Urban Farmer: Micheline Brown

Written by Angela Martenez for the Brooklyn Food Coalition

Park Slope urban farmer Micheline Brown followed the sheep. Not as she slept, though they did lead her to sweet dreams… that came true.

As a child growing up in the Midwest, Brown loved sheep and dreamed of one day having her own sheep farm. She remembers knitting, sewing, quilting, crocheting –anything to do with textiles (and the sheep who create them). “I’ve always been a maker,” she says, “Anything to do with your hands.” After college, Brown’s love of textiles and her craft-making hands led her to the Big Apple where she became a costumer for hit shows like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” Broadway’s “Rent” as well as at the Metropolitan Opera.

Three years ago, Brown had landed a position with CBS’ award-winning “The Good Wife,” a show she describes as “awesome.” And yet, as much as she loved her work, Brown realized something was missing. She wanted a career that felt more personally fulfilling, one that aligned with her politics in a way that her costuming work didn’t. Brown decided to become a farmer, as many in her family had been. “My grandparents grew up on farms where they would grow their own food.” But she saw a difference between the farming of her grandparents’ generation and modern agricultural practice. “They had diversified farms. Now, a lot of my family has giant fields where they grow corn and soybeans. You don’t see vegetable farms like you would a hundred years ago. So the produce in stores throughout the United States is trucked in from California, Florida, Mexico, Holland… Monoculture is a huge problem throughout the world, but especially in North American farmland. It’s degrading our eco-systems and heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And because there’s no diversity of crops, they have huge pest problems. So they’re dependent on petroleum pesticides and herbicides.”

Rather than move back to the Midwest to hone her farming skills, Brown knew she wanted to stay in the city. “I’m African-American and it’s really important for me to live among other black people and people of all sorts.” She realized she could grow food where she lived when she learned about urban agriculture projects around the country. After monthly weekend-long intensives at Will Allen’s renowned Growing Power in Milwaukee, Brown quit her job. For the better part of a year, she immersed herself in urban farming at Growing Power’s Milwaukee and Chicago farms, as well at D-Town Farm run by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. She even found a way to weave her past into her budding new career as a food grower: “I started teaching teenagers how to knit and crochet in the winter because things were slowing down.” Somewhere, a sheep was undoubtedly bleating in approval.

Soon after returning to Park Slope, Brown joined Project Eats, a self-described ArtAction that combines art and social strategies to create sustainably-grown, local food, business training and community development.

In partnership with public high schools and community-based organizations, Project Eats helps grow fresh vegetables—from arugula to Romanesco-on sites in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx and sell them to community and farmers’ markets and restaurants. These food-growing efforts fill a dire need in marginalized urban communities. “If there’s a grocery store in a black or Latino neighborhood, they’re not necessarily as good or with the freshest food as other neighborhoods. Go to any bodega in Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, East New York – all the stuff is full of sugar,” explains Brown. In addition, they help with a line of health and body products called Brie’s Garden, working with high school students to mix and package products like lip and tattoo balms using herbs grown at Project Eats’ farms. The students then learn business-planning and profit-sharing skills by creating enterprises that sell the products. Some of the proceeds go back to Project Eats farms and fellowships for other community members to train with Project Eats.

One of the biggest challenges Brown sees in urban farming is maximizing production with limited space. “We grow on less than 2 acres,” she explains, “So we try to grow as much food in that space as we can, like leafy greens that don’t take as much time to grow as grains do.” But the real key, Brown explains, is improving the soil with compost. “The problem is there’s a lot of contaminated soil directly underneath where we grow, mostly heavy metals such as lead and mercury.” Brown sees opportunities for Project Eats to increase compost production by using NYC waste material. “We’re hoping to take this nutrient-rich waste that would normally be going into a landfill and turn it into healthy, viable soil.” Brown is teaching composting at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens as well as to Project Eats’ high-school students.“I’m a fan of perma-composting with worms. “There’s a community garden with an area that has a lot of trees, which isn’t great for growing broccoli but where we can grow good soil with big worm bins.”

Beyond the challenges of urban agriculture, Brown finds connections with farmers of all generations to be one of the most rewarding aspects of her new career. “I get to work with kids all the time and that’s a really beautiful thing.” At a farming site in Brownsville, she had an unexpected surprise. “We had a bunch of stuff still growing since it was a mild winter, things that got sweeter when they stayed in the ground. I asked these boys if they wanted some broccoli. They were a little hesitant at first. But every day they’ve come back. They’ve never had broccoli that tasted that good. We have moms come who are waiting for the school bus at the end of the school day, neighbors walking by. You don’t get that in rural areas.”
Brown remembers one fellow farmer in particular. “One of our elders came in to prep her beds and harvest all these collard greens,” she explains. “We have water that comes from the hydrant and don’t have a big sink. So we rigged something up and washed her collards and put them in bags for her family and neighbors. She told me about when she first moved to Brownsville in 1958. She asked if I was going to be there for the rest of the summer and was glad there was going to be someone there so she wouldn’t be there alone. She has knowledge that I don’t. And I get to honor the traditions and wisdom of our elders. It’s deeply, deeply satisfying to be able to watch stuff grow, to watch people enjoy the food. And to listen to people’s stories which I couldn’t when I worked in film and television.”

For her, the challenges of each day are myriad and rewarding. “Farming uses every single muscle,” she explains, “from my biceps to my brain. It’s constant problem-solving and being resourceful.”

