the rooftop farmer - eagle street farm
I first met Annie Novak on Instagram. I was drawn to her joyful images that were accompanied by #ILoveMyJob tags. From her hand-drawn illustrations for her upcoming book, to the education work she does at New York Botanical Garden, to images of her urban rooftop farm with vegetables juxtaposed against the Manhattan skyline, it did seem like she had a pretty great job. I wrote her and told her about my work to document women in agriculture around the world and she invited me to Eagle Street. In the fall of 2014 I finally had that chance, while we only had about 15minutes to take a few images (she was on her way to deliver vegetables and help host a farm-to-table dinner) I got a glimpse into the joy and the passionate woman that I had noticed from afar.
I've since had the opportunity to write about Annie - here in Huffington Post, and again here in Rodale's Organic Life. I am excited that I finally get to share her story here, in her words. During our chat leading up to this interview I explained that while exploring the role of women in the food system; I really wanted to explore her role as a farmer and educator and challenging the stereotypes for both. In these words, you too will find yourself drawn to her optimism, ethos and genuine love for farming.
FFP: How long have you been farming?
My interest in agriculture was piqued while studying abroad at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana in West Africa in 2004. After graduating college, I started an internship at the New York Botanical Garden at their two acre vegetable gardening site, The Family Garden at the Edible Academy. In the fall of that year (2005), I moved upstate to farm with Keith Stewart in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. I have been toggling between urban and rural farming ever since. I cofounded The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in 2009.
FFP: What kind of education or career did you pursue before farming?
In college, I studied Human Geography, focusing on chocolate agriculture. After college, I jumped straight into hands-on horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden - I graduated on a Friday, and had the internship lined up to start on that Monday! Within a week of the internship ending, I was upstate on a farm. The years since have been equally non-stop.
It is also worth noting that I’ve been involved in team sports (water polo, crew, track, cross-country, etc.) since I was in middle school. I’ve found that the vocabulary of coaching, and working with a team, while being hyper aware of your body’s tremendous potential and strength (often when you’re rather exhausted, and need to tap into a hidden reserve to finish the challenge ahead), has made me a very strong farmer. The sense of loyalty, discipline, teamwork, and long-term goal planning are all extremely useful in my career!
As an educator myself, one thing I always try to keep an eye on are the opportunities to point out to my students that the path from education to career is not always a straight shot. I would not have seen myself doing the work that I do today if I were to look at it head-on. But from my vantage looking backwards, it’s easy to spot the trail blazes that lead me to this path. That could be horrifying (to the trail-seeker) or exhilarating (when successfully navigated). Recalling Harold and his purple crayon, choose optimism and continue to draw the world you’d like to inhabit.
FFP: What was the impetus to pursue farming?
The common thread throughout my schooling and my career is a deep fascination with narrative. I believe in college we called it “commodity chain analysis,” but I might phrase it simply as story-telling. Food and how we grow it touches every aspect of ecosystem, politics, economies, and culture. I started with chocolate because I love to eat it -- and because it has a rich socio-political history that profoundly informs the landscapes it which it is grown and consumed. I quickly realized this was best understood and explained when backed up by the actual skill set involved in farming it, as a crop. So I jumped into farming, myself. The balance of both the perspective of why with the technical skills of how in my work as a farmer is part of why I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life.
On a personal note, my post-college career was deeply informed by my father’s death in a car accident right before I graduated, in 2005. That cast a clarity to my life that I never wish on someone, but I know shapes all my decision-making. Once you are that unhappy, you can only choose to live as happy and strong a life as possible, to swim as far as you possibly can from the whirlpool that depth of grief creates. Certainly many people chose the opposite direction, and get sucked in. But I wanted to be useful in the world, useful to my family and myself, and become a practitioner of something vital and wonderful and life giving. Growing food felt right. I could provide. I could watch the annual cycle of crops renew itself yearly, which made me less afraid of loss and more aware of renewal, of forgiveness, and of the long view of making use of our lifetime on this absolutely breathtakingly beautiful planet. Planting garlic in the fall season after my father’s death, knowing that it would be rising out of the warm soil in late April, a year after his accident, gave me something to look forward to - not dread - about living past his loss. Frankly, it’s also a lot easier to cry in a field full of kale than in an office full of people. Now, of course, I try to share the joy I feel in the work I do without anyone having to suffer the direct trauma that my family did.
FFP: What did you do to prepare/educate yourself for this new role?
