In the backyard of Zac Fisher’s Ditmas Park home, there’s a cabbage patch where the lounge chair should be.
And where most people put the barbecue, Fisher has collard greens.
And where neighbors and friends would gather at a big metal table, there’s a hydroponic lettuce nursery.
Fisher doesn’t do any farming — “If I did that, nothing would grow,” he said — but instead has chosen to participate in what could be one of the greatest urban agricultural movements, if not the only urban agricultural movement, since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Fisher put up one-quarter of the initial seed money (that’s figurative and literal, of course) and turned over the day-to-day operation of his 600-square-foot backyard to Stacey Murphy, founder of BK Farmyards. In exchange, he gets 25 to 33 percent of the crop.
It’s sharecropping, but with a Brooklyn accent.
“Actually, that was our slogan originally — ‘Sharecropping, Brooklyn-style,’” said Murphy, an architect by trade. “But we worried that it would be offensive, so we went with ‘You have the land, we grow the produce.’”
Murphy, a Michigan native who now lives in farm-free Brooklyn Heights, started BK Farmyards in May and already counts two Ditmas Park backyards as her partitioned plantation. Six more landowners say they’ll turn over their yards next spring, when they can get a full growing season.
“I had to come to New York City to become a farmer,” Murphy said, showing off three rows of produce that run the gamut from Swiss chard to tomatillos to herbs to eggplants to beets.
The concept is simple: there are tens of thousands of unfarmed acres in Brooklyn, but all that arable land is imprisoned in backyards of roughly one-seventieth of an acre.
If neighborhood backyards are farmed collectively, Murphy says, she can build community, grow healthy food without pesticides or transportation, and make enough money to plough into more and more farms.
It isn’t easy. As with the sharecroppers of the post-Civil War era, Murphy’s start-up costs are high, mostly for soil (“Good dirt is hard to find,” she said) and building raised plots and irrigation tubing.
And the tight confines of a Brooklyn backyard are a challenge, too. “You can’t plant onions near beans because they don’t get along” (a Brooklyn garden is apparently like some Brooklyn neighborhoods).
But labor costs are low.
“This is a movement of young people who are getting into urban farming,” Murphy said. “They’re into food — they’ve read Michael Pollan — and are appalled at how far food has to travel to get to them.
“And once when we’re getting all our compost material from local restaurants and homeowners, the entire cycle of planting, growing and harvesting will be entirely Brooklyn based.”
Whatever produce isn’t turned over to the landowner will be sold through a CSA, a “community supported agriculture” buying group.
It won’t result in big profits, but once a farm is up and going, the only costs are the seeds and paying her farmer, Bruni Toras, who will be growing food as a full-time occupation next year.
That would make her one of only 25 people employed in “crop production” in Brooklyn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I’ve never been called to find the number of farmers in Brooklyn,” Bureau economist Lisa Boily. “Mostly, people call me to find out the latest numbers on the financial industry, which employs a lot more people.”
Murphy believes that someday soon, she’ll double that paltry labor statistic compiled by those Washington bean counters.
“As an architect, maybe I’d get to design three buildings in my entire career, but with this project, I can build hundreds of farms,” she said.
Fisher is a convert — of sorts. Before Murphy took over his backyard, the weeds grew as high as a teenager’s eye.
“We really never did anything with the yard at all, so when my wife told me about [starting a farm], I figured, ‘Why not?’ ” he said. “And everything’s been delicious.”
BK Farmyards will be having a fundraiser at Compound Brooklyn [1287 Atlantic Ave. near Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, (734) 646-2289] on Aug. 22 from 3 pm-midnight. There will be raffles for meals at local restaurants, music, hula hoops and, of course, food. For info, visit www.bkfarmyards.com.
©2009 Community News Group
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