North Brooklyn Farms doing its part to serve Williamsburg
Three hundred years ago when the Dutch settled in Brooklyn, they transformed the landscape into farmland. Now, New York is a concrete city, but green spaces have once again become trendy. North Brooklyn Farms in Williamsburg is doing its part to bring agriculture back to the borough.
North Brooklyn Farms, founded last spring by Ryan Watson, 29, and Henry Sweets, 31, occupies 8,000 square feet of land in Williamsburg and functions as a community space and a vegetable garden of sorts.
“This [space] is about being a part of the earth, and being connected to the earth,” Sweets said last Sunday afternoon as he sat in a chair looking out over Havemeyer Park, where North Brooklyn Farms is located.
The space in front of him, with the Williamsburg Bridge looming in the background, was his dream. Sweets and Watson use it to grow vegetables like kale, eggplant and tomatoes, as well as sunflowers and wildflowers, and to connect with Brooklyn residents through community dinners. Dinners are held twice a week, $40 a person. Williamsburg resident Emma Gonzalez, 26, volunteers to cook a vegan dinner for attendees.
Before it was North Brooklyn Farms, the lot used to be a parking lot for the Domino Sugar Refinery, but when Two Trees Management Company took over the property in 2012 and made plans to convert the Refinery into office space, they put out a request for proposals that could utilize the vacant lot for 10 months until they would need it for construction.
For Sweets, this opportunity was just what he had been looking for. A Kentucky native and graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South, Sweets fell in love with New York City when he spent a summer in college doing an internship with Alfred A. Knopf Publishing on the Lower East Side.
“I’ve had these two seemingly conflicting desires. One to be in a city; the other, to be a farmer,” said Sweets, who has long hair streaked blonde by the sun and a full brown beard. “Then I heard about urban farming, and I thought, ‘I am going to do that.’”
Sweets met his business partner Watson, a skinny, dark-haired California transplant a year and a half ago when they both worked at Battery Urban Farm in lower Manhattan.
“I saw in Ryan this energy, like I just knew he would make something happen. He had the skills to do that, so we said let’s find [vacant] lots,” Sweets said.
Soon, Watson stumbled upon Two Trees request for proposals. Sweets and Watson submitted a proposal for an urban farm, one that would use raised beds so it could be moved from the site after the 10 months were up, and for the time being, provide Williamsburg with some desperately needed public open space. Williamsburg only has one park: McCarren Park, located on the far north end of the neighborhood.
Two Trees accepted the proposal. North Brooklyn Farms, funded entirely from Sweets’ and Watson’s own pocket and built by volunteers, began to come to life in May 2013.
Andrew Collins, 25, is a Williamsburg resident and is currently working towards a Master’s in conservation biology at Columbia University. He said that this sort of urban agriculture is just what New York City needs.
“It’s a really fantastic idea,” Collins said. “Good green space is so important for the city and the ecosystem. Other neighborhoods probably need it more, but people are probably more welcoming of this sort of thing here.”
Williamsburg isn’t the only place where urban farms are popping up; over 700 urban farms and gardens are scattered throughout the five boroughs, according to grist.org, an environmental news website.
New York City as a whole has less open space per capita than any other American city, according to New York City’s parks and recreation website, and Williamsburg has one of the lowest open space per capita ratios in all of the five boroughs.
According to the City Environmental Quality Review on nyc.gov, open space is an “area that is accessible to the public on a constant and regular basis. It can be privately or publicly owned.” This definition includes parks, gardens, outdoor schoolyards, and urban farms. These spaces are often used for community building, and North Brooklyn Farms is no exception.
“I’m motivated by community: building community and serving the community," Watson said. “Open space is a huge, huge thing for this community.”
North Brooklyn Farms will be in Havemeyer Park until March, at which point, Watson and Sweets hope to transport their farm elsewhere.