A Call to Collaborate: Just Food Conference 2017

This year’s Just Food Conference title reflects their stated goal:

“…fully engage the community in a more intentional, meaningful, and action-oriented way. Framing the conference around the following question: What can we do together across many disciplines (food education, food policy and advocacy, growing food, business and economic development strategies and structures, land preservation and stewardship) to increase the amount of fresh, locally grown food available in our most marginalized, food insecure communities in ways that support self-determination and ensures economic justice for all?”

I attended all of the sessions focused aspects of urban agriculture covering a range topics from plant diversity and youth garden education, to medicinal plants and urban soil.


Harvest rice plants.

This was the exuberant title and energy of this session led by Nick Storrs, the urban farm manager of Randall’s Island Park Alliance. Rice is not a crop that you see in many East Coast gardens or farms. Many people think of Indica (long grain) rice as a crop that can only grow in warm, wet climates. However, various types of Japonica (short grain) rice are actually meant to grow at more northern latitudes. People have been cultivating rice for thousands of years as far north as Hokkaido in Japan and areas of Russia.

So Nick decided to start growing rice on his urban farm. He constructed 6 large paddies out of concrete blocks about 3 feet deep and filled them half way with water. The rice grains grow in a greenhouse for 8 weeks before being transplanted. Goldfish are added as part of the ecosystem. They harvest the grains in October, dry the bunches for 2 weeks, and then with the help of student farmers thresh and hull the eleven varieties of rice.

The yield of each paddy is approximately 15 lbs, so even though it is not a large amount for consumption, the educational aspects of rice cultivation have a hefty impact. Rice is a food we all consume regularly but we rarely think about how it is grown and how similar it is to cultivating grain. When children and adults come to Randall’s Island and work with the rice paddies (such tasks as seeding, fish spotting, transplanting, threshing, or winnowing), they gain understanding and appreciation for this most basic yet global grain that is a staple of cuisines around the world. Meanwhile, Nick looks to inspire other urban farms to grow rice and further educate people and enjoy it’s natural beauty. For the PRINT rooftop garden I gathered up some of his Japonica seeds and a Duborskian variety that can grow on dry land (not in a paddy) and is often cultivated in Russia. Fingers crossed we can transplant them and they can add to our small yet diverse plant community on the 16th floor!


Bitter roots with tags.

This Just Food Conference session, led by herbalist Dawn Petter of Petalune Herbs, seemed right up my alley since we grow bitter herbs on our rooftop and also make bitter tinctures for cocktails at the bar. Thus I had always thought of bitters as more a flavoring component than a medicinal one. It turns out bitters can be consumed in various forms other than in a alcohol infusion or tincture. Even a salad of fresh chicory or dandelion greens has effects on your digestive system, as the bitter flavor triggers enzymes in the mouth and stomach for digestion. There are also tea-like infusions one can make with various bitter roots to soothe certain symptoms.  We learned about the following locally available bitters and their health benefits:

  • Dandelion – acts as a diuretic
  • Burdock root – aids digestion and appetite
  • Milk Thistle – purifies the liver
  • Gentian Root – promotes bile secretion and detoxes the kidneys (a common ingredient in tonic water and aperitifs)
  • Yellow Dock – blood purifier

We got several recipes that combine various bitters with citrus peel and various spices and can be consumed for various purposes. One combination acts as a warming bitters, another is more for digestion, and a coffee bitters acts as a perk to the body. I am looking forward to trying out these recipes and incorporating bitters into more than my cocktails and enjoying their health benefits in a myriad of flavorful forms!


3 urban soil samples in a container.


Dirt may seem like a dull topic but not once you dig a little deeper. In this session led by Tatiana Morin, the Director of NYC Urban Soils Institute, we looked at the elements of soil, how it interacts with plants, and how we can amend the soil in our urban spaces.

First we introduced ourselves and it was incredible to see the varying backgrounds: community gardeners, rural farmers, educators, and chefs. Soil was literally at the baseline of all of their work. Dirt it turns out is a common denominator and element that unites us all. In maintaining healthy soil we are maintaining healthy humans! But we will talk about that more when we get to microbial communities and interactions.

There are national organizations committed to soil health for agriculture but Tatiana wondered why there was no form of an urban soil organization. Even though we have less soil it still has critical impact on our environment. So she started the NYC Urban Soils Institute and they began with a project to take samples of soil throughout the boroughs and map it. She passed around some of the containers which held a wide variety of soils in color, texture, and form.

The structure of soil is a combination of minerals (rocks), organic matter, and its environmental elements, so the same soil in a humid atmosphere will have a different makeup than one from an arid landscape. Especially in urban environments there is a lot of soil translocations, additions, transformations and losses. What we are left with in NYC is highly altered topsoil of varying makeups. This is why it is critical to test your soil before planting trees and especially plants for consumption.

Adding healthy compost to your soil is the best thing you can do for your plants. Adding diverse decaying organic matter which is alive with billions of microbes is like adding probiotics to a healthy human gut. It gives plants an arsenal of microbes to pull from to defend themselves from various elements. Plants pull specific microbes out of the soil to suit their needs. In fact each root hair will take up millions of different microbes to help it defend against disease, weather, pests, etc.

Since our garden is on the rooftop our soil was brought in 7 years ago during its construction. Since then, it has been amended with our rooftop compost and the various dirt we bring in on transplants. I was inspired by this work shop to get our soil tested, to get to know it better, and to see what its needs are so that we can have an even more vital and sustainable urban garden.

Every year I gain new insight into our local food scape and furthermore get inspiration by all the dedicated activists around the city who are taking their passion for food just it and applying it in so many needed areas.  Can’t wait for what next year will bring!