Brown’s can-do approach helps even more dreams come true through Sisters Grow, an organization she founded for food-growing women and girls of African descent. “When I started, I looked around to work with other African-American women, to get inspired and ask for help. I didn’t find that so I created it.” What began as a Facebook group eventually turned into a road trip. “We drove a caravan from upstate New York to Detroit and from DC/Maryland to Virginia. We’d stop and meet with black women farmers and growers along the way,” says Brown. “We’re keeping each other inspired and motivated.” Now, members of Sisters Grow have begun working together, expanding their food-growing potential. Brown hopes Sisters Grow will one day offer scholarships to young women who dream of becoming farmers but can’t afford to intern for low stipends. That’s not open to a lot of kids of color. A scholarship fund can supplement the income these farms pay.”

Brown sees Brooklyn Food Coalition’s mission resonating strongly with her values. “Fair access to food, ethical treatment of all the food workers-whether you’re a farmer in Brooklyn or upstate, whether you work at a restaurant or a grocery store—and supporting the environment – these three tenets are important to me.” She brings this passion and her commitment to creating community and food justice to her work as a BFC steering committee member.

Brown is excited about the inclusive approach BFC has taken in developing the upcoming Brooklyn Food Conference. “Faith-based organizations, families, programming for teenagers, workshops for growing your own food, information on fracking – there’s something for everyone. Brooklyn is this amazing dynamic place. We have such a diversity of people and types of food – all ethnic backgrounds and all the places in the US, it’s everybody.” Brown will be speaking on a panel for Black Urban Growers (BUGS) on food justice, in addition to helping develop workshops and coordinate logistics for the conference.

Ultimately, Brown believes the urban farm movement can be a crucial part of creating an alternative food system where communities are in control of their own food sources. “I would like to see a lot more of our food grown locally. There’s so much space that could be used for growing food so that we’re not so dependent on trucking our food around. People are always so surprised to hear about urban farming. I would like it not to be a novelty.”

New Leadership at Bed Stuy’s Magnolia Tree Earth Center

Brooklyn Food Coalition volunteer Abby Sherer visited the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in Brooklyn to talk to their new leader, Beverly Johnson. Come to the 2012 conference and find out more about what else community organizations like Magnolia Tree are up to and get involved!

Beverly Johnson

Green campaigners in Brooklyn celebrated a venerable survivor on February 9.  The Magnolia Tree Earth Center, housed in a brightly renovated brownstone on Lafayette Avenue in Bed Stuy, welcomed its new executive director Beverly Johnson with a packed to the gills party of gardeners, youth organizers, and other community minded folk who toasted the 40-year-old institution.

“I know that our founder Hattie Carthan is looking down and saying, yes, that’s what I was talking about,” said David Greaves, editor of the weekly newspaper Our Time Press and president of the Magnolia Tree center’s board.

On hand was State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a supporter of the center’s Tree Corps, an environmental education program for twenty middle and five high schoolers that is relaunching this month. Also celebrating were members of the Association Blacks in Energy, partners of the Magnolia Tree Center and, with Our Time Press and Bacardi, sponsors of the party.

“It’s funny because I’ve never been an outdoorsy kind of girl,” said Ms. Johnson, the new director. But she joined Magnolia Tree after retiring from NYU-Polytechnic of NY where she supported students of color in their effort to earn engineering and science degrees, and saw the connection. “Imagine us bringing opportunity for the community of Bed Stuy. If we have people from business, from education, gardeners, food specialists from all walks of life, the Society of Black Engineers (a sponsor of a key summer program of the center)… we all get together and bring whatever you have is good to the table.”

In the fall, she aims to provide tutoring for middle and high school students in math, science and engineering. This summer Magnolia Tree is bringing the National Society of Black Engineers’ Summer Engineering Experience for Kids to the neighborhood.

Hattie Carthan

Nancy Wolf, one of the founding members of Magnolia Tree and vice president of the board, remembered the community group’s beginnings and Mrs. Carthan.  Mrs. Carthan was already an activist in late middle age when she saw a lone Magnolia grandiflora growing on Lafayette Avenue, much further north than is comfortable for it but protected by the surrounding buildings.   “She learned a parking lot was going to be built – it’s always a parking lot that’s going to be built when you raze trees. … She coined a slogan, Save a tree, save a neighborhood.” Through her organizing, the now 127-year-old tree was granted landmark designation in 1970, and the brownstones followed seven years later.

The Center’s actual incorporation was in 1972, the year of Earth Day. “Earth Day happened,” Ms. Wolf recalled. “It was one of these blockbuster things. People’s lives were changed. I know mine has.” Ms. Wolf was at Pratt when she learned “there was a lady at Bed Stuy who’s trying to do something.” And indeed she did, rallying around the Magnolia tree to launch environmental programs and consciousness in the neighborhood, and the Magnolia Tree Earth Center.

“This was a survivor organization,” recalled Ms. Wolf. “Many groups were born after Earth Day. Very few organizations that were born out of Earth Day excitement survive. Magnolia Tree did, one of the first growing out of an African American community.” Nearby, a massive community garden with Hattie Carthan’s history posted on the fence tells the story that is still in the making.

- written by Abby Scher for the Brooklyn Food Coalition
Contact Abby at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @abbyscher