Food / Jobs

Looking to the future–on the farm

Angely Mercado

BEST Agriculture students gather around a table to learn how to begin their mushroom farms.

Sustainable South Bronx trains workers for urban agriculture jobs

Seven people bent over a work table in the office of Sustainable South Bronx on a recent weekday. They were planting a farm.

Led by Humberto Crème, a field manager for the organization’s job-training program, the BEST Academy, they drilled holes in logs and tapped shiitake mushroom plugs in with a mallet. All the while, members of the group, many of whom wore black and neon green t-shirts with the slogan “Green the Ghetto,” offered predictions.

“I want a big harvest,” one worker informed the group.

“I’m selling mine,” boasted another.

With sights set on the new trend of growing food in vacant lots and on city rooftops, Sustainable South Bronx has begun a pilot program offering training that can lead to jobs in urban farming.

The program will not only lead to jobs in an expanding industry, says Deputy Director Annette Williams, who heads the organization’s job-training program, the BEST Academy, but will help Hunts Point residents gain access to healthier food.

“The vegetables here, you don’t want to buy,” Williams said. “You have to go far; you have to go to upper Manhattan; you have to go downtown where the vegetables are fresh.” She looks forward to a time when South Bronx neighborhoods will not only provide that kind of produce; they will produce it.

“We’re not saying organic; we’re saying healthy. Stuff that tastes good, looks good, is good,” said Williams.

Crème agrees. He remembers trying to catch flies in the fruit section of the supermarket as a child.

“When I started learning about food I was, like, ‘There’s not supposed to be flies on our vegetables.’ Flies carry germs, they sit on feces. It wasn’t fresh at all,” he said.

Pointing to a New York Times article that reported that the city is having a hard time finding skilled farmers to run the farms and community gardens that are springing up all over the city, Sustainable South Bronx’s executive director Michael Brotchner said the program, which launched in early March, is “an experiment” to learn whether there is a market for graduates of the BEST Agriculture pilot program.

Enrolling graduates of BEST’s other job-training programs who are seeking additional skills, the agriculture program has focused on ways to grow food in greenhouses and in water enriched with nutrients—a technique called hydroponic farming.

BEST has partnered with several farms that specialize in greenhouses and hydroponics to educate the trainees and introduce them to profitable urban farms like the Brooklyn Grange and BrightFarms. The hope is that as more companies create rooftop farms on their buildings, they will create jobs that BEST graduates are trained to fill, as well.

“It’s an emerging market, especially in New York,” said Nicol Mayer of BrightFarms, “When a company opens up a farm, they’re going to need workers.”

The group recently ventured to Bucks County Pennsylvania, the home of BrightFarms, which grows vegetables hydroponically in greenhouses.

Unlike conventional farms, hydroponic farms are productive year-round. Though the availability of locally-grown vegetables and fruits will not necessarily lower prices, because it is grown nearby, the produce will be of better quality and will have a longer shelf life than produce that is shipped from other states or other countries.

Mayer sees a transformed landscape in places like the South Bronx. “In terms of inner city, it can get complicated when it comes to finding the land, but as long as it’s well equipped, there can be a farm there.”

Sandy Mercado, a graduate of the BEST building maintenance program who is now enrolled in BEST Agriculture, is optimistic about the future of the BEST Agriculture program.

“You can get a lot of jobs with this, especially in sustainability. When I was in BEST for Buildings, I learned how to do green maintenance on buildings, and then I came here,” she said.

One of Mercado’s favorite projects was helping out at Padre Plaza, a community garden in Mott Haven. She’s especially enthusiastic about the hands-on perspective of the classes.

Shakeema Blout, a graduate of the BEST Ecology program that teaches landscape maintenance and a mother of three, says that her children are a major reason why she became interested in BEST Agriculture.

“It’s because we’ve got kids, they’re out there and we need to protect them and show them what we should have been learning when we were coming up,” she said.

Like Annette Williams—who says the program has made her more aware of what she eats and made her a missionary spreading the gospel of fresh food to her family, Blout says she has become more conscious of what’s on the family table.

“It’s really changed my life since I’ve been here.”

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