Before New York City was crowded with soaring skyscrapers and divided up by a grid system forged out of concrete, the five boroughs were largely devoted to farmland. Central Park’s Sheep Meadow was actually full of grazing sheep, and farmers plowed the land, cultivating produce in places now known as Midtown and the Upper West Side. Although all of that has long since disappeared, some New Yorkers are attempting to return to the city’s pastoral roots, developing farmland in the most unexpected places.
Andrew Coté is known as the bee guy. He’s the wizard beekeeper behind Andrew’s Honey – a local NYC honey business – where he manages 40 hives scattered across rooftops, terraces and gardens throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. A fourth-generation beekeeper, Coté comes from a family that has kept bees for over a hundred years.
On any given day, you’ll find Coté weaving his way through the boroughs in his car, visiting and maintaining his far-flung apiaries. Here, white-painted boxes resembling drawers are stacked on top of one another, each box a covert home for bees, the wooden frames covered in sticky honey.
Coté sails through the apiary dressed in his beekeeping suit to attend to the hives. He takes a bee smoker – a device similar to a fire bellow – and puffs gray clouds of smoke into the mouths of the hives. The smoke calms the bees and prevents them from attacking. Coté then pulls out each long frame to examine the worker bees or pry out any honey ready to be extracted. He does it all fearlessly, despite patches of bees swarming and buzzing around him.
“People are surprised that there’s rooftop beekeeping,” Coté says. “Rooftop beekeeping and urban beekeeping is not new. There was a woman who kept 40 beehives [in New York City] in the 1860s. They kept beehives to provide honey to the kitchens.”
Although the practice has been around for centuries, beekeeping didn’t become legal in New York City until 2010. Nowadays, the city is home to a slew of urban apiaries. What sets Andrew’s Honey and other small-batch apiaries apart from mass-market producers is a confluence of location and simplicity.
“The honey from our hives is a hyperlocal product that is made from a collection of nectars not found anywhere else in the world,” Coté says. “The collection of trees and the forage that New York City bees enjoy cannot be replicated anywhere else.”
Coté maintains that the honey found in supermarkets isn’t truly honey – it’s a homogenized, pasteurized forgery of the real stuff. Instead of pasteurizing his honey, Coté simply filters out the wax using a cheesecloth, guaranteeing a raw product. He bottles it and sells the jars at the Union Square Greenmarket.
Even after 40 years of beekeeping, Coté still loves cultivating his honeybees. “My favorite part about beekeeping – other than feeling a pride carrying on a lineage with my own boys – [is] working with the honeybees,” he says. “I find it an endless source of fascination.”
In the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge is a verdant, blooming farm. Hunched over the climbing stalks are volunteers, tending to exuberant bunches of mint or yanking turnips out of the ground. This is North Brooklyn Farms, a public farm found along the East River.
The roughly 25,000-square-foot (2,300 square meters) plot was founded by friends Henry Sweets and Ryan Watson as a way to combine city life and rural practices.
“We thought urban farming could provide green space for people and help build community space where people share food and interact with one another in a way that they can’t get the chance to in a coffee shop,” Sweets says. “We’re a community farm, all about getting people in touch with nature.”
Although the space is largely given over to soil and vegetables, North Brooklyn Farms serves as more than just a farm. Community events have included beer festivals, square dances, carnivals, cider tastings, weekly donation-based yoga, comedy and storytelling shows – and even dance parties. Anyone can attend the events, but the farm also offers a membership program, featuring monthly farm-stand vegetables and advance notice on events.
But the main attraction is the farm’s Sunday Supper, a ticketed dinner series. For $100, guests congregate at communal picnic tables for a feast, all under the backdrop of the sunset dipping behind Manhattan’s skyline. The plant-based, family-style meal focuses on what’s grown on the farm: dishes have included summer squash and kale tossed with macadamia ricotta and a bright-orange, chilled carrot soup crowned with fried capers.
“[Guests are] harvesting and then they get a ticket to dinner – that means that they have interacted with the entire life cycle of the plant,” North Brooklyn Farms chef Emma Gonzalez says. “It’s that full circle of connecting with the food, with your neighbors, being outdoors.”
Be it Sunday Suppers or nights spent dancing under the stars, North Brooklyn Farms functions as a place for people to come together and celebrate camaraderie, the Earth and the community.
“The word that comes up over and over again when people come in is ‘oasis,’” Gonzalez says. “Even though it’s right in the middle of the city, it really does feel separate. You walk in and it feels like you’ve entered a different place. It’s that combination of city and country, all in one zone.”
Above a nondescript storefront in Bushwick, a farm grows in Brooklyn. But this isn’t your average rooftop farm; this is Edenworks, an indoor aquaponic-ecosystem farm that is home to barrels of fish and planters with microgreens poking out from the soil.
Edenworks is the brainchild of Jason Green, Ben Silverman and Matt La Rosa. They were worried about the environmental repercussions of industrialized agriculture, and they wanted to tackle that problem before it was too late.
“I like problems that everybody can feel and benefit from the solution,” Green says. “And food was appearing to be that challenge.”
Here, the team’s approach to indoor farming includes looking at the whole ecosystem involved. The water that the fish are grown in is filtered out and broken down; the fish waste is mixed with different cultures and bacterias, then morphed into organic fertilizer that’s used to grow the microgreens. This newfangled fertilizer includes materials that would have otherwise been discarded.
Indoor growing may seem unusual, but Green maintains that farmers have always been technologists. “We’re not doing anything that farmers haven’t done – [we’re] developing better processes and tools to grow better products,” he says.
The result is a colorful display of microgreens – and not just in shades of green, but tinged in pinks, yellows and purples. To date, Edenworks has launched two microgreen products: the Spicy Microgreens, a tangle of radishes, mustard greens and cabbage, and the Mighty Microgreens, with cabbage, kale and broccoli greens. On the fish side, the team is producing striped bass, with plans to roll out new products soon.
For Green, Edenworks is simply a step to connect back to the Earth while simultaneously solving an infrastructure problem.
“[We’re taking] all the pieces that nature has provided – animals to provide waste, all that bacteria and fungus that’s breaking down the waste – and making it available to plants,” Green says. “We’re just providing a consistent climate for nature to do its thing. It’s really getting back to nature.”
To coincide with Earth Day, 22 April, Culture Trip examines sustainable cities through the lens of architecture, food, waste and green spaces.