Virus is changing how urban farms operate, and even what they grow

On a bright and windy weekday, the Columbia Street gates of Red Hook Farms in Brooklyn, New York, are chained and locked, its 2.75-acre lot eerily quiet. Ordinarily, a handful of staffers would be repairing and preparing garden beds, making compost, weeding, seeding cucurbits, beans, okra and flowers — “working close to, or at, full time,” says farm director Saara Nafici. “We would also have 20 youth farmers, each working about 9-12 hours per week” — for $15 an hour — “across our two farm sites.”

But today, with almost the entire staff on pause thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, a lone employee has the farm to himself as he waters seedlings of alliums, kale, collards, peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce inside a plastic-sheeted greenhouse.

Urban farms have historically been as focused on building community as they are on growing food for the hungry. But they can be cramped places — literally walled in. Urban farmers make do, often achieving per-acre yields that put their suburban and rural counterparts to shame, thanks to planting densely and to an abundance of labor willing to micromanage every square foot.

Now, however, the coronavirus is forcing urban farms to adapt, creating more space between people and even shifting the types of crops they grow. “We had wanted to plant a ton of snap peas this year,” Nafici says, “but harvest will be too labor intensive.” To conform with social-distancing rules, the farm is reducing the number of staff and youth working at a given time and spreading out its washing and packing stations. Lower staffing levels mean adding new work slots, so everyone gets their hours in and the farm work gets done. “We need to completely rethink our model of peer-to-peer learning,” Nafici says, “where more seasoned youth farmers mentor and train new youth farmers” — students who live in the surrounding neighborhood, which has both high levels of unemployment and high rates of diet-related disease.

The farm is also moving up its planting schedule in order to harvest earlier, given that the people who rely on it are now struggling more than usual to find affordable produce. To minimize contact during pickup of food boxes at the nearby Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn, staff will pack and close boxes ahead of time, rather than letting people pick the vegetables they want from stacks of crates. Instead of distributing boxes in high traffic areas of the complex, the farm’s usual strategy, staff will likely drop boxes off in building lobbies or bring them to residents’ floors. “Of course, all of these distributions are contingent on having healthy staff and safe access to the farms,” Nafici says.

Over at Brooklyn Grange, an intensively farmed 1.5-acre rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, farm managers are maintaining their distance from colleagues as they prep beds and sow greenhouse starts and seeds. Crossover between farm crews and locations — the Grange has three rooftop sites — is a thing of the past. Says Grange co-founder Anastasia Cole Plakias: “We’re also shifting gears away from restaurant crops and those with high labor requirements” — like microgreens and edible flowers — “to calorie-dense crops that are geared more toward retail accounts, like grocery stores, home delivery services, and home cooks.” The Grange recently launched a delivery option for groups of 10 or more; the farm will consider delivering those shares to a common location, like a wine shop, “so long as it is a safe spot for our team and the members.”

With farmers’ markets and restaurants closing, many urban farms are switching to this kind of community-supported-agriculture model (CSA), which guarantees a weekly supply of produce and may save their recipients trips to crowded supermarkets. But the transition can cost farms time and money as they retool their workstations, purchase and learn new computer software, sterilize vehicles and packing materials, or hire additional vehicles and labor for food deliveries.

Still, this crisis isn’t without redeeming value. Leandra King, of Food Field in Detroit, which sells fruit and vegetables through a CSA that feeds about 80 households, sees the outbreak as a teachable moment. “We shouldn’t depend on grocery stores or government resources in times of need,” she says. “Detroit has a lot of people with food stamps, but the grocery stores don’t have a lot of fresh and affordable organic food.” Her farm, like others in the City Commons CSA collective, have plenty of that food, and they accept EBT cards, too.

For David Durstewitz of Chicago’s Urban Canopy, which employs 20 to 30 people on its outdoor and indoor farms, the outbreak is a reminder that “we can’t rely on national distribution chains that can’t monitor their workers’ health.” To help his own employees, Durstewitz has asked CSA members to consider chipping into an emergency relief fund: half will subsidize food boxes for people with limited incomes; half will go toward his employees’ medical expenses and zero-interest loans for those who might exhaust their five paid sick days. (So far, no Urban Canopy employee has tested positive for Covid-19.)

“Farmers have always felt their work was essential and undervalued,” Durstewitz says. Now, with a huge uptick of interest in what farmers do and what they provide, that perception is shifting.