Kingston’s urban farms get ready to grow, teach and sell

 

Taste testers sample the crops at the YMCA Farm Project.

‘The modern man looks at nature with an eye of sympathy and love where the earlier man looked with an eye of fear and superstition. To a hasty traveler through the land, the farms and country homes all seem much alike, but to the people born and reared there, what a difference! They have read the fine print that escapes the hurried eye and that is so full of meaning.’ 

— John Burroughs, Leaf and Tendril, 1908

 

The Lenape name for the Esopus Creek was “Atharhacton,” meaning “great field.” The calcareous, rich soil alongside the Esopus River, cleared and planted with maize by the local Native Americans, drove Dutch settlers to purchase the land that would become Kingston.

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Before the discovery of bluestone brought new settlers to mine the quarries and necessitated the establishment of the Rondout river port, Kingston was primarily a self-sufficient community — most people had gardens and livestock to provide for their families. Although Ulster County farmers still work and till our soil, ranking third in the state for the production of both apples and sweet corn, it’s more of a rarity to come across the calloused hands and dirty cuticles of a grower in modern-day urbanized Kingston.

But both the South Pine Street City Farm and the Kingston YMCA Farm Project are attempting to shift locals’ focus from their grocery carts to the benefits of cultivating and eating locally grown produce.

“Coming to farming and learning how to grow my own food was the most grounding and empowering experience I’ve ever had,” said KayCee Wimbish, one of two current stewards of the local YMCA Kingston Farm Project. “It made me feel so powerful and so capable in the way that nothing else did.”

Once a vacant lot behind the Kingston-Ulster YMCA, the farm is entering its third year. With the help of Susan Hereth and three high school interns, Wimbish has already begun putting down compost and sprouting seeds in the small greenhouse situated on their third of an acre. The project, which is sustained by government grants, fundraising events and the profits from summer produce sales, was sown with the intent to educate the community. It’s become a regular activity at the Y’s summer day camp, Camp Starfish, and a learning exercise for local Scouting groups and schoolchildren.

“Especially with the younger kids, the main thing we focus on is doing actual farm work — touching the tools, the dirt, the plants … allowing them to connect to the natural world,” said Wimbish.

While a variety of ages participate in the children’s programs, their curriculums vary; younger children are taken on “tastings” to sample tomatoes and peppers and greens to forge an association with farming and their food. Eight raised beds are used by the younger kids for their crops. Older children are taught to apply their growing skills and how to work the beds and cook meals with their fresh-grown produce under the tutelage of visiting local chefs.

Not limited to children, the space is outfitted with seating space and 25 beds that serve as a community garden. For the last three summers, each bed has been claimed and seeded. The Farm Project land serves as a community park, and is open at all times.

“I created exactly what I wanted to be doing,” said Wimbish, who previously worked for a marketing firm pushing health products in Australia. “I wanted to be growing food, teaching and working with the community.”

Wimbish began her farming career as a volunteer managing the South Pine Street City Farm, a parcel of land donated to the Kingston Land Trust several years ago by the Binnewater Ice Company. Nestled between a lot of white Binnewater vans and residences, the 20 raised wooden beds and farm stand were built in 2010. A gnarled maple tree leans over the fencing, and the sprouts, asparagus and kale are already beginning to emerge. The perennial strawberries, planted by initial stewards Wimbish, Rebecca Martin and Jesica Clark, will finally be replaced this year. Local couple Trish Hawkins, a retired actress and teacher, and landscaper Joel Zenie have overseen the land since 2015.

“A small place like this, we’ll never be number one growing [produce],” said Hawkins, “but we feel like its going back in time — we want to make it as ordinary but as beautiful as we can.”

Hawkins recalls walking along South Pine Street in 2014 and noticing the plot of land. It seemed unkempt, and she wondered if anyone was still farming it. She reached out to the Kingston Land Trust, who had no one to steward the land the next year. Hawkins called it “miraculous.”

“My life was imbalanced,” said Hawkins, “now I’m exploring the other end of life at a farm, which brings me down a bit.”

According to the gardeners, their “specialty” on this plot is green vegetables — this summer, collards, mustards, kale, cabbage and chard will once again be staples at their weekly farm stands. The small quarter-acre farm, which has become almost entirely self-sufficient from the profits of its summer vegetable sales, will see significant modifications this year: new wooden fencing, berry bushes and the addition of large teddy bear sunflowers and new leafy crops like okra. Along the front of the plot, the gardeners plan to plant herbs to foster an “aromatic element” for their space. Also in store are garden-sourced meals prepared by local chefs on the plot each Friday and potential community events, including monthly yoga sessions among the plant beds with Tayne Smith.

“We are looking for volunteers to help at the farm stand once a week and help with harvesting and our continued planting,” said Hawkins. “We don’t want to split the farm up into individual plots, but we welcome people who have an interest in farming and would like to work with us on the farm and bring ideas about crops they would like to specialize in or new crops that we might grow. We are seeking volunteers to bring the perennial shade garden back to life. We are also open to [artists] who might like to help with signage, people who play an instruments, and [local groups] who would like [to utilize the space for] an outdoor meeting.”

Wimbish also calls on the help of community members for her project, and will be hosting “community work days” on April 21 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and on April 22 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Volunteers will put down compost and woodchips and help with initial planting practices.

The South Pine Street City Farm will formally open on May 31 — from that point on, the farmers will man a farm stand on the property on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 3-7 p.m. for the remainder of the summer.

While the YMCA Farm Project will sell some of its produce in their lobby on Thursdays from 3:30 p.m.-6 p.m. starting in June, Wimbish will cart most of it to populated areas of Kingston in a small trailer behind her bicycle, which she calls the “Mobile Market.”

“A big part of our mission is making local produce more accessible to people,” said Wimbish. “[That’s] why we go to populated places.”

Each Tuesday, Wimbish will balance fruits and vegetables on her cart and pedal them to HealthAlliance Hospital and the Kingston Library; in July, her route will shift, alternating between different senior housing buildings.

To contact Wimbish regarding community work days, summer gardening programs for children and to reserve plots in the community garden, call (845) 332-2927 or email kaycee@kingstonymcafarmproject.org. To contact Trish Hawkins regarding the South Pine Street City farm, call (845) 532-0011 or email trishhawk3@gmail.com.

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