Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Annie Novak



Urban farmer Annie Novak is farmer and co-founder of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, New York—a green roof turned vegetable farm built by Goode Green on top of a warehouse owned by Broadway Stages. In its second growing season, the farm has become a center of community, with a weekly market, a popular volunteer program, and farm talks on subjects like composting, artisanal food businesses, and chicken-raising. Annie also finds time to run an education program she founded called Growing Chefs and works as the Children’s Gardening Program Coordinator at the New York Botanical Gardens. And she can be seen zipping around town on a bike that she built herself.

She’s garnered loads of press for her work, including this Grist interview with our own Paula Crossfield.

CE: What issues have you been focused on?

AN: Food access. What ancient agricultural skills have we lost? Everything I do ties back to the soil and land itself. Where does good soil come from and what’s happened to it?

CE: What inspires you to do this work?

AN: It’s about the curiosity and the obvious connection people have to the food we get to eat—if we’re lucky—three times per day. When I worked on environmental issues, people would zone out when I talked to them. When you talk to people about food they pay attention.

CE: What’s your overall vision?

AN: Personally, I love what I do. I’m lucky to learn new things every day and work on the things I care about. I’m living the dream! As for my larger goal: people in the cities have an enormous amount of power as citizens and consumers that’s underutilized because we’re not shopping in an educated way. I want to coax people to live sensibly. Talking care of your body and the planet. And, if you’re not a gardener, teaching them to support those who do it well.

CE: What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?

AN: The Garden of Invention, the story of Luther Burbank and his work with seeds. At the turn of century they were going through some of the same stuff we’re going through right now.

I read Civil Eats but I don’t stray around the blogosphere too much.

CE: Who’s in your community?

AN: Daily: foodies, green thumbs, and a lot of children (which is really lovely). I love connecting with people under five feet tall. I have a community of people who provide and who I provide for.

CE: What are your commitments?

AN: Personally I’m committed to practicing what I preach. I’m asking so much of people that I’m constantly checking back with myself. I’m committed to riding my bike, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, but in a way that makes sense, especially in an urban setting. And, I’m a committed vegetarian and have been my whole life.

When you farm you’re committed to a piece of land. You’re invested in your soil and a place and you can’t exactly walk away from that. I’m committed to farming in the city on top of a warehouse. It’s some of the most interesting farming I’ve done in my life.

CE: What are your goals?

AN: Goals in the world of farming and food and are always crazily lofty, so it’s with a grain of salt that I say we need to change our food system. Every person needs to be able to eat every day. Then there’s always the quest to treat the land better and feed as many people as you can. If I can, as a microcosm, do these things I believe in, then the goal is to do it in a way that’s replicable.

A larger goal would be to get people into this idea who are crazy enough to do it too.

As a small scale farmer, we need a more sensible health care plan and more support from the government. I want to educate people about how the physical agricultural work is connected to policy. Structurally, we need more support or we’ll have a lot of good hearted people who are facing burn out.

CE: What does change look like to you?

AN: What’s great about farming is its decades-long view, so over time, change can mean having an ecological impact that’s positive. Or better yet, not having an ecological impact. Change is living more gently. I’m going to die without knowing even half of what there is to know about farming. So working small for a larger picture, I try to think of this work as extremely long-term, beneficial ecosystem change.

CE: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

AN: You have to start with being absolutely in love and committed to what you’re doing. What makes radical work stick is really being what you’re doing. That’s what gives it fire.

CE: What projects are affiliated with yours?

Broadway Stages is our host. Goode Green is the green roof company that installed the farm’s green roof.

Overall, what’s great about NYC right is there are quite a lot of urban agriculture projects. It’s a good network. Like the new organization for the People’s Garden in front of City Hall, or much older institutions like the Botanical Gardens, etc. There’s momentum that’s beyond a trend.

CE: What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?

AN: So many people are doing such great work:

The Greenhorns
Just Food
The New York Botanical Gardens
…And I work with a wonderful homesteader and beekeeper of BrooklynHoney.com

CE: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?

AN: Five to 10 years is a short window. That’s how long it takes to take a conventional field and turn it organic. So let’s say over the next decade social and institutional support secures the ability of every town and city to have farmers markets, school gardens and urban agriculture projects.

But, 50 years, now we’re talking! We could start revaluing our Midwestern topsoil. We could work on making our market make small farming economical feasible. That would be real change.

CE: What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?

AN: Right now the food movement is a collection of everyone’s different agendas. I think overall it would give everyone a lot of clarity if we divided everything into two categories:

If that was our grocery list, it would make things easy. For example, with school food, there are the things parents can pack in lunch bags (if they are able) and ways government and institutions can support healthy food in schools.

If everything was divided like that we’d start making progress in a lot of areas. It would connect all the dots of our fears of unsafe food, bad land use, etc.

There’s an awful lot you can do in your own home and a lot government can do for us.

CE: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

AN: I’d look in the morning to see what’s ripe; then I’d cook it good.

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