Onika Abraham, dubbed one of “Mother Nature’s Daughters,” in a recent New York Times piece on the booming NYC urban agriculture movement, came to Farm School NYC as a teacher, initially. She’d been in food justice circles for some time, and knew a little about the school, about the 20 urban ag courses – ranging from botany to irrigation to animal husbandry to advocacy – that they ran each year. She knew that they hired wonderful farmers to teach those much-needed courses to a socio-economically diverse student body, and that they ran a certificate program for their most committed students.
It made perfect sense that she was pulled in a few years ago, by some of her food justice peers, to co-teach a Farm School core course called “Transformational Leadership”: an intense, retreat-style course that explores the idea of leadership as service, and marks the last time that a particular cohort of certificate students will be together, before they disperse to complete their apprenticeships around the five boroughs, and then spread out to disseminate their newly acquired urban farming expertise.
The surprise for Abraham was that the course transformed her. The students, quite simply, wowed her. She was bowled over – moved by their passion, and by the strong support network they’d formed with each other. She was sold on Farm School NYC; these were, no question, the kinds of people she wanted to work with.
“The people who are drawn to the mission of Farm School—the mission to use agriculture as a means of building communities, self-sustaining communities, communities that address inequities and social-economic and racial injustice—people who respond to that type of mission are some really incredible human beings,”says Abraham, “And that’s what really drew me in.”
So when she learned last year that the director of Farm School was leaving to pursue her lifelong dream and become a farmer, Abraham rushed to apply. “Sometimes we walk by community gardens and we think, ‘oh that looks so beautiful,’ and ‘what a lovely smell,’ and ‘isn’t that better than seeing an empty lot,’” says Abraham. “And those are important benefits of these gardens, but people who see the potential of those spaces as being places to create equitable community as well as wonderful, healthy, affordable food. I think people who are drawn to that really come prepared to work hard.”
She came prepared to work hard, too, which was a good thing, because as fate would have it, Abraham found, just a few months after taking up her new position as director, an enormous challenge sitting on her desk, staring her down. Farm School NYC had hit a rough spot, financially. A very rough spot. The U.S.D.A grant that had sustained Farm School NYC by covering nearly 90% of its budget for the first three years of its life had, to everyone’s shock and dismay, not been renewed in 2014.
The school needed to come up with another way to survive, to move ahead with the 20 courses slated for 2015, to continue to pay their teachers and farmers the same good salary as ever, and to draw up a blueprint for a completely new operating model for years to come. It was an opportunity to create a more financially sustainable business model for the school, to be sure, but a daunting one.
The good news is that that passionate community that drew Abraham in is as alive as ever – as evidenced especially by the army of volunteers who show up to do everything from enter teacher evaluation data to scout out floating classrooms around the five boroughs. After the bad news hit, some of the school’s teachers and farmers even stepped up to declare that they wanted to teach for free, this year. And though the school has had to put its certificate program on hiatus – they don’t want to accept the next class of certificate candidates until a clearer picture of the school’s future is in place – dozens of people not in the certificate program are signing up to take courses on an individual basis this year, and most of those students already on the certificate track have made the decision to keep right on with their courses of study, undeterred.
Meantime, via an emergency ioby campaign (“Save Farm School NYC!”), the school has turned to its own community and to the larger food justice community in an effort to bridge the gap, while it brushes itself off and gets back on its feet. So far, almost $11,000 of the $25,785 goal has been raised, which means that, at the very least, classes will run in 2015.
“We’re operating regardless,” says Abraham, “and we’ve reached the target that’s the absolute bare minimum target in order to operate in 2015, but we still need the funds.”
So, the rest of that $25,000, you ask. Why’s it needed? Abraham explains: “The issue becomes, what is suffering because of the cuts we have to make in order to survive? What would be suffering is really the opportunity for us to build a sustainable model for the school. Farm School has such a committed and passionate community behind it, but that is nothing to take for granted and nothing to deplete, and it’s not a sustainable way to grow the school. So I think what we’re really aiming for by naming the $25,000 target, and exceeding that target hopefully in the next year, is to build the capacity for us to be able to really think through a visioning process that can create a sustainable model for the school, for 2016 and for the years to come. That’s what I mean when I say ‘save farm school.’”
If, on the other hand, fundraising stopped right here, and the school were forced to go absolutely bare bones for 2015 – nothing but the usual 20 classes, and paying teachers – then the longer-term future of the school starts to look shaky.
One of the reasons that it’s so important to save Farm School NYC is that the school truly serves the city. All of the city. “We try really hard to reflect the demographics of New York City, and the five boroughs. We mean that geographically, racially, and socio-economically,” says Abraham. “Part of our mission is to serve those communities that are most impacted by food injustice and other types of injustice in the city, so we work hard to support people in lower income brackets.”
The school calculates tuition on a sliding scale, based on household income, the result of which is that about 50% of their students come in at the most subsidized level, or lowest income bracket. “We’re totally committed to that,” says Abraham. “We feel like people who come from these communities are going to go back to their communities and spread this work.”
As valuable as the actual learning that Farm School graduates take away is the support network they gain. One student in the very first Farm School cohort, Raphael, moved out of the city and up to Ithaca upon graduation, and now runs a goat farm. He’s in his second season; it’s hard work, but he was prepared. “He definitely went in with his eyes open,” says Abraham. “I think that having the education, the foundation and the community of Farm School was helpful for him in establishing himself up there. Having that network to help him find land and finance things I think was really helpful.”
But the staff at Farm School NYC don’t want to be prescriptive about how their graduates go on to put their educations to use. “I really want to see that people are bringing this back to community in some way,” says Abraham. “To me, that’s the most important part of what we’re trying to convey. I think that’s one of the reasons that the first class that students take in Farm School is something called Training of Trainers, and the whole point of it is that we really want to make sure that people understand that we have every expectation that they’re going to be sharing the trainings.”
Making a living in urban ag is a tough row to hoe. No two ways about that. “It’s definitely possible, but it’s hard, as a lot of labors of love are difficult,” says Abraham. All the more reason to save Farm School NYC, and support those who support our urban farmers; it’s some of the best help they get. To donate, and to learn more, click here.
Lastly, if all of this is making you want to dip your own toes into urban ag, here’s a little taste of some of the courses that’ll be on offer (and open to the general public) in 2015:
- Food Justice
- Botany – Taught by a Brooklyn Botanic Garden curator.
- Propagation – everything you ever wanted to know about SEEDS.
- Growing Soils – composting, soil science, microbes, and more.
- Irrigation – you’ll get to build an irrigation system in a community garden.
- Carpentry – Taught by a power-tool-wielding woman! And you’ll leave having built raised growing beds in an NYC community.