My lovely friend Dema lwas visiting from Asheville and casually told me about this awesome farm in Williamsburg that I should look into. Wait.
A farm in Williamsburg?
Flash forward. After a few introductions, I met the farm's landscape designer, Ian Quate and the grower himself , Henry, one afternoon approaching fall for the low down on this unique urban green space under the Williamsburg Bridge. I'm so inspired by their stories and I tell everyone I know to visit and try to get their hands on a ticket to their wildly popular Sunday Suppers.
IAN QUATE, Landscape Designer, Nelson Byrd Wolz Landscape Architect
iPP: What's your background and what lead you to landscape design?
IQ: I grew up in North Carolina and my folks were both sort self-employed. My mother had a clothing store and my dad was a contractor. I grew up half the time on a construction site and half the time in a clothing boutique, so I don’t know what that yields but I ended up studying design and moved here [NYC]. I wanted to do architecture and saw the need for parks, which were really something on my mind, growing up in the south in a small town. I also really wanted to work with living material, which became more and more exciting, studying plants, becoming more fascinated with living organisms.
"The technology of living organisms is very fascinating to me."
So I went back to school and got my graduate degree in landscape architecture – my undergrad was in art and I studied botany too – I was always amused with natural history and botany.
In grad school I really got into genetics and thinking about plant systems and organisms as kind of the ultimate design.
I started working at Nelson Byrd Wolz initially because I used to do biological surveys with the Rhode Island Natural History survey and every summer I would do that, and basically survey the entire state [because it's not that big]. It's really cool. I always came back [to NYC] raving about this design tool–because you know we do a topographic survey, but why don’t we do a biological survey?
Then I met Thomas (Principal, NBWLA) and told him I really wanted to work at an office that was, you know, ecologically literate and has done biological surveys before. And Thomas was like, we do that. So that’s kind of how that started.
iPP: How did you get involved with North Brooklyn Farms?
I was working there [NBWLA] and it was this past winter when Henry walked in, and I overheard his conversation about this park/farm…it's going to have food, and a skate park, and it's under the Williamsburg bridge…. and then he left and I asked Thomas, "Can I work on this project?" And Thomas said yes.
Henry, Co-Founder, North Brooklyn Farms
iPP: What's your background and what led you to farming?
FH: In high school and college I did landscaping and studied philosophy. I took an internship in New York at Random House Publishers and I got the New York bug. Then I was out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just working in hotels and restaurants, teaching art, reporting on arts and entertainment, and that’s how I learned about environmental farming in New York. I had two conflicting desires: I wanted to be a farmer and I wanted to live in New York, and then I read that people were actually farming in NYC and I decided to do that. I went up to Stone Barns where they have a really amazing apprenticeship program and then came back and worked for Battery Urban Farm, and then got into this.
iPP: How did North Brooklyn Farms start?
FH: We actually got started across the street. It was just an idea I had. I wanted to do a farm in New York and I was working at Battery Urban Farms and I met one of our apprentices who was really involved in community organizing and ecological conservation groups in North Brooklyn. We kind of banned together and started looking for lots, and we found a requests for proposals for the lot across the street. We got in, and worked with some other groups and slowly our concept won over the developer and the community, and so we wound up taking on more and more space.
The whole idea is to create a green space using agriculture on vacant land, and create something a community can really build itself around and love. I got the idea for Sunday Suppers from a party in a garden at Stone Barns. There’s a restaurant there called Blue Hill , and it’s a cool agricultural educational facility. It's really next level.
So, I thought we could just do all of this in Brooklyn, and the Sunday Suppers would pay for the farm and the green space, and it all kind of grew out of that.
"People really love [the farm]. Our whole team is basically built on volunteers who end up working for us or serve at our suppers; everyone brings their own little thing to the table. "
iPP: How do you decide what to plant on the farm?
FH: The veggies that we pick tend to do well in a city where there’s a limited amount of soil and fluctuating moisture levels.
We grow cherry tomatoes instead of the big fat heirloom tomatoes because they just tend to do better in an environment like this. But now that we’re actually in-ground – meaning we’ve capped the rubble (from the old Domino Sugar factory rubble) – we put gravel down, then filter fabric, then clean soil, so now we have a bigger variety that we’re able to grow here. We grow kale (people love kale), and eggplants do really well because they produce early and just keep going. Basil also grows well and people generally love and things we can serve at our suppers. We try to feature something from the garden in each dish.
The cut flowers we do similarly; anything that’s a vigorous grower and doesn’t require extremely fertile soil or specific pH levels. We grow annuals; I start most of them in my backyard and move them here.
iPP: What's your spirit plant and why?
IQ: I would have to say Rhododendron. I don’t know which one because there's a lot out there, but where I’m from [in the South] it just smells like Rhododendron. It’s a really evocative smell and leaf texture, and also the height and density of the canopy and space that they make is very comforting to me.
FH: Okra. I loved fried okra as a kid. One of my first gardening experiences was with my granddad, he took me out to work in a big field. It was hot and I was a kid so I kind of hated it, and suddenly I just really feel in love with the work and harvested some okra. And the way okra grows: they're these little gems, and there’s something about the way they grow perpendicular to the ground, and the arrangement feels ancient, like from another world. I think okra is really delicious, the flower is really beautiful – the background on my phone has been an okra flower for at least 3 ½ years.
"We do a lot of daydreaming here, but that’s the thing about a project like this. Is it a daydream that’s become a reality, so it just proves these kind of things can happen."
North Brooklyn Farms is located at 320 Kent Avenue and is open to the public Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-8pm.
Volunteer at the farm HERE