Big Apple Agriculture

SMALL-SCALE agriculture may be declining in the farmbelt. In New York City, it is on the rise. Today New Yorkers grow an estimated one-half million dollars worth of vegetables on city-owned land alone, says Jane Weissman, director of the city's Green Thumb program. There are 60 miles of vegetable rows. Cornell University even has agricultural extension agents in the city.

The city's farm movement is a lemons-to-lemonade story that began with the housing abandonments of the 1970s. The city demolished the old tenements. Gardeners cleared the land and moved on.

Green Thumb was a response to what gardeners already were doing. Basically, it leases the land and provides fencing, soil, and other equipment not available at city hardware stores.

Most of the city's 600 Green Thumb plots are in the poorest neighborhoods. (In Manhattan, more than half are on the Lower East Side.) There, they can be a significant source of food. Over half the gardeners can or freeze their produce, Ms. Weissman says, and 75 percent share food with their neighbors.

There are similar programs in other cities, such as Washington and Pittsburgh. Weissman says New York's is the largest in the United States.

The success of the Green Thumb program has given the city a dilemma: how to save the gardens and build more housing too. (See main story.) Green Thumb can protect some land by, in effect, burying it deeper in the city's labyrinthine bureaucracy. But some gardeners will see a decade's work fall to the bulldozers. ``We are trying to figure out how all needs can be met,'' Weissman says.

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