Grown in Staten
On a rainy afternoon this October, near the end of the farm season, I found Gus Jones hunched over the front of his blue Dodge pickup, the dents and dings in the truck’s panels hinting at a life of heavy use—a workhorse for the farmer. Jones, 35, the manager of Snug Harbor Heritage Farm, operates a farm stand a world removed from places like the Union Square Greenmarket, with its celebrity clientele and winding lines for $12-a-pound mushrooms. Although, really, it’s not that far away: Take the Staten Island Ferry to St. George station and hop the S40 bus toward Port Richmond. Five minutes later, you’ll arrive at Snug Harbor Cultural Center, a nonprofit arts and education facility that boasts historical and contemporary exhibits by the city’s artisan community. My first reaction to the nineteenth-century campus, lined with gravel paths and Greek-revival cottages that look to be plucked from fiction, was one filled with disbelief—‘This cannot be New York City.’ Travel time from Union Square: less than an hour.
Jones, who has blue eyes and speaks in a low sheepish growl, is on a mission to make Staten Island synonymous with organic farming, and to compel New Yorkers to think of squash, cabbage and heirloom tomatoes instead of Fresh Kills landfill and mountains of trash whenever they envision the snubbed borough. Mention organic farming to Jones and his sheepishness is replaced by jubilant and passionate fervor. But Heritage Farm has received none of the media love that has been lavished on the hip, highly-publicized urban farms of Brooklyn and Queens. And in sharp contrast to the popular community gardens of Manhattan, with their years-long waiting lists, Jones spends long, grueling days tending Heritage Farm’s two acres of crops on his tractor—often singlehandedly. He had a crew of volunteers this summer, but few remained when I visited the farm early in the fall—which makes it all the more remarkable that Jones’ acreage comprises the largest-production farm in New York City, growing about 20,000 pounds of produce a year.
“We have a lot to do in the field, and it’s just hard to manage every day,” said Jones, undeterred by a light autumn drizzle as he shifted the starter under the hood of his pickup that needed repair. He was getting ready to run Heritage Farm’s fruit and vegetable stand early that coming Tuesday, when his plot would be abuzz with customers surveying cabbages the size of soccer balls, basil that looked like lush elephant ears, and healthy heaps of squash, tomatoes, peppers, and their edible allies—all of it planted by Jones, who joined the Snug Harbor staff less than a year ago. “There’s a lot to do with a two-acre farm when you’re just one person,” he admitted wearily, with a muffled sigh.
* * *
When Jones was young, he loved trucks. His father was a highway maintainer in Winnebago County, Ill., near the Wisconsin border, tasked with operating all manner of heavy-duty equipment, from asphalt trucks to mowing machines and salt spreaders. When it was snowy, the elder Jones would wake his son at ten o’clock at night and take him out on a plowing job. Between then and two in the morning, Jones would sit in the cab and watch the snow part to the sides of the highway, leaving slick black pavement in its wake. “When you’re a young kid,” Jones remembers, “it was pretty exciting.”
When he was 18, Jones joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, and for the next three years powered a bucket and worked on power lines for the local electrical company. But the gig ended abruptly, when Jones hit an underground line that supplied Internet connectivity to ATM machines in the two southern Illinois towns in which he worked. “It wasn’t my fault, you know?” Jones says. “I was just following the [guide] line” that a coworker had painted. Jones was promptly fired.
Around the same time, a friend needed a ride out west. So Jones, craving adventure, scrounged together the money he had saved over the past few years, threw a futon in the back of his truck, and left for California; he would spend the next several years in Hayward, a former food canning town in the Bay Area.
Trucking, ironically enough, is what led Jones to the world of organic food. He landed a job at Veritable Vegetable, the largest wholesale distributor of organic food on the West Coast. Each morning at 4 a.m., Jones would clock in, wrap pallets of food, load his tractor-trailer and head out on his rounds. He’d deliver fruits and vegetables to various health food stores, and then, on his way back, haul produce from farms across the state.
“I met a lot of organic farmers in California,” he says of his daily travels through the fertile fields of the Golden State. “I quickly realized I’d rather be a farmer than a truck driver.” Jones’ love for the outdoors, paired with a penchant for eating healthful foods, made the career change an obvious one. Farming, in addition to trucking, was in his blood, after all. For seven years during the early ’90s a great-uncle of his had grown crops on Jones’ grandmother’s land in Illinois, three hours south of where Jones grew up. The great-uncle had also operated a roadside stand selling tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, potatoes and squash—although Jones’ own experience with farming was at that point limited to pickup and delivery.
