From rooftop hot peppers to wheat grass grown in the back of an old school bus, urban agriculture specialists Yolanda Gonzalez and Sam Anderson have seen it all during their time in New York City.
Members of the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Harvest New York agricultural economic development team, Gonzalez and Anderson work with more than 40 commercial vegetable growing operations and nonprofits operating community gardens, delivering educational programming and on-site technical assistance in all five boroughs. They have become a go-to resource for applied research and horticultural best practices for a wide variety of growers.
In Episode 4 of this season’s CCE “Extension Out Loud” podcast series, the specialists talk production methods, value-added products, community engagement, soil health, and the diversity of taste preferences in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Gonzalez and Anderson share their experiences with podcast hosts and CCE staff members Katie Baildon and Paul Treadwell.
From nutrition education and food sovereignty to community empowerment and workforce development, agricultural operations of all types are serving neighborhoods in a variety of ways. While their situations are often unique, there are some common challenges, including limited growing space, significant operational costs and New York’s high cost of living.
Another commonality is that most growers do not come from a commercial vegetable background and need help navigating state and federal food safety guidelines. That can mean helping them obtain certifications, comply with regulation, or just achieve a basic understanding through one-on-one consultations and introductory workshops and presentations.
“A lot of what they’ve been asking for has been production and marketing-type support,” said Anderson. “So that’s the niche that we’ve been filling.”
One trend Gonzalez and Anderson have monitored and supported is the rise of value-added products.
“[That might] be hot pepper-infused honey, or hot sauces that are made from peppers that are grown on their rooftop,” Gonzalez said. “Value-added products can be an additional revenue stream to the more traditional produce they grow.”
“Pretty much everyone seems to be growing hot peppers,” Anderson said. “And [people are growing] a lot of collard greens, okra – things that don’t necessarily make a lot of money per square foot, but they’re [grown] because it’s a mission of the farm to engage the community and grow things that the surrounding community wants.”
R.J. Anderson is writer and communications team leader with Cornell Cooperative Extension.