In the busy heart of Midtown Kingston scarcely a block off Broadway lies an improbable patch of verdancy: a working farm covering a third of an acre. Tucked out of sight where Summer and Susan streets intersect behind the YMCA parking lot, across from the rear entrance to River Radiology, bordered on one side by railroad tracks and another by the Kingston Model Railroad Club, the Kingston YMCA Farm Project grows more than 5000 pounds of fresh produce a year. In the garden’s seventh annual growing season, the pandemic hasn’t put a dent in the labors of the local teens who “plant, tend, weed, harvest and sell the food,” according to education director Susan Hereth.
If anything, farm staff and volunteers have been busier since the pandemic struck. They were among the partnership of community groups which sprang into action to provide meals to families as soon as the city schools were closed in March, under the aegis of the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative. They delivered thousands of meals and ingredients to quarantined families, and the canopied tables at the Y’s back entrance that normally host the project’s twice-weekly farmstand became the main free-food pickup point for those needy Kingstonians who could still get out and about.
That effort has wound down. More businesses are reopening, and the usual summer visits from Camp Starfish tots aren’t happening this year. The farm project continues to hire teams of local high schoolers to work six-week sessions in the fields and greenhouse, with an option to renew if they find that agricultural work suits them. “Usually, by the end of six weeks, we know if they want to be here,” says Hereth. “They’re all from the City of Kingston. The great thing is, most of them can walk here from where they live.”
A growing environment
The paid work expands the skillsets of the youth who get involved. Isaiah Pacheco, 16, wants to become a building contractor. He has been learning to use power tools as part of the Beautifying and Restoring Kingston (BARK) team, which has constructed and planted more than 30 raised garden beds for free in the backyards of Midtown residents, enabling them to grow some of their own food.
Estefany Vargas, 16, aspires to become an art teacher. Often called in to translate for Spanish-speaking customers at the Y farmstands, she has found herself educating purchasers in the culinary uses of unfamiliar vegetables as well.
On staff for more than a year now, Vargas finds herself missing the children who used to come to tour the farm on elementary school or day-camp field trips in pre-pandemic times: “We want to teach kids to get their hands dirty … to see where your food comes from.” This summer, there are only virtual field trips, so she leads a press tour of the farm beds instead, pointing out various crops in different stages of growth, harvest and transplanting.
By late August, strawberries are no longer producing, and bush beans are winding down. But new rows are being prepared for a fall harvest of arugula. A couple of young employees with a garden cart are helping project director KayCee Wimbish set out seedlings of romaine and oakleaf lettuce from the greenhouse as we pass by.
At the entrance to the main field are a small bed of sweet corn and dense plantings of herbs. Inside, rows of squash, tomatoes, chard, kale, bok choi, collards and eggplant stretch into the distance, divided into a grid by flat lengths of drip-irrigation hose. Beds of flowers for cutting and drying are scattered about everywhere. Clouds of busy honeybees dance upon clumps of lavender. Tall bursts of bright sunflowers punctuate the fields. Myriad types of peppers are ripening: both sweet and hot, including jalapeños, serranos, chile de árbol, buena mulata. There’s even have a designated pepper expert on staff, 15-year-old Alexander Rios, to judge where a crop’s heat level falls on the Scoville Scale.
Lots of teachable moments
Near the rear are some specialized areas and experimental plantings, including an African diaspora garden featuring crops unfamiliar to most Northern gardeners: sesame, okra, amaranth a/k/a callaloo and more. “It’s our first time ever growing peanuts,” Vargas says, indicating a flourishing raised bed.
Other rarities include ground cherries and cucamelons. A nearby post supports a small beehive, one of several scattered throughout the grounds to provide homes for pollinators.
There’s even a hive in the children’s garden, where visiting kids get to do their own planting. “We have lots of flowers, lots of bees. The kids would be scared of them at first,” says Vargas. Mini-pumpkins trained on a trellis dangle whimsically from an arching arbor. Zucchini vines sprawl unchecked across the wood-chip footpaths, asserting their brief seasonal empire.
Next to the children’s garden are community garden plots that neighbors can rent for $30 a year to grow their own food and flowers. On the other side of the project, we visit the greenhouse with germination box and heating mats, a potting area with sinks, and a social area with benches and picnic tables where workers gather to get their assignments, eat lunch, take workshops. Last year a visiting chef did cooking demos, but that’s on hold for now.
Though the summer of 2020 has been mostly hot and dry, there are times when bad weather forces the crew to find other things to do. “We work through the rain if we really have to, like if we’re harvesting for the farmstand,” notes Vargas.
To Hereth, rainy days are teachable moments, and the subject matter isn’t limited to soil types, composting techniques, integrated pest management and the like. Getting teenaged employees to think about their roles as part of a community is part of the youth development program. The students take on environmental and social-justice projects as well as feeding their neighbors in an urban “food desert.”
“The farm is a vehicle for engagement and change,” explains Wimbish.
In 2018, some of the young farmers got involved with the community planning and design process for the public playground that’s being constructed this fall next door to the YMCA. “The teens loved having a voice,” Hereth recalls.
For the past year and a half, they’ve been taking an active part in the efforts by the Harambee organization and the Kingston Land Trust to preserve the African Burial Ground rediscovered in a Midtown backyard. This process required a team of high schoolers to learn historical research skills, meet with architects and planners, brainstorm design ideas and do a series of presentations to adults, with the goal of creating a public space that would honor the anonymous people interred there while educating visitors and providing a place for reflection.
Life-affirming political art
“They did their last presentation the day before Covid shut the world down,” Hereth says proudly. “Everybody was blown away. It was broadcast live on Radio Kingston, and there’s a documentary film being made about them.”
Recent civil unrest has also been a strong motivator. “This summer, when George Floyd was murdered, and Breonna Taylor, the kids were horrified and wanted to do something.” As a group, they read and discussed Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s book on “how America was built on racism,” Stamped: The Remix Edition. They began journaling, wrote an anti-racist statement together, wrote letters to the city’s school board asking for the removal of school resource officers, and met with Kingston mayor Steve Noble and police chief Gid Tinti.
The team got involved with the national Say Their Names Project. With the mayor’s permission, they painted a clenched fist and a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote on a utility box in a high-visibility intersection. In early August they decorated the fence outside the farm’s main entrance with hundreds of photos and names of black Americans killed by the police or white supremacists.
Some of the victims depicted are famous, going back to Medgar Evers and the four choirgirls who died in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. Some have been in the news quite a lot recently, but many are names most of us have never heard. One sad small sign lists ten brand-new names: people murdered since June 2020, their likenesses not yet available. Passersby are invited to take a flower from a bunch cut from the garden and thread it through the fence to honor the memory of the lost.
Be sure to look at this youth-driven installation of life-affirming political art next time you visit the back of the YMCA to purchase produce from the farmstand, which is open from 3:30 to 6 p.m. on Thursdays through October 29. It’s set up right on the sidewalk on Pine Grove Avenue from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through September 10. There’s also a biweekly farmstand at the Institute for Family Health’s family health center at 1 Family Practice Drive, open every other Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. through October 21. SNAP and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program checks are accepted, in addition to cash, checks and credit cards.