Three years after getting behind the wheel for Veritable Vegetable, Jones moved back to Illinois to begin farming his grandmother’s backyard—the same one-acre plot his great-uncle had once plowed—where he lived for six years, selling his goods at the Springfield Farmers Market. Jones brought with him the steadfastness of the farmers he met in California, as well as a dedication to organic food and sustainable agriculture—something that had gained root during his Midwest upbringing. “I never grew up having pesticides used rampant in my family, so I’ve been organic from day one,” he says proudly. “I knew it was going to be green.”
During the off-season, when he wasn’t able to farm, Jones searched for work. On bike rides he passed the large, red brick mansion that housed Incredibly Delicious, a bakery in the old Aristocracy Hill neighborhood of Springfield. He had met the owner at the farmers market during a previous summer, when he had purchased a few of Jones’ tomatoes. Now, Jones longed to be inside that big red building. He applied for a position as a baker and began work during the cold Illinois winters. “It was a neat old brick mansion,” he remembers. “I wanted to work there. It was nice and warm, and I could learn to bake bread.”
At the end of one winter season, when Jones had to quit the bakery job before heading back to the field for crop season, an application came in for his position. The woman, Aleta Lanier, who was studying to earn her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Southern Illinois, was given the job; two days later, Jones asked her out. They had dated for two years before Lanier left for New York to pursue a career in mixed media art. Jones, meanwhile, returned to California to earn a certificate in ecological horticulture from the Center for Agricultural and Sustainable Food Systems at UC-Santa Cruz. But in 2010 he followed Lanier to New York—an unlikely locale for a born-and-bred trucker, and perhaps even more improbable for a newly minted farmer.
The pair eventually married and found an apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Soon after, Jones started work as a Farm Manager at EATS, a program of the Active Citizens Project, which runs community-operated farms in low-income neighborhoods like Brownsville, East New York and West Harlem. Some are on rooftops, others in empty lots. The point of such a satellite farm is to produce in segmented urban areas what would normally be farmed on a single rural plot. The produce is then sold to area restaurants and at stands in Brooklyn and Queens.
But Jones found the job with EATS tiresome; traveling between each site took its toll. He’d unload compost delivered by the Department of Sanitation and spread it out at these gardens one by one. The organic farming excited him, but he couldn’t stand spending his days stuck in New York traffic. Moving to the city had been his wife’s idea—Jones just wanted to farm.
One day, during a delivery, he learned that compost was increasingly heading out to Snug Harbor, a nineteenth-century retired sailors home along Staten Island’s north shore. Now an 83-acre cultural center comprising botanical gardens, art exhibits and children and maritime museums, Snug Harbor needed someone to work on the land it had begun harvesting. At the time, the build-a-farm plan was on the slow track; the center had just sought initial consultation.
When Jones finally visited Snug Harbor last year, its large, cluttered and tree-ridden back lot was filled with trash: sinks, cell phones, downed trees. The front lot, already planted with produce, made up for a small part of what Jones hoped to grow and so he applied for its new position of farm manager. “I handed them my resume and said, ‘I’d like to throw my hat into the ring,’” Jones says. He began work the next month.
“I spent the first nine to ten months clearing a blank slate, going through all of the debris,” Jones recalls. “It was like the dumping ground for the last fifty years for this property.” Yet, with all the space, he soon realized there was room for a bigger farm than the one Snug Harbor had envisioned. “The front field was already cover-cropped,” he says, using the term to describe planting a crop to manage soil fertility, “and we were hitting the ground running. In April and May I was getting ready to plant the tomatoes. I said ‘Wow, we can fit eight hundred tomato plants in here—what do you say?’”
* * *
From the main gate at Snug Harbor, past the adjacent processing plants and through the smog, you can see One World Trade Center looming in the distance. Just a little farther in lies Heritage Farm, now one of only two operational farms on Staten Island; the other is Decker Farm in Historic Richmond Town.
