INTERVIEW: Michael Grady Robertson of Queens County Farm Museum!
all images from queensfarm.org
Last month, The New York Times featured the work of Michael Grady Robertson, the Agricultural Director at Queens County Farm Museum. Historically, the 47-acre farm has remained the largest “undisturbed” farmland in the city limits since 1697.
Robertson joined the Farm Museum a year ago. Since then, the treasured land has seen many positive changes, most notably a proliferation of crop production and variety. So much, in fact, that he now brings the bountiful surplus to the weekly Union Square Greenmarket, bringing New York City-dwellers fresh heirloom veggies and pasture-fed pork cutlets!
The promise of warmer weather and more fertile soil that Springtime inevitably brings is peaking my interest in small-scale farming and gardening. The connections that historic farms, such as Queens County Farm Museum, have to both the land and the citizenry of the local community seem to grow more important each passing day, as global woes of political strife and financial wrangling only augment the deep death sigh of the nameless, faceless economic colossus.
That being said, I will wrap up my soapboxing on local economies by saying without hesitation: Thank god for people like Michael Grady Robertson. For the good work and positive change he creates in the world. And also for answering my enthusiastically detailed questions about how to grow every living thing. Read on…
Give a brief introduction…Where are you are from (geographically and life-wise)? How would you describe your current career?
I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City, MO and studied philosophy at Boston University. I have worked on farms in Texas, Spain, and upstate New York. I am the Agricultural Director at Queens County Farm Museum. My main role is to develop holistic, sustainable agricultural program for the farm.
How did you come to be involved with the Queens County Farm Museum? Do you have a background in agriculture?
I was working at Hawthorne Valley Farm when I heard of the Queens County Farm Museum, a 47 acre farm with livestock in New York City. I visited the farm in December of 2007 and inquired about a job opening. The management was just beginning the search for a farmer so the timing worked out really well. My background is working on organic and biodynamic farms since 2004.
Is this considered more of a traditional farm in an urban setting, or an example of an contemporary urban farming initiative? In your opinion, how are these two ideas similar or different?
The traditional and the contemporary are very closely aligned in terms of values—stewardship and sustainability. So I try to address the historical directly through heritage breeds and heirloom vegetables while embracing the ancestral spirit of family farms through farm practices.
What changes or new initiatives have you made at The Museum during your time there?
Selling at the Greenmarket, increasing land use for productive crops, a comprehensive composting program, and livestock management are the new initiatives.
What livestock do you raise, and how are they procured originally?
So far we’ve been buying in animals from other farms; the goal is to breed our own animals—chickens, goats, sheep and pigs.
Do you butcher and cook on premises? To what extent are your crops planned with the culinary community in mind?
We do not butcher on premises; we have a commercial kitchen and host dinners on the farm.
What is the most unique product raised at the farm, and why?
We froze a bunch of heirloom tomatoes last year, that was a great sales item at the Greenmarket. And we grow year round greens in unheated cold frames.
In your opinion, what has been the greatest challenge and what has been the greatest success (crop, program, etc.) at the museum so far?
Last year my fall crops didn’t fare as well because we had an early frost and some marginally productive fields. But the summer crops were terrific—tomatoes grow prolifically here. We’re growing on some better soil with better light this year and I expect a bounty of goods all year round.
What is your criteria for selection of distributors, stores, and restaurants that receive your food…or do they find you?
I try to work with folks who are friendly and nice, who are as concerned with their relationships as the bottom line and who share some of our values about supporting local agriculture and food traditions.
How many people are on staff? What are some of the tasks that your staff performs?
Our staff is really amazing. Kennon Kay is my vegetable field manager. She also now tends the greenhouse and cold frames. We’ll have three farm apprentices this year. Sixto and I manage the livestock. We have an operations crew that does as much agricultural work as anybody. They are much more proficient on the tractors than I am.
When you educate others how to do certain types work done on your farm, are New Yorkers actually able to implement them in their property the city? (example – the upcoming Rabbit Raising Workshop, etc.)
I don’t know the rules of rabbit raising—I hope that there will be some changes to raising livestock in the city. General farm practices are the same anywhere and rural farming can really guide smart urban farm planning. So even if we’re larger than most, I think much of what we teach and practice can be reproduced at any scale.
Could you explain some of these techniques?
Passively-heated cold frames: Small concrete boxes with plastic lids that are heated by the sun and can keep hearty greens alive throughout the winter.
Crop rotation: Crop families take different nutrients out of the soil and attract different pests. Soil nutrient levels can be balanced and replenished through rotating blocks of plants in the same family through different parts of the field every year.
Timed planting: Knowing when and where you’re likely to have pest attacks can help determine whether you direct seed into a field or transplant and can determine when you should start putting stuff in the field. Rather than using pesticides, simply avoiding them is much easier.
Catch crops: Planting pest-attracting crops on the perimeters of your field and permitting them to graze that area. Arugula is good for flea beetles for instance.
Companion planting: Some plants attract beneficial insects that will eat the troublesome pests of your productive crops.
Cover cropping: Exposed bare soil is eroded and nutrients leeched off. Cover crops can keep good soil strucutre and add organic matter when the crop is reincorporated into the soil.
Lately, so much emphasis is placed on the “art of the meal”, organic lifestyles, and knowledgeable consumption thanks to Michael Pollan and the rise of Food Network Celebrity Chefs. Do you consider what you do to be art, craft, or design? Or is this just a trend?
Farming requires knowing about a million different things at a passable level, maybe like the doctor who is a general practitioner. If its an art, it is a multimedia art. There is a science but the number of uncontrolled variables at play must drive any research-minded farmer crazy. You can design and build but you’ll be surprised what the buildings wind up being used for or what the unintended consequences of your design might be.
What plants/crops/livestock do you raise in your own home?
I have a fig tree in my loft space in Brooklyn. I usually forget to water it.
Thank you again to Mr. Robertson. Queens County Farm will celebrate Spring with a May Day Dinner and workshop on May 1. I am excited to plan a visit very soon to see agriculture in action!