I sought out the best mentors I could possibly find, and made sure that when they were helping me, I was also being helpful to them. I wrote thank you notes. I read a lot. I saved as much money as possible. I never said no.
FFP: What skills do you use that you did not expect?
Who knew that farmers had to be good at public relations? Yet: how lucky are we that there’s an available soapbox? May it ever be so!
FFP: What is your biggest challenge?
Consumerism and apathy. Ignorance is not bliss: it is disempowerment. Finding articulate and compelling ways to share this position is my most and least favorite challenge, depending on how much sleep I’ve gotten. Also: sunburn and a healthy fear of lyme disease.
FFP: Are there any specific challenges/disadvantages in being a female farmer? What are the benefits/advantages in being a female farmer? What do you see as the biggest impediment to women entering the field of farming?
I answer this from a very hard fought but very privileged position. After ten years of this work, being a female farmer is less about how I see myself and more about how the world sees me. I identify as so many nouns - farmer, educator, student, leader - before I say “woman.” If anything, being a woman is an adjective that stands alongside “hard-working” or “naturally curious” as a positive characteristic I think makes me a good person. When I deeply notice that I am a female farmer when I see women and people who identify as women entering this work and hitting barriers or encountering assumptions because of their gender identity. I get to lower the priority on identifying as a female farmer because I have spent years grinding away at preconceived stereotype held by my colleagues. Passing along the tools I used to women coming up in the field is one of my favorite aspects of my work.
I love that being a farmer and a farmer who identifies as female means I can strike down preexisting stereotypes both about what farming as well as what womanhood means. Every situation requires a different approach. I have to meet people where they are, and figure out how to challenge that perspective in a productive and positive way. There’s also the additional challenge of having that conversation in such a way that it’s less about me, Annie, and more about how they treat their sister, daughter, female colleague, partner-- raising the bar for everyone involved. I noticed this first when farming internationally. I was often treated as an exception to some gendered rule because I was a foreigner, or because I was more vocal about being equal to any given task. So I started to rope in the women I was working with, to loop us all under the same capability umbrella. It takes time, patience, conversation, and then more patience to break through cultural norms. But cultural norms are absolutely never written in stone, and always worth holding up to the light, reexamining, and adjusting as needed.
Women are in every way equal to men as farmers. I’m always surprised and disappointed when that is challenged - by men and women alike. Gendering a career that really doesn’t require any particular gender-based skill set is foolish. Does lifting that plough attachment require having a penis? No? Great, then let the strongest person with the healthiest back do it.
FFP: What personality characteristics do you have that drew you to farming in the first place?
I am insatiably curious, love being outdoors, and don’t struggle against being alone. If you think you suffer from boredom or loneliness, reexamine how you spend your time and look into farming. It is a real cure to that ailment, to wake up so fully to the rich world around us.
FFP: What has been the biggest reward?
Far and few are the people that do what they love every day. I remember reading Barbara Cooney’s beautiful book Miss Rumphius as a little girl, and wondering at what it would be like to live a life of adventure as Miss Rumphius does, all the while without knowing your true purpose until senescence. She seemed both blessed and cursed in that regard. Thankfully, I have managed to squeeze in all of her adventures (from visiting tropical isles to working in greenhouses and libraries) while knowing full well my bliss (to paraphrase Joseph Campbell). My greatest reward is to share that passion with other people. How much less we would own if we knew what we had already!
I also grow very good, fresh peaches. That is a true treat.
FFP: What do you want your food to convey to others?
Food is for eating. Eating is a privilege. I don’t really message with food. What I will message with is how to grow it well.
FFP: What does it mean to you to be able to farm?
Understanding how to farm is to tap into an aspect of humanity deeply unique and entrenched. I learned how to farm because I love food; I continue to farm because I’ve grown to love the living network of the ecosystem it works with, when done well. I became a tree-hugger because I was a chocolate-eater. It keeps me healthy and wealthy beyond measure.
FFP: What do you wish people understood about farming?
Farming is far more nuanced than most people know or look into. We like soundbites and labels. Even the word “organic” can carry a thousand different stories with it. Our approach to food incredibly shallow. In large part, the reason I stuck to urban farming as a career path is because farming right in the public gaze was the best way to share a complete story.
FFP: If you could change one thing about our current food system, what would it be?
I would take all food that does not require packaging to protect and preserve it during transport out of its packaging, and never use packaging ever again. Packaging causes ecological genocide and is a massive dupe.
