I have a choice. Why? Lead in eggs from city chickens, red food dye in Honey, and pollutants and heavy metals in/on urban produce. If I'm not mistaken (and I might be), the forager Wildman Steve Brill used to recommend not foraging within 100 feet of a road, and even if it's in your own suburban backyard to forage in the back and not the front (unless it's more than 100 feet from the road). I'd love to see the results of tissue tests for some of this rooftop/urban farm stuff. I just read one article in which a columnist is telling someone to grow food on their city street front yard because there are community gardens and an "organic" (are we talking certified?) urban farm in his neighborhood and from what he sees, it's safe and fine to eat. Perception is not reality. I'd be ok being wrong but I think there's a reason that farms are in rural areas. I'm aware that some of the more commercial newer rooftop city operations are enclosed. Hmmmm…am I on to something?