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Exclusive: The Little Farm in the City

When we met with Michael Robertson last Friday, he sat behind a desk answering emails and sipping a cup of coffee. Like any young, working New Yorker, he answers phone calls, coordinates meetings and advocates for the cause he cares about. He also shovels mountains of pig poop, tends to a greenhouse full of raised-beds and feeds chickens. We suppose, in this sense, Robertson is not a typical New Yorker.

As director of agriculture, he has transformed the Queens County Farm Museum from a tourist attraction to a productive piece of land, growing everything from Brussels sprouts to salad greens. The farm is also home to a brood of unruly chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and bees — creatures that, for a native New Yorker, are almost as thrilling as giraffes and manatees. (In case you’re wondering all of the farm’s bounty including eggs, honey and pork can be purchased at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, allowing New Yorkers to call themselves locavores and actually mean it.)

Before we visited last Friday, we were only casually acquainted with their mission thanks to a New York Times article about Robertson that ran a few weeks ago. But we still had trouble imagining a fully-operational farm wedged somewhere between an airport and a block of row houses. After a tour we started to see the potential of urban agriculture a little more clearly. We also regretted wearing flimsy shoes.

As we sat on the edge of some raised beds where Robertson grows salad greens, he began to break down his urban agriculture philosophy. In maintaining a functional, productive piece of agricultural land, he hopes to reacquaint city people with the sources of their food. Sometimes, this outlook invites controversy. For example, when he decided to slaughter his pigs, visitors were up in arms.

The great irony is that the animals are better cared for now than when they led long lives as show pigs. True New Yorkers, they spend their day munching on rolls from Tom Cat Bakery and spent barley from Brooklyn Brewery. While he’s no sentimentalist, Robertson’s affection for his livestock is obvious. He summed it up with appropriate simplicity saying, “I just want to take care of those damn animals.”

The pigs’ yuppie diet is indicative of a greater plan that Robertson is trying to implement. Sometime in the near future, he hopes to minimize the cost of animal feed by reusing waste products sourced in the city.

For the future of Urban Agriculture, he envisions more innovative solutions like tending goats on the roof and spawning Tilapia in the bathtub (at one point we think he might have mentioned something about Chihuahua burgers…). He must have caught our look of suspicion because he continued to explain that, “New York has so much open space. In Havana, keeping chickens is normal. If we could reframe how we think about food production, it would really improve people’s lives.” We immediately started to entertain Dr. Doolittle fantasies involving chickens on the fire escape and a cow in the courtyard. Our roommates were less enthusiastic when we recounted our adventure later on at dinner.

But it is this optimism and conviction that inspires legions of aspiring city farmers to volunteer their time. In fact, Robertson seems to be grappling with his status as an eco-celeb. We were warned beforehand that he had a brigade of farm groupies. And, although he fervently denied this, we found ourselves offering to volunteer over the summer. Maybe everyone could use a little relief from being a typical New Yorker once in awhile.

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