Urban Farming Can Teach Us Much More Than How to Grow Food

A plane passes overhead at Down Bottom Farms in Newark. Credit: Darren Tobia.

Only a half hour had passed since Ernest Lindsay set up his stand at 35 Cleveland Street in Orange and most of the bags of free produce have flown off the shelf. The HUUB’s free market, which takes place once a month in the summer, offers free produce — including lettuce, carrots, and potatoes — along with a selection of fresh herbs, such as sage, mint, and oregano.

“We found that a lot of people in the neighborhood don’t have the time or resources to purchase fruits and vegetables,” Lindsay said. “Farmers markets are the best place to get fresh produce, but sometimes people pay top dollars. So we decided to set up our own market, a free market, here.”

Bags of herbs at the open market. Credit: Darren Tobia.

But these bags of produce didn’t come from some countryside faraway, nor did they sit on the back of a truck for hours to get here. Everything was grown locally in an urban environment — at The HUUB’s own community garden and a place called Down Bottom Farms in Newark — upending our idea about where healthy food comes from.

This collaboration with Down Bottom Farm began last year when the HUUB needed help with the Ben Jones Community Garden. Daniel Joseph Wiley, the organization’s managing director who grew up in the Ironbound, reached out to an old friend at the Ironbound Community Corporation, which launched an urban agriculture program in 2019, to learn about things like soil health and water systems.

The HUUB’s garden, located at 35 Cleveland Street, was named after the city’s first black councilman. “His dedication to activating space that promotes gathering, sharing, and thriving together inspired us to create gardens that promote the same,” Wiley said.

The name is fitting because urban agriculture isn’t just about growing food. It is intricately entwined with ideas about social justice, as well as self worth, according to Christian Rodriguez, Wiley’s friend and the manager at Down Bottom Farms.

Rodriguez’s farm is located at the eastern side of Ferry Street, where the Ironbound’s shops and restaurants give way to chemical storage silos. The Passaic River, the nation’s most polluted waterway, is only a few blocks north. Every two minutes, a commercial airliner passes overhead, rattling the tables and making it difficult to hear. This is the last place you would expect a farm — but that is point.

One of the farm’s missions is to change the way Newarkers think about their surroundings. Growing up in a city, residents are conditioned to think the plants that grow naturally in their environment are weeds. It seems that the only plants worthy of consuming are the ones found in supermarkets. The only medicines worthy of ingesting are the ones sold at the pharmacy. But that isn’t so, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who grew up in the Ironbound, had a grandmother who used to forage mint and chamomile. “We used to go to that church over there,” said Rodriguez, pointing to the spire of St. Aloysius poking up around the local factories. “On the way home, she would pull plants from the ground to make tea.”

As a child, Rodriguez was not adventurous enough to drink these homemade brews. However, working on the farm for the past four years has given Rodriguez a new appreciation for passed-down wisdom.

As Rodriguez is telling that story, a woman who lives in public housing comes to the table asking for help with making a raised bed. The two set off together to another part of the farm where the lumber and tools are kept. The daily chores at Down Bottom also include assisting community members who wish to start their own gardens. In a place like the Ironbound, which has a legacy of toxic dumping, raised beds are recommended.

“I’d rather grow in the ground,” said Shannel Paulino, Rodriguez’s colleague. “But we have to grow like this because a lot of the land is contaminated.”

Along with Al-Munir Farms and Rabbit Hole Farm, Down Bottom Farms is one three farms in Newark. (Another, Aerofarms, filed bankruptcy this year). All three farms managed to turn undesirable, overgrown lots into a place of natural beauty, but there is something especially audacious about putting a farm in the Ironbound.

“People say this is a wasteland,” Paulino said. “But we’ve transformed a wasteland into a beautiful oasis, and we’re improving the health of the people who live here.”

Today at the Ben Jones Community Garden, visitors can find apples, strawberries, and cabbage growing in raised beds with the help of wisdom shared by the farmers at Down Bottom. The harvest will be gifted at the next open market on July 19 and August 23, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

One of the best things about the open market is it becomes a way to meet people living in the neighborhood. At last month’s open market, Daniel Collins and Eugenia Hurt, both Orange residents, stopped by together to see Lindsay’s selection and complimented the herbs that Paulino had prepared and had written their health benefits on the front of brown paper bags. The closest place that offers fresh herbs, they said, is more than three miles away,

“I’m getting into herbs,” Hurt said. “I’ve heard turmeric is good for inflammation.”

Both Collins and Hurt said they’re trying to eat healthy, but find a lot of foods on supermarket shelves aren’t as nutritious as they appear to be. They’d rather eat produce from a local farm.

“You’ve got to read the labels,” Hurt said. “You know that saying, all that glitters isn’t gold?”

The HUUB is having its annual fundraising campaign. Donating to the HUUB helps support the Orange Press.

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