In the Field with Farmer Kendra Ellis from East New York Farms
In the Field is a series we’ll be running throughout the 2017 farming season, interviewing a diverse group of farmers around the country about what growing food looks like from their perspective, what’s happening on their farm and what they’d like consumers to remember when they’re at the grocery store or farmers’ market.
East New York, where the eastern edge of Brooklyn turns into Long Island’s Nassau County, has the highest proportion of community gardens per resident in New York City. Many of the gardens are affiliated with East New York Farms! (ENYF), a community project that addresses food justice through local sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development.
Kendra Ellis is the 22-year-old manager of the ENYF Youth Farm, farming under an acre of land in East New York. Kendra’s grandfather farmed in Honduras, where, she says, “everyone is involved in food production,” but she considers herself a first-generation farmer. As a teenager, she got involved in community gardening in her Queens neighborhood, calling it “the most unifying thing I had experienced in my community.” She spent summers in high school on a farm in Connecticut, and eventually attended the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, before coming to East New York Farms! in 2016.
We caught up while Kendra was taking a day off the Brooklyn farm, on a field trip to a rural farm in upstate New York with a group of youth interns.
What do you grow?
We grow common Northeastern vegetables — tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini …We grow a lot of garlic, and we have bees and a few chickens. We’re most proud of our Caribbean and South Asian crops, which can be harder to find in the Northeast. We grow bora (long beans), dasheen, callaloo, malabar spinach, jute, sorrel, bitter melon, ginger, turmeric and lemongrass. Some of these, like bitter melon, known as karela, are really special in our community. People from the Caribbean rave about its health benefits — it cleans your blood, it’s good for diabetes — and people from all cultures here have been so impressed with those benefits that they’ve tried to incorporate it into their diets. I’m always learning from customers and gardeners how to use bitter melon — people juice the greens, stuff it with pork, sauté it …
We’re also known for our peppers — we grow at least seven seasoning peppers and twelve hot peppers. One guy comes all the way from Chinatown for our ghost peppers. Some gardeners from Trinidad come just to buy the pimento peppers, which are hard to find in the supermarket.
What kind of community are you farming in?
East New York is urban, and the residents are mostly Caribbean, South Asian and African-American, from the American South.
East New York Farms! has a youth program; we have 35 interns, 15 of whom are returning interns and do a lot of the teaching and training. The program runs from March to November, and includes food justice education, hands-on teaching on how to grow vegetables and how to run the farmers’ market.
I work with community gardeners and youth at three main sites. The Youth Farm is about 3/4 of an acre. 80 percent is under our production for the farmers’ market, and the rest is managed by community members with their own plots. Down the street is Fresh Farm Garden, where youth, youth program alums and community members have plots. At Hands and Heart Urban Farm, which United Community Centers [ENYF’s parent organization] helped to start and now is under management of community members, we have 150 bed-feet. Youth interns also help out community members at other gardens around the neighborhood.
The farm being spread out allows us to be involved in the communities at the different gardens, so we can offer support in whatever ways are needed. We’re not just isolated on our own farm, we’re part of the larger urban agriculture community in East New York.
Where do you sell your products?
We run two farmers’ markets weekly from June through November. The majority of the customers are older folks from the community. Youth interns do all the market setup and cleanup, help other vendors and run the Youth Farm stand.
At the markets, we have a share table, where we invite community gardeners to sell their excess produce. They drop off their products, the youth sell it, and at the end of the season, we cut a check to the gardener for their profit. A few gardeners also grow enough to have their own produce stands, and some sell prepared foods.
What are you doing on the farm this week?
We just got everything planted and fertilized, so the transplants are settling in. This week, I need to trellis the tomatoes; I’m hoping to get a shipment of wood chips to mulch the paths and the flower beds. I think one of my beehives has Nosema — it’s like dysentery, so I need to figure out how to treat that. And our first market is this Saturday, so there’s harvest. From the farm, we’ll have herbs, greens, eggs, honey and some prepared foods from last year like hot sauce and tomatillo salsa.
What ‘s hard about farming?
It’s very physically demanding. Sometimes I feel like I’m condemning myself to skin cancer and sciatica in my future.
Personally, I’m from an immigrant family that I feel like has been trying to get away from hard labor. For them, my managing a farm isn’t seen as a sign of success. I don’t get a lot of affirmation from my family, because it’s not a “respectable” job.
What do you love about farming?
There’s so much.
I’m not excited about food if I’m not connected with it. Being involved with production, whether growing, processing or fermenting makes eating a really exciting thing to do. Farming gives a joy to eating — that I’m connected to the source of nourishment for my body. I really like that I’m able to share foods with friends, family, customers that I’ve been involved with on a spiritual or emotional level. It’s not easy growing food … a lot of tears go into each crop. When I give someone a tomato, it’s more than something to put on a burger, it might be something I’ve cried over.
I like working outdoors, being in the sun, having my hands in the soil … I love working with someone who’s never worked in soil before and seeing the moment of realization that what they eat is coming from the earth.
What do you wish people/non-farmers knew about what it takes to grow the food they eat?
I don’t think everyone should be a farmer, but I wish food production were part of our education. I think that would help people respect people in the food industry — not just farmers but also food workers.
I wish everyone could be involved with producing food at some point in their lives, so they knew how difficult it is. How very few of the vegetables coming out of the earth are shaped like people expect — beautiful, pristine, like you find at the supermarket. If people had that kind of connection to food production, they wouldn’t waste it so freely, they would savor it more, realizing food is sacred.
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