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After Sandy, A Community Rallies Around A Ruined Farm

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(CNN) — The vegetables I’ve been writing about this season – the invasive purslane weed, inscrutable kohlrabi and endless bushes of leafy greens – all came from Added Value, an urban farm located on the edge of Brooklyn’s Red Hook waterfront neighborhood.

By Monday night, the farm was buried under almost three feet of water. Sandy’s storm surge sent a flood of river water, mud and industrial sludge cascading through Red Hook, drowning hundreds of homes and local businesses. The farm lost its fall crops, some of its physical structures, and an estimated $10,000 to $40,000 in equipment.

Added Value isn’t your typical farm. It sits, literally, in the shadow of an Ikea, just a few meters away from a once-industrial waterfront that’s now a patchwork blend of commercial plants, artisanal food makers, boutiques, and a handful of big-box retailers.

That’s an economically fragile and sometimes uneasy mix. When the puzzle pieces connect, though, it creates unique opportunities – like Added Value.

Established to bring fresh food and youth employment to a neighborhood that desperately needed both, the 10-year-old farm focuses on education. It trains and pays area teenagers to grow crops, run a weekly farmer’s market, and help manage one of Brooklyn’s largest composting programs. On a three-acre plot that was once a dilapidated city block, the farm raises produce to sell to Red Hook’s local restaurants and to Added Value’s annual CSA subscribers.

A community-supported agriculture share is technically a gamble: You pay in advance for a stake in your farm’s annual production. In good years, you reap the bounty; in bad ones, you share in the losses.

There’s nothing like a complete wipeout to remind you of how real those risks are.

The farm will bounce back. It will take lots of effort and big chunks of money to rebuild, but New York City is rallying in the face of Sandy’s devastation. More than 100 volunteers swarmed in Saturday to clear debris and pull up the ruined crops. Soil samples are off for testing to find out what contaminants seeped in.

Whatever turns up, Added Value’s director, Ian Marvy, is optimistic that the farm can combat it – thanks in part to the lessons agricultural scientists learned from Katrina.

For examples, did you know that mushrooms eat petroleum?

“We might be a fungus farm this spring,” Ian told a group of us Saturday morning.

We’d gathered at picnic tablets at the edge of the farm to discuss its future, shivering in the wind but warmed up by bowls of donated chili, corn bread and baked ziti. Like most of Added Value’s workers and volunteers, Ian is juggling Sandy’s wreckage at both work and home – the first floor of his house got washed away. Our hastily arranged CSA meeting kicked off with a discussion of FEMA claim forms (pro tip: turns out garages don’t count as part of your “primary dwelling”) and a block-by-block rundown of which streets took the worst of the flooding.

The farm is inventorying its needs and organizing benefits and volunteer events to meet them. The local restaurants it works with – all of which were decimated by the flood – are banding together at RestoreRedHook.org. I’m planning to attend many fundraisers over the next few months.

I had notes and photos saved for a few more posts about my CSA adventures, like the week we got what looked like an entire edamame bush in our shares, or the teeny kermit eggplants that look like squashy baseballs and make excellent curry. Our season – now abruptly over – was slated to run through Thanksgiving.

I still have a few remnants from last week’s share stashed in my fridge, though. Some red peppers, a bag of turnip greens, a cluster of radishes, and as ever, one random new thing I’d never cooked with before: napa lettuce. Epicurious suggests it will be tasty in a pork and cilantro stir fry.

We’re opening up a bottle of really good red wine – a Williams Selyem pinot noir I’d been hoarding – to have with it. I’ll be toasting our farm, and hoping that come next June, it will once again be harvesting a crop of veggies to overwhelm and perplex me in the kitchen. And most of all, I’m hoping that Red Hook’s local businesses will pull through and survive the economic devastation this storm wrought.
   

By Stacy Cowley

CNN
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