Q & A with Nora Painten: A New Farm Grows in Brooklyn - at  PS 323 in Brownsville 

As part of FSNYC's FoodActionNYC project, this is the first of a series of articles focused on real people taking action for real food change in our communities.

by Ed Yowell

Nora Painten is a veteran urban farmer, about two years, anyway.  She has been the farmer at the Slow Food NYC supported Ujima Garden in East New York, Brooklyn.  During the summers, about 100 local kids work together to plant, tend, and harvest and learn about healthy food, preparing lunches and enjoying them together. This spring, Nora is digging again, building an off-site school garden for PS 323 located on nearby Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) property. Nora and I chatted about her farms.

Ed Yowell: How did you become an urban farmer?
Nora Painten: I became an urban farmer because I was a rural farmer who wanted to live in Brooklyn, but keep farming. So I had to look for farms here that needed help and/or create projects here for myself.

EY:  It's really hard work;  what motivates you?
NP:  Well the hardest part is really project funding and trying to make a living from it.  The rest is sort of already ingrained in me, like in terms of timing, plant care, harvesting.  It's the administrative, logistical work and the financial requirements of starting a new farm that is the most trying.  The motivation comes form the anticipation of great results. The food, the beauty, the interaction with people.
EY:  How does urban farming with students at the Slow Food NYC Urban Harvest Ujima Garden in Brooklyn impact them, their families, and their neighborhood?
NP:  Ujima Garden has had a really positive impact on the neighborhood. People are constantly stopping by to spend time in the garden, pick up some herbs for their cooking, and just spend time talking about plants with me and other folks tending the garden.  Our summer students are so enthusiastic about being in the garden.  They learn so much and really enjoy the meals we make together.

EY: Where is the Ujima garden? Where will the new PS 323 garden be? How big are they?
NP: Ujima Garden is in East New York and is around 3,000 ft2.  The garden at PS 323 is in Brownsville, which is right next to East New York. It is 7,500 ft2 and only about a half a block from the school itself.  Judging by the amount of food we grew at Ujima last year I expect that we will have quite a bounty at the farm at PS 323 (if we ever finish our bed construction).

EY:  What are the goals of your new project with  PS 323 in Brooklyn? 
NP:  I want to make a space where kids can engage in firsthand growing experience as a part of their core education.  A lot of education about basic health, food and cooking skills has been completely taken out of our public schools and as a result many people enter young adulthood not knowing how to properly nourish themselves and maintain a certain level of health through food. In our partnership with principal Linda Harris we have emphasized integrating the garden into teachers' school year curriculums so that students are experiencing food education through the lessons of their primary curriculum.  Another goal of the project is to open up a new green space for the community.  When the garden is not in use by the school, it will be open to neighborhood residents to enjoy.  We hope it generally brightens up the area.
EY:   What best practices from Ujima will be brought to the new project?
NP:   Ujima has taught me a lot about setting up a mentor system - a model I will definitely be replicating at 323. The new project will at least initially not include a cooking component which is such a central part of the Ujima program. But we will use a lot of activities and curriculum developed at Ujima.

EY:  The PS 323 garden is off-site on Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) property, how did you get that to happen?
NP:  I was initially attracted to the lot because it was a nice size and on a sunny well -traveled corner.  I looked up the property owner on OASIS*, found that it was HPD, and got in touch with them. They were very supportive, put me in touch with Green Thumb and Grow NYC who walked me through the process of registering the site as a school garden.
*OASIS (Open Accessible Space Information System) is a geographical information system maintained by the City University of New York (CUNY).  OASIS will be part of the FoodActionNYC (FANYC) program being developed by The Food Systems Network to help communities develop solutions to their food system challenges.

EY:  Tell me about your agreement with HPD and how was it working with them?
NP:  HPD has been very easy to work with. We have a usage agreement that will be renewed every year. they have been very supportive and have liaised with us through Green Thumb.  

EY: Tell me about how the garden will be managed, who will be involved and how?
NP:  The garden will primarily be managed by myself my advisers and the garden committee I formed at the school which includes the principal, assistant principal some teachers and the schools head custodian.

EY: Are you a not-for-profit, is there a board?
NP:  I have just formed a non-profit called Student Farm Project.  There is a 3 person board of directors and we hope to bring this model to other vacant lots and schools in the future.  I would like to primarily keep my work in Brownsville and East New York just for convenience sake and because of the extremely positive experiences I have had working in these communities so far. And because there are lot of large vacant lots!

EY:  How did you obtain funding to start the PS 323 garden?
NP:  The first bit of funding we got for the project was from the Slow Food NYC Urban Harvest program.  That gave us the confidence to go for more.  We ran a Kickstarter* campaign through which we raised the rest of the money (about 19,000) to get us started.  Our costs are high because our space is big and we are constructing lots of raised beds and an outdoor pavillion.
EY:  What advice do you have for a start-up garden? What should they do...and not do.?
NP:   DOs and DON'Ts for new gardens really depend on the size, the experience of the people running it and the general purpose of the garden.  Do: get your soil tested, be prepared with a pest combat plan.  Don't: try to grow too many things or be upset if something doesn't grow well. Sunlight is one of the biggest limiting factors for garden health.  Make sure your site is plenty sunny and even consider heavily pruning back surrounding trees to let in more light.