Farming the Sustainable Way: From the Mediterranean Coast to the Urban Campus
When I first entered the NYU Urban Farm Lab for my Introduction to Urban Agriculture class I was surprised by the sentimental emotions that hit me – it was a combination of feeling like things had come full circle and nostalgia. Let me explain what I mean. My paternal grandfather was a farmer like his ancestors. His farm is just outside of Neapolis, a small town on the southern most tip of the Peloponnesian Peninsula in Greece. My father grew up in Neapolis and on the farm with his eight siblings. While he had a happy childhood, he always knew that he wanted a very different life, one that would not be possible in that small town. He was just 18 years old when he left Greece for New York City. He started his new life as an undergraduate engineering student at NYU. In the end my father would only ever return to that home and farm in Greece for vacations. One of my uncles, an elder brother that my father was very close to, took over the farm after my grandfather got older and now his son is in charge. Growing up we made the pilgrimage to Greece as often as possible to visit my grandfather and our extended family.
The first time I visited my grandfather’s farm I was around 5 years old. I remember my father excitedly talking about it for months before the trip. Somewhere along the way I got the idea in my head that I was going to get my own horse when I got to the farm. I don’t think anyone necessarily gave me this impression. It just seemed at the time to be a logical conclusion. Needless to say there was no horse, not even a pony, and the farm did not look anything at all like I had expected. Southern Greece can be quite hot and dry in the summer months so things are not as green or lush as they are in the spring or somewhere with a more temperate climate. The farm was then, and is now, predominately dedicated to groves of olive trees. The olives that the farm specializes in are a small, green variety used for cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. There is also a robust vegetable garden to feed the extended family and to barter or share with the neighbors. At that time there were some animals as well: chickens for eggs and to eat, goats for milk and donkeys for transporting things (while they were the closest thing to a horse, the smell alone kept me away).
While the climate in Greenwich Village can be very different from the Mediterranean coast, there are plenty of crops at the NYU Urban Farm Lab that also grow on my family’s farm including: tomatoes, eggplants, assorted greens, basil, parsley, dill, peppers and carrots. Whenever we stayed at my grandfather’s house we would spend the mornings at the beach and return midday to these large, rustic family meals that my aunt would prepare full of the local, seasonal bounty. My uncle would bring vegetables home from the farm each day for our meals and often some meat, cheese or other item acquired from a barter trade. We would always eat in the yard at the side of the house under a trellis covered in grape vines. At these meals there was lots of extended family members, delicious food and homemade wine. I was reminded of these times at the Harvest Festival celebration at the NYU Urban Farm Lab a couple of weeks ago.
At the end of each family meal any non-meat food scraps would be collected in a bucket. As an American I found this to be a very strange practice at first. The bucket would go back to the farm and the scraps would be fed to the animals or used for compost. The farm was and is organic and self-sustaining because it is just the way things have always been done. While farming in the United States is a hugely profitable business, the emphasis on natural practices has not always been paramount in recent years. The NYU Urban Farm Lab is a proponent not only of organic and sustainable practices but also of bio-diversity and community building, just like back in Neapolis. While it may be a slow process, many farms in the United States are shifting back to this more healthful, ecological and environmentally sound approach to farming.
Here is how things truly come full circle for me. My father grew up on a farm and left for an education and career opportunities. While it was always the right decision for him, I know that feeling of nostalgia never subsided. I grew up in New York City and initially pursued a very corporate career path. When anyone in Greece asked me over the years if I thought of living there I would just laugh at the preposterous notion – that seemed a million miles from anything I had ever envisioned for myself. The irony is not lost on me that in the end I decided that Corporate America was not my path or that when I started the Food Studies Master’s Degree program this past fall I landed in a class on urban farming. So it all comes back to the farm. This time it is an Urban Farm – the perfect pairing of both worlds in my book.