There’s a slight roll in the hill where rows of squash plants line Heritage’s front field; the adjoining larger field is empty—an acknowledgment of the season’s end. Large piles of compost frame the fields in the distance. It was quiet on my first trip there, a Thursday afternoon in late October, as if the stillness of the not-too-distant Zen garden extends all the way to the fields. The rain was a mere mist, nothing like what would soon come ashore.
Snug Harbor was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy and the ensuing Nor’easter; Jones’ Heritage Farm, though, remained unscathed, and capped a year in which it produced close to 20,000 pounds of food: green kale, red bell peppers, Shishito peppers, Thai basil, summer squash, thyme, eggplant.
The farm donated about two thousand pounds this year to Project Hospitality—a nonprofit that caters to the underfed and homeless of Staten Island through outreach efforts and shelters. “We really feel it’s our way of helping,” said Snug Harbor CEO Lynn Kelly, speaking at one of the last farm stands they’d hold this season.
At the edge of Heritage Farm’s smaller plot is a cement patch sheltered by a wooden stand that was built by Boy Scout Troop 26. On any given Tuesday at the farm stand, thirty to forty people come and go but they’re not the trendy farm-to-table clientele who frequent the 14th Street Greenmarket, in Manhattan. These are organic-eating veterans, Snug Harbor’s artists and sculptors—not the hipster type—clad in heavy-duty work boots and thick, grizzly beards. They have questions galore—but not about where or how the food was farmed. Instead, these shoppers are concerned with how this week’s vegetables should be cooked compared to the previous crop. ‘Gus,’ they ask, ‘would this go well with a pesto sauce?’ Sure would.
“I didn’t know you were so educated,” a middle-aged woman said one Tuesday, shoving a large handful of basil into her bag. “Nor did I,” Jones replied modestly, his heartland upbringings shining through. He may have delivered organic to Staten Island by way of California, but he also brought his laid-back attitude.
Most noticeable on this mid-autumn day was a well-dressed man who stuck out among the heaps of produce and reusable shopping bags. Lee Gunasinghe patiently waited at the end of the snaking line, which was twenty-deep and growing fast. As the general manager of Blue, a Mediterranean restaurant and bar located just a block away, Gunasinghe works closely with Jones to plan the restaurant’s weekly specials. “We’ve been working with him every week. I pick some up, bring it over here and put it on display,” Gunasinghe said. “I tell my customers, ‘These are the vegetables available this week and here’s what’s coming next week.’”
Jones could do with a few more partnerships with guys like Gunasinghe. But oddly enough, it’s as though other restaurants in the area are unsure of what to do with the food Jones provides. According to Jones, many local restaurateurs have gawked at the imperfect, organic produce he sells, exclaiming, “What are we going to do with this?” or “How do we cook that?” Most chefs in the area haven’t caught on to the ‘cook seasonal’ mantra found at tonier spots in Brooklyn and Manhattan. For restaurants that are accustomed to serving the same menu year-round, working with a local farm can prove difficult. This part, Jones says, is frustrating. More and more Staten Islanders are choosing to farm from their backyards, but in general the uptake on the fresh food culture has been slow.
“Staten Island seems to be out of the loop,” one older greenmarket shopper said to Kelly, the Snug Harbor CEO, while sorting through produce near the stand’s entrance. “I don’t get it.”
For his part, Gunasinghe hopes that other restaurants follow his lead. “We know for sure it’s not coming from a farm full of pesticides,” he says. “It’s organic as you can get.” While the restaurants may be skeptical, attendance at Jones’ farm stand grew slowly but surely throughout the year, to the point where he was selling about $750 worth of produce per week at the peak, up from a low of about $350.
As more and more people filed through the farm stand on that Tuesday, one of Heritage Farm’s last markets of the year, Jones weighed and bagged freshly harvested produce and sent a few dozen people away with a smile. At one point, the influx of customers prompted a Snug Harbor staff member to call in a park ranger to help mitigate the “rather large traffic.”
When hearing that the farm stand would soon be closed for winter, one patron expressed dismay to another: “I’ve got to go to 14th Street now,” she lamented, before they both walked off, their shopping bags stuffed with peppers.
* * *
Kenneth Rosen is a writer and journalist living in New York City where he writes for Mashable. His work has appeared on The New York Times City Room blog, The Huffington Post and Savannah Morning News.
Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. She recently completed a two-month artist residency at Snug Harbor on Staten Island.