All the scarecrows I know are good at singing and dancing — and eventually — math equations.  And like a good English noun, their name explains their function.  They scare crows.  Songs, math, and directions back to Kansas are frills.

But Brooklyn always has a different take on the usual.  Recently, from the windows of a friend’s house in Williamsburg, I enjoyed seeing what we’ve come to call The Urban Scarecrow.  Or shall we say, The Scarepige?

These are two beautiful urban backyards where the owners have been planting for decades.  The plastic bags are used to scare away pigeons.  I’m told the birds go after the tomato plants, but as you’ll see in the photo below, the spooky bags have them dining elsewhere.

Happy Monday in another lovely week of summer!

Pigeons Be Gone! (Note: Deer in photo is not real)

Somewhere, deep into hour two of shoveling, I started to have visions of fierce machinery tilling vast fields.  A part of me understands why big companies took over farming:  It’s hard work.  But in evading the process ourselves, we lose a vital understanding.  Where better to remember than at school?

BK Farmyards is the inspired urban farming initiative by Stacey Murphy and Bee Ayer.  They describe it as “decentralized” — they plan to farm several lots around Brooklyn, including private brownstone backyards.  Right now they are digging their flagship project, a one acre farm at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights.

On a recent Saturday, a crew of about twenty people, including many members of the Farm Club, continued to crack open the school’s front lawn.  They’re early in the weeks of growing food for the school’s 20-member CSA.  By fall, the farm will be incorporated into the health, science and art classes.

But one day at a time.  At the end of this Saturday, Bee happily summed up the group’s accomplishments: “We have our first crops in the ground – kale, beets, carrots, salad mix and marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias.”

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Bee Ayer Instructs Students On How To Create New Soil Beds

Acting on Instructions!

Like the nascent plants, many of the students involved are freshmen.  They will be the stewards of this farm for their whole high school experience.  Imagine the learning curve coming up for everyone.  Kassandra Midy, Class of 2014, said it best with a few words and dirty hands, “I was scared of worms last week, but now I’m holding one.”

At one point, Stacey took a minute to take it all in.  “This is months’ worth of talking and planning.  To see the physical evidence of all of the work and all the fund raising is pretty incredible,” she said.  Pointing to the active shovels nearby, she continued,”It’s as simple as that person turning over the soil.  This feels really great.”

Now would you like to be a part of it?  I bet you would.  If you’re in New York and ready to work it out in the dirt, BK Farmyards is the perfect place.  You’ll work hard, enjoy yourself, and sleep like a baby when the day is done.  They have volunteer work days every Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm for the next several weeks.  Click here for the full calendar and details!

The Front Yard Becomes a Front Farm

Learning from Bee Ayer & Her Mad Skillz

Digging in for The High School for Public Service

Pausing a Minute to Pose

Union Square was recently the open air venue for a scene that was part urban agriculture, part art piece.  It brought to mind the Shaker proverb:  “Don’t make anything unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

The exhibit was a wall of Woolly Pockets: flexible pouches, made in the U.S. and comprised of recycled materials, that house plants on vertical surfaces.  An ordinary wall becomes a living thing; watching people walk around it, the verdant sculptures hooked people in.  Tourists took photos.  Some people took bites.  It was easy to the beauty and the usefulness.

But my favorite part was in the necessity of this idea.  For example, for those of us who just finished watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, we learned that there’s a problem in our schools:  Students don’t know where food comes from.  At one point, Jamie held up an eggplant before a first grade class and no one could tell him what it was.  Nor could they tell him that the French fry came from a potato.

The people behind Woolly Pockets understand this food illiteracy, so they also use their pieces to educate through vertical gardens.  For $1,000, a school can start a fifty pocket garden, fully equipped with the soil, seed packets, planting and nutritional manuals.  Their goal is to plant their unique form of gardening in 11,000 schools across the United States by 2011.

Perhaps we don’t have to go back to the land at all.  Maybe some of it can come in with us.

Unexpected Sights at Union Square

Pockets Full of Greens

Sunshine as a Basic Ingredient

Woolly Pockets and Their Paparazzi

Just When You've Seen It All, the Avatar Actors Show Up

The Long View of Beautiful, Useful, and Necessary

Before we go one word further, I have a request:  Prepare to think differently about Washington, DC.  Too often our capital city is disparaged for bulky national programs.  But this is a story about something that works beautifully:  Common Good City Farm located at 3rd and V Streets in the LeDroit Park neighborhood.