Book cover image courtesy of Annie Novak and Penguin Random House
Thank you, Annie for being a part of the Female Farmer Project.
Originally published: February 15, 2016
Auburn Meadow Farm 7 months ago
Wow, what a lovely and well articulated read. This resonated for me in so many ways, thank you :)
Whitney Keller 7 months ago
Jenee Mullings 7 months ago
What a privilege this was to read. I felt like I was a student in her garden and felt her energy translated through her words. Food and farming has so many layers and it's important for us as a community and as a people to understand our role and social responsibility in preserving its integrity and are position in this marvellous ecosystem. Thank you for inspiring my spirit!
Rootdown Hydroponics 7 months ago
This was an excellent interview. This book looks like a great read. Thank you for the inspiring words.
Owner of Rootdown Hydroponics
Jacqui Shannon 7 months ago
So many good quotes and amazing perspectives. What a great article, thank you for continuing this project and inspiring me and others with each interview!
Trainee Organic Farmer, London UK
Shelley 7 months ago
So inspiring & creative. Cannot wait for Spring.
Sonia Rodriguez 7 months ago
*How smart you are
Sonia Rodriguez 7 months ago
You're so inspiring♡and I'm a little intimated by how smart hot ate but I'd love a copy of your book
Trish 7 months ago
For years now, I've been playing at urban farming. I have a small garden and three hens. It's wonderful but, it's not enough. I feel this pull toward feeding people good food - food that I've grown, as well as gracing their homes with my flowers and herbs. I sometimes think I'm too old to start over (I'm not, only 44) or too ignorant about farming practices (did I mention I have yet to harvest an edible carrot?), but this article as with most of your stories gives me hope. Hope is the most precious gift on earth. For that, I thank you!
Tyffanie 7 months ago
My favorite quote from this awesome article is Anne's answer to your question about her biggest challenge: "Consumerism and apathy. Ignorance is not bliss: it is disempowerment."
Empowering communities is such an important aspect to the food movement, so I bet much appreciate this perspective.
I am curious to understand more behind her saying that "eating is a privilege". This makes it sound like eating is only reserved for a special few who are privy. Perhaps I misinterpreted? Eating should be a right, and empowering communities to have access to healthy & fresh foods is a way to give back that right.
Can't wait to check out the book!
Jason Conner 7 months ago
Love the article Audra!!! Always thrills me to see successful Urban Farming. firstname.lastname@example.org
Melina Hammer 7 months ago
I remember photographing the beehives here when it was still illegal! How wonderfully cared for this farm is. Thanks Annie for your continuous care! email@example.com
Kaity Finnegan 7 months ago
As a female embarking on my first apprenticeship in organic farming since graduating university and college, it makes me happy and excited that there are so many possibilities in integrating nature and growing food in urban areas. This would be a fantastic read!
Andra Novak 7 months ago
Living in rural Arkansas, I can't imagine life without things growing all around me.Thank you for bringing life... literally... to the rooftops. PS If Poland might be in your ancestry, look me up. We might be distant cousins. :) firstname.lastname@example.org
Bayle 7 months ago
I live in an urban area (San Francisco) and so keen on reading and seeing stories like this that bring attention to growing food in a city environment. This story and book will inspire many to do what they can to make the wiorld a healthier place. Bayled2@gmail.com
Joanne Erickson 7 months ago
This is so neat! I really want to get into growing produce but thought it would be difficult in the city. But this type of garden would be awesome! email@example.com
Katie Martin 7 months ago
Showing the way for Everyone to farm!!
elaineyukari marumoto 7 months ago
😻😍😻😍 this is serious life goals for me. firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Blattner 7 months ago
I have been a farmer who happens to be female, for most of my life(i'm 56). My fingers have been in the dirt since I was a wee-one. Women can be, and have been, the backbone in farming innovation. We are nurturers, thus we find healthy, economical, space saving ways to produce. I am all for "clean foods" (organic without the certification) If more women were involved, I believe we would create a healthier food system.
Jasmine Colahan 7 months ago
I've followed the Female Farmer Project for quite some time and had the pleasure of working with Annie at Eagle Street a little over a year ago. It's great to see such a powerful and amazing person that you know represented by projects like these.
cypress sigman 7 months ago
I am a rural female farmer in central texas. 20 + acres of veggies, peaches, berries. I had the joy of touring the seattle rooftop gardens at one time. Really cool stuff. This book looks beautiful. email@example.com