"Farming can be a very solitary pursuit," Nora Painten tells us. But not for her: she runs the Student Farm Project, initially funded by Kickstarter to convert abandoned lots in New York into gardens starting with an 8,000-square foot lot in Brownsville, where she works with students. How'd she end up at PS/IS 323? "The principal there, Linda Harris, didn't kick me out of the building when I walked in there one day two summers ago with a bowl full of dirty carrots," she says.
Painten began farming in Connecticut in 2007 as a way to delay starting a career, but she soon fell in love with it. She also fell in love with a man, which is how she wound up in Brooklyn. "My now-husband is the ultimate city boy, and I knew that if I wanted to be with him I would have to find a way to do what I wanted to do—grow food—in the city," she says. The garden that allows her to do that is hopefully just the first step. "Eventually we'd like to expand the project to new spaces and schools and start an urban farmer training program for people in the neighborhood." So far, the community response has been overwhelmingly supportive. "The lot we built on has been vacant for decades, according to neighbors," Painten says. "It brings me a lot of joy to make a functional community greenspace where none existed before."
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I came to Brooklyn for love! My now-husband is the ultimate city boy and I knew that if I wanted to be with him I would have to find a way to do what I wanted to do—grow food—in the city.
Where did your interest in farming stem from?
I started working on a farm in Connecticut in 2007 as a way to put off starting a career, ironically. I fell in love with growing (and eating) food and started to read a lot and think a lot about our broken food system.
How did you wind up at the schools where you've worked?
When I moved to Brooklyn, the educational component of the work that I do just fell into place. Farming can be a very solitary pursuit. Working with kids has brought a larger sense of meaning and joy to my role as farmer. I ended up building this farm for PS/IS 323 because of its proximity to the vacant lot, and because the principal there, Linda Harris, didn't kick me out of the building when I walked in there one day two summers ago with a bowl full of dirty carrots asking if she wanted to partner on this project.
How have you found working in these communities?
Working in Brownsville has been a real pleasure. My favorite things is how many people stop in who want to talk about growing vegetables and raising chickens back home, down south or on the islands. Everyone seems to have a connection, an agricultural history, and people are so happy to use the garden as an opportunity to share that history with their kids. People love stopping by to show their kids the chickens and gather a few fresh brown eggs. Others are happy to pass some time peppering me with questions about what I'm growing and how. While Brownsville has a reputation as a dangerous neighborhood, I've haven’t experienced any of that in my time on the farm.
What do you think urban farming and the concept of slow food brings to a young child's life?
A farm in the city allows an urban kid to experience a simplified snapshot of one part the ideal food system at its origin. Seeds become seedlings, then mature plants, which beget food. Food is acquired, cooked and consumed. Children grow, people thrive and are healthy and strong from eating. This of course is an over simplified and idealized version of a food system. But enabling children to witness and participate in the creation of produce allows them a connection to the point of origin that they will hopefully start to think about in a larger sense, when they visit the grocery store, and when they grow up and begin to buy food and cook for themselves. Lots of kids who come to our farm are amazed to discover that eggs, like the ones they buy at the grocery store, actually come from chickens.
What has been the most rewarding, and the most frustrating part of this experience for you?
The reaction from the surrounding community has been really positive which makes me feel that all the headaches with construction and finding funding have been worth it. The lot we built on has been vacant for decades according to neighbors. It brings me a lot of joy to make a functional community green space where none existed before.
How do you get funding for the project?
We raised all of our startup capital through a successful Kickstarter campaign. We relied heavily on all of our social media networks and also the kindness of strangers who feel passionately about garden education in urban schools (there are many). After the kickstarter I incorporated the organization as a non-profit and have been writing grants to support the project.
What are your plans for the future of this project?
We are working hard to develop curriculum and get the teachers at our partner school to feel comfortable modifying their lessons to suit the garden environment. Eventually we'd like to expand the project to new spaces and schools, and start an urban farmer training program for people in the neighborhood. This year, now that the garden is well established, lots of community organizations are coming out expressing an interest in running programs in our space. We say yes to everyone! The point of the garden is that it should be available to be used! My dream is to one day be able to leave the gates unlocked and open 24/7 so people can always use it. I've been told this is impossible, but we'll see!
You have a newborn yourself, what things do you want to impart to your children about the way we consume food?
Food and eating is probably the thing I feel most strongly about when it comes to raising our son. I tell my husband all the time, if Oliver goes through a period of eating only "white food" or something, I will not be able to deal with it. But through growing up in our family and eating the things I grow he will inherently understand seasonality and localism, because he will understand good flavor and that's what those things are really about. We haven't eaten fresh tomatoes in our house since last fall and I'm so excited to eat them again in July. But I'm willing to wait. What's the point of eating those mealy flavorless red balls that pass for tomatoes in the meantime? Hopefully if we give our children the chance to experience produce at the peak of its flavor, they will grow up to be conscious eaters and food buyers, reading labels, and visiting farmer's markets. Actually, this is the larger idea behind garden education for all children.