How Kickstarter Helped a Farm To Grow in Brooklyn, NY
Nora Painten of Brownsville Student Farm Project is almost done building the garden beds for her kickstarter-funded teaching garden. She will begin programming this July. We caught up with her to find out more about her Kickstarter campaign and the key partnerships she formed in order to start her own student urban farm.
Edible Schoolyard Project: How did the idea for your own urban farm project come about?
Nora Painten: I was working with a garden project through Slow Food NYC in East New York last summer. I was biking around Central Brooklyn a lot and there were just so many open sunny neglected spaces in neighborhoods that really lacked parks and other green space. I come from a farming background, so my natural inclination is to want to see these spaces turned into places where food is growing. After a bit of searching around on OASIS, I found a sunny city-owned lot that was just right.
ESYP: What were the initial steps taken to start land negotiations? Who did you have to talk to and how long did the process take? Did you do it alone or with partnership help?
NP: After settling on this lot for my first farm, I had to get in touch with HPD (Housing Preservation and Development), the city agency that owns the space. This process was surprisingly quick and easy – I have a friend who used to work in city government and he was able to put me in touch with someone who works there, who in turn connected me with the right people to ask about availability of this lot. It turned out there were no plans for future development and they agreed to sign a year by year usage agreement with me. Green Thumb – our fabulous city parks team – acted as my proxy in negotiations with HPD.
The next step was to register the site as either a school garden or a community garden – the two options available to folks wanting to use city land for gardens. I chose the school option because I feel really passionately that food, nutrition, and outdoor experience should be a core component of early childhood education. There is a really great school PS/IS 323 about a block from the site and after getting the principal’s attention, they embraced the project whole-heartedly. Principal Harris and vice principal Lawrence have been instrumental in facilitating the integration of the garden program into the fabric of school life. They are also supporting us during our building process by sending us parents, students, and teachers to volunteer.
ESYP: What was the process like for starting your kickstarter campaign?
NP: The one thing I really needed to get this project off the ground was startup capital. We turned to Kickstarter because of its great reputation for getting first time projects off the ground, and because it is a really cool organization! We took some video, took some photos, wrote a compelling narrative (not too long!), thought of some fun rewards, and launched the campaign! Deciding on the amount to ask for was scary and difficult and the whole month of our campaign was full of anxiety for me, but we hit our mark. The real work was in getting the word out, letting people know about the project, and asking folks to spread the word to their networks. I think about 1/3 – 1/2 of our 282 donors were strangers. Clearly we used a lot of social media – Facebook and twitter – to get the word out. I relied on some of my more media savvy friends and family to tweet and post the project to their legions of followers. I also reached out to as many food/environment/city-greening blogs, publications, and writers and we had a lot of positive exposure from articles, blog posts, and radio appearances. In a way I got lucky because food access and food education (as well as urban farming) are really pressing issues that a lot of people are very excited about right now. My husband is also a journalist so we made a great team with media outreach.
ESYP: What is the long-term funding strategy for Brownsville Student Farm Project? What are the budgeting challenges?
NP: After the Kickstarter campaign, I decided to form a non-profit so that I can sustain the project by applying for grants from foundations and pursue other traditional methods of supporting this kind of work. We have had a few small grants trickle in but we are looking to sustain a long term relationship with supporting organizations. This project is only the beginning of a much broader, long-term goal. I want to expand the organization to develop other lots, put educational programs in place, and implement a farmer training program for students and residents of Central Brooklyn.
ESYP: Are you able to take a salary from your position as project director?
NP: All my work on this project is as a volunteer right now. I am paid for my work in another garden with Slow Food NYC and also work running nutrition programs at a high school in East New York.
ESYP: Did you create curriculum for Brownsville Urban Farm Project?
NP: I am in the process of writing a curriculum. Mostly I am focusing on getting the garden built. I started teaching lessons in the school in February to get the students thinking about the garden. I did several lessons about the different parts of a plant, their functions, and life cycle. I had a very talented co-teacher who made up some great songs for the littlest kids. Some of the older students will be joining me this summer for our Summer Stewards program which is designed to immerse them in farming and market experience.
ESYP: Are there crucial partnerships that you have created to help with the short-term or long-term success of the garden? Are there potential partnerships that would be ideal for your program's needs?
NP: There are so many crucial partnerships. First of all our friends Devin Lafo and Saranga Nakhooda of growingCities are architects who've designed the layout of the garden and are leading the construction. Then there's Build it Green in Astoria, who've donated hundreds of used scaffolding boards to the project. The New York Department of Sanitation donated over 100 cubic yards of compost that we are filling all the raised beds with. Slow Food NYC was the first organization to support us.
ESYP: What are your program's most pressing needs?
NP: We need funding, but we also need community partners and dedicated volunteers. We need help from city politicians.
ESYP: Is the garden up and running? If not, when will you begin teaching?
NP: The garden is not quite up and running. We plan to integrate it into the school curriculum in the fall but students will start visiting the garden for the summer program this July.
ESYP: What has been your most poignant moment with students you have interacted with over the course of your work experience?
NP: Through my previous experience teaching students at Ujima Garden through Slow Food NYC, I've witnessed kids really expand their understanding for they food that they eat through tending the plants that make up the component parts of their meals. When these kids are able to pick a kale leaf off of a plant – they are so much more excited about trying the green smoothies we make. For me the one thing that's become very clear is that learning to grow food is a complicated discovery process (carrots grow underground?!, pollination is how plants make babies?! photosynthesis is how a plant makes its own food and the oxygen we breathe?!) that always culminates in a desire to eat that final product. Our job is only to make that discovery seem less complicated and more fun along the way.
ESYP: What is the physical vision for the garden? What are you starting with and how would you like to see it grow?
NP: We started with a vacant, weed-filled lot. We are halfway through construction on our 20 raised beds – these beds have a really cool design. They are all different heights, and have attached benches so people can sit and enjoy the garden and smaller kids can stand on the benches to see what's going on in some of our taller beds. We will put in a 3-bin compost system soon. We will be building an outdoor classroom structure and a chicken coop later this summer. We will have our beehive soon, and hope to have a rabbit hutch in the future to teach children about manure!
ESYP: Do you plan to stay involved for years to come? Or will you look to train a program director once the project is off the ground?
NP: I plan to stay involved in the garden while at the same time training a farmer/educator who can take on some of the day to day duties. This depends on funding but also on my success in finding other spaces to work on.
Nora Painten is a member of edibleschoolyard.org and program director of Brownsville Student Urban Farm in Brooklyn, NY.