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The Community Comes Out for Common Good

Founded four years ago by Liz Falk and other engaged citizens, Common Good recently celebrated the start of the 2010 season.  It’s located on the grounds of a former junior high that ended in a sweep of school closings by Mayor Fenty in 2008.  Of the twenty-six schools that closed, Common Good is the only active space among the vacancies formed two years ago.  The city has plans to create a public park in the area surrounding the farm, so there will be gateway green for people to relax and then discover it.

For many, finding the farm could be the first step in a new life of learning about food.  In addition to growing fruits and vegetables, it’s an educational site, including cooking classes, for the local community.  Soon they will have an outdoor kitchen/classroom on the grounds.  It will be a simple roof structure with cabinets underneath, serving as the anchor in their educational work.

As part of their non-profit, Common Good also runs a program called Green Tomorrows.  Participants work the farm and produce good food, and in return, they earn shares of the harvest.  “It’s like a CSA, but not for purchase,” explained Falk.  Workers can also build hours by attending the culinary and gardening classes.

Falk’s broad vision of the Green Tomorrows program is that the people who receive training will go on to recover other vacant lots in Washington and create their own urban farms.  Looking at the strength of the programs and community at Common Good, it’s inspiring to imagine what such an expansion could like.  This year alone, the harvest at Common Good will include fruit from thirty trees — pear, cherry, paw paw, and fig trees are included in the mix.  According to Falk, “We’re going to grow almost everything you can grow in this region.”

Common Good City Farm Located at 300 V Street in Washington, DC

Classic DC Rowhouse Architecture is a Backdrop for Common Good

Hey, I Know That Shirt! (Kind of)

Playing Catch on a Former Baseball Field

Lately, whenever we’re surprised by new uses for common surfaces, it’s usually in the name of advertising.  For example, these days the simple act of opening an airplane tray table brings us face-to-face with an ad.

Now the reinvention of everyday surfaces is becoming the vanguard of sustainable food.  From suburban yards to warehouse rooftops to ocean waters, many overlooked places are the new “ground” for growth.

Last week at Agriculture 2.0, Bruce Kahn, Ph.D., of Deutsche Bank, stated that the world does not have enough productive land to feed the coming population boom.  According to Kahn, even if we improve the global land output to 90% productivity, the shortage will still exist.

A New Field?

A New Field

David Tze, of Aquacopia, an investment firm for seafood farming, later responded that Mr. Kahn’s statistics didn’t account for food production in the world’s oceans.  Imagine if the sea were as prolific as the land in providing people with protein sources.  Another presenter, Norbert Sporns of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industires, Inc., underlined the immediacy of this point.  His company, a member of the American Stock Exchange, has a full line of packaged meals based on the fish tilapia, farmed using “zero toxins.”  According to the company website, “Total U.S. consumption of tilapia products has risen from less than $20 million in 1992 to nearly $560 million in 2007.”  Consumer demand – based on want, not yet need – is in full swing.

The Sky Vegetable System

The Sky Vegetable System

Back on land — where my heart resides — Sky Vegetables plans to grow city food on large scale rooftops.  The clean system runs on solar and wind power to energize its year-around hydroponic greenhouse.  Rain water collection barrels gather water for the crops.

This company corrects several big problems in our current food system:  It brings fresh produce to under-served, but eager, urban communities.  It does so by shortening the miles and gallons of gasoline needed to deliver good food.  As a closed-loop system, using clean and recycled water, it does not put pesticides or toxic run-off into the area.  Add in the benefits of a green roof for the host building and its energy savings from excess solar and wind production, and we have a growing system that I believe our children will know well.

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

Lastly, SPIN-Farming is radical in its simplicity.  Take the land you have and grow on it.  SPIN-Farming operates as a franchise, largely by providing learning materials for the SPIN system.  The good news is the cost of entry is very small: $100 bucks will get you started.  In the words of one of the company’s founders, Roxanne Christensen, SPIN “removes the two big barriers to entry for new farmers – land and capital.”  Now the future looks better for the annual block potluck party, too.

Note:  All companies mentioned here were participants in the conference, Agriculture 2.0 in New York City.