With beehives, chicken coops, and rooftop farms popping up all over Brooklyn, it's high time us city folks revived that end of summer ritual, the county fair. After all, the county of Brooklyn -- Kings County, to be precise -- is a hotbed of horticultural happenings. Why should blue ribbon pies, pickles and produce be limited to rural regions when we're growing great stuff and baking up a storm right here in our neck of the not-so-woodsy woods?
Just in time for the harvest, Derek Denckla, an eco-preneur and champion of urban ag, has addressed this void by collaborating with Crossing the Line, a multi-disciplinary arts festival of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), to launch the Farm City Fair, which takes place this Sunday, September 12th from 11am to 5pm at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, NY.
The Farm City Fair kicks off a series of events over the next three weekends devoted to celebrating urban agriculture. The series, entitled Where are You Growing?, will explore "a new agrarian future within the current urban reality." Derek kindly took time out from gearing up for Sunday's extravaganza to answer my questions about the Farm City Fair via email:
KT: What inspired you to create the Farm City Fair?
DD: I started my blog, TheGreenest.Net, looking for best practices in urban agriculture in an effort to find projects that could grow a more sustainable food system. For me, urban agriculture provides a catalyst for fixing environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture -- perpetuated by the consumers most disconnected from the source of their food: urbanites! I am a green entrepreneur, so I began my research looking to select a few model projects for potential investment.
The results of my research for TheGreenest.Net, however, really startled me. Urban agriculture is a field that is literally being created as we speak -- in different ways, in different places all over the world. There is tremendous diversity, intense energy and amazing creativity being pumped into urban agricultural experiments right now. And Brooklyn, NY seems to nurture the highest concentration of different approaches to urban agriculture.
Urban agriculture is not any one thing right now. Urban agriculture is a mass of inspirational notions and innovative projects swirling into an energetic cloud, the shape of which no one person can see or understand completely. I felt that there was no way that I could write about it all on my blog or in a book. Every day, a new urban agriculture project cropped up that seemed worthy of note and investigation.
However, I felt strongly that people who cared to move urban agriculture beyond dabbling and dalliance needed a place to gather and share knowledge, network and celebrate their multitudinous imaginations. I work in the arts, so I also couldn't help noticing that a lot of artists were engaged in urban agriculture -- either directly through their work or indirectly as something of great personal interest. Artists provide a vision that transforms our understanding of our world. That is why artists are crucial to shaping the future of urban agriculture at a point when new ideas are the lifeblood of its meaningful evolution.
FarmCity.US was born slowly and organically from the idea that this budding moment in the development of urban agriculture requires a shared future. FarmCity.US seeks to connect urban agrarians and artists where they are working now. The diversity of our approach to programming FarmCity.US reflects our evolving to enhance urban agriculture in its current state: excited, spirited and forging forward but not quite certain of where it will lead.
From that vantage point, FarmCity.US does not seek to lead or to follow but to arrange multiple modes of connectivity that will allow urban agriculture and its ardent supporters to become more visible, vocal and thus viable as a network building pathways to a greener tomorrow.
KT: Has Brooklyn ever held its own county fair before?
DD: Well, there was an event this year in May that called itself "Kings County Fair." Poignantly, the event had nothing to do with agriculture and, more importantly, it had no relation to anything particular about the County of Kings, providing only some generic rides from Coney Island at Floyd Bennett Field.
According to the New York Times, the first Kings County Fair was held on October 11, 1870 at Prospect Park "Fair Ground." At that time, Brooklyn was the "nation's biggest producer of vegetables after neighboring Queens County" according to the info-rich tome "Of Cabbages and Kings County" by Marc Linder and Lawrence Zacharias.
I would guess that the last true Kings County Fair was held sometime in the 1920s. Brooklyn's farm land basically disappeared after a sustained 20-year housing boom from 1890 to 1910 that urbanized the borough into the familiar form we know today. By the 1950s, there were no more active farms in Kings County, even in hold-out areas like East New York. Ironically, East New York is now home to a large number of thriving urban farms again.
KT: How did the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) become a partner?
DD: I was involved in creating art spaces that hosted Crossing the Line in its first years getting off the ground as a festival. I met Crossing the Line curators, Lili Chopra and Simon Dove, to discuss future potential space collaborations. While we were hanging out, we discussed my new work on urban agriculture and TheGreenest.Net.
A few weeks later, they both contacted me out-of-the-blue and asked me if I would be interested in working with them to conceptualize an event that would celebrate and explore urban agriculture. Little did we all know then that this seed of interest would grow into FarmCity.US with four different events in Crossing the Line! FIAF provided myself, Lili and Simon with tremendous latitude to imagine the most impactful and meaningful way to develop FarmCity.US, both artisitically and politically. The resulting support has launched an aspect of my urban agriculture project that I would not have been able to realize otherwise.
KT: GreenThumb is sponsoring the Farm City Fair's Harvest Competition to award blue ribbons to locally grown produce by community gardeners and rooftop farmers. Any chance that future Farm City Fairs might extend the competition to pies, livestock judging, crafts, and other county fair staples?
DD: Go-olly! I am glad that you asked that. Well, we got some of what you asked about covered already. If you look at the Greenthumb guidelines , you'll see that we've got pies, some crafts, flowers, and baskets and such. Initially, we wanted the Premium Blue Ribbon Competition to have all the categories that you would see at a county fair, including livestock. We even made some good contacts with the Farm Bureau upstate to discuss how to do it. I think we'll try it next year, it was just a bit too complex this time around.
We also want to add other categories that honor the unique practices available to urban farming, like honey, eggs and mushrooms! So there is a lot to look forward to next time around. All you potential volunteers out there, listen up!
KT: What are you hoping folks will take away from this day-long celebration of urban agriculture, aside from the sure-to-be tasty memories of lovingly prepared, locally produced foods and the visual feasts our local artists are creating?
DD: We devised all of these different entry points for FarmCity.US so that we can connect with people based on their interests. There is something for everyone at the Fair: the Films, the Tours and Forum. We created FarmCity.US as a way to enhance the urban farming community and provide a plethora of interventions for a highly interested public.
We hope to engage the public in a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of urban agriculture and help move them to see their role in changing the food system. For instance, we conceived of Farm City Fair to present a broad range of activities that encourage participants to move toward being active producers rather than passive consumers. Obviously, the most active producer would be the farmer, growing food. When you see that the farmer is a guy or a gal--like you--working down the street from you, growing food does not seem so remote or impossible and you might try something new yourself. Now, you may not be a farmer-type. But, you could eat more seasonally by canning and pickling--we will host a workshop on that topic. You could learn to cook something new, like Callaloo, that you may have never heard of before. You can show off your home-cooked talents in a Cook-Off. You can bring your home-grown harvest to see if it's up to snuff.
And, at the very least, you can eat food that has been made or grown in the borough and meet the growers and makers and chefs face-to-face. As Wendell Berry says, "Eating is an Agricultural Act." So it's not just the farming we wanted to promote. FarmCity.US provides a continuum of interventions that could help alter the imbalances and flaws in our current industrial food system.
More info on the Farm City Fair and the rest of the Where Are You Growing? series of events can be found here.