Stacey Murphy – BK Farmyards

Goodlifer: Stacey Murphy - BK Farmyards

Only a few New Yorkers are fortunate enough to have outdoor space to call their own; even fewer know how (or have the desire) to grow anything in their garden. This is where Stacey Murphy comes in. Her team of expert gardeners at BK Farmyards will come to your house and grow anything you want for you. How brilliant is that?

You have five years of gardening experience, a Mechanical Engineering undergraduate degree and a Masters of Architecture and have been practicing architecture and design for the last eight years. How are you applying all this knowledge to what you are doing with BK Farmyards?
There is no better degree/practice than architecture for starting a new venture. Architecture is one of the most undervalued professions out there. A good architect can envision a possible future that positively affects the community; she can communicate that vision and get others to share the vision; she can plan schedules, budgets, and resources; she has knowledge of many different technologies and if she doesn’t, she knows how to ask the right questions; and she can oversee the execution of all those plans. Architects study not only how things go together, but how people organize themselves. One of my friends from architecture school is now becoming an analyst for the FBI, and I see her new position as an extension of her architecture practice.

Backyard before BK.

Just a regular backyard. Before Stacey & BK Farmyards turned it into an edible oasis.

Just a regular backyard. Before Stacey & BK Farmyards turned it into an edible oasis.

Wow. Yes, architecture is a very multifaceted profession, and now with the building boom seemingly over, it’s very exciting to see architects move into new fields. How did you come up with the idea for BK Farmyards?
BK Farmyards is a collage of ideas from my utopian urban food dreams. I looked around my life, at what made me happy, and then I envisioned a modified Brooklyn. I grew up with a large extended family, always around the dinner table, so why not a giant community dinner party all the time? As an architect, I always think systematically, so when I started thinking about urban farming, I saw a citywide network. These ideas have been brewing for many years: my thesis in architecture school was The Dinner Party.

While urban agriculture is nothing new, there are people farming vacant lots, backyards, schoolyards all over the world. What I hope makes BK Farmyards unique is that I envision it as a food system and network rather than a farm. The project will always be in flux, and that makes the people the most important resource. Because of my architecture background, I see farm consulting as a possible future profession. If urban agriculture is not just another fad, and it is going to stick around, we are going to need to integrate farming into new construction.

Foxtrot, BK Farmyards' first microfarm, located on 600 sq. ft. in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn it fed six people for twelve weeks.

Foxtrot, BK Farmyards’ first microfarm, located on 600 sq. ft. in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn it fed six people for twelve weeks.

I think urban agriculture is definitely not a fad, and demand will increase as cities continue to grow. For people who are interested in enlisting your services, do you have any specific requirements?
We are very creative in our approach to the viability of each site. It is rare in Brooklyn to find the perfect site: 1000 square feet, 6-8 hours of sun, and direct access to the yard (not through their living space). Besides wanting to know these three things about the site, we also want to know what the person wants to do with the produce; how many other people in their neighborhood that might be interested in our services. We might take on a site that is only 200 square feet if there are a lot of other interested neighbors nearby that make it worth our while to be there. Also, 6-8 hours of sun is fabulous, but we are experimenting with some other options. We have one couple who is giving us their garage to grow mushrooms, and we have another site where we will raise 30 hens in a lower light section.

Farmyard eggplants & cucumber.

Farmyard eggplants & cucumber.

For someone who wants to attempt to start their own garden, what are some easy edibles to start with?
This is a trick question. First, I have to explain what easy means. When most people say easy, they mean low maintenance, and edible crops are anything but low maintenance. Edibles require careful attention: if you don’t notice warning signs early, you can lose entire crops and do long term damage to your soil. Experienced farmers have well-planned pest management practices that maintain plant and soil health. The way I would define easy, in the case of growing edibles, is that the crop has less pests that attack it or the pest infestation for that particular plant is slow and manageable. Herb gardens are a great way to start. With proper watering, you will have limitless herbs. Broccoli and cabbage are surprisingly easy to grow. You can cover them to prevent cabbage moths, but I find it easy to pick off any cabbage worms before they do too much damage. White flies are potentially an issue, but you can spray them with a water bottle to remove them before they do too much damage. It is surprisingly easy to get a bounty of leafy greens like arugula and swiss chard as well if you want something that grows a little faster.

Farmyard onions & tomatoes.

Farmyard onions & tomatoes.

Yeah, I experimented with lettuces and herbs in a window box garden this past summer, and they did amazingly well crammed together in a small space. Speaking of space, we were in the same food policy brainstorming group at the NYC Food and Climate Summit recently, and you put forth the idea that the city should allow five acres of Central Park to be farmed. I love that idea. Do you think it will ever happen?
I sure hope so! They have 190, why can’t they devote 5 to farming? The area used to be pig farms, so the soil is probably perfect. It will take a couple years to convince anyone to even discuss farming Central Park. One argument against farming Central Park is that it is a Landmarked design, but there have been things added to the park over the years that are not a part of the original design (the zoo, the ballfields). Central Park symbolizes recreation and leisure in NYC as well as open air in the densest city in the country. To convince people to farm it, they would have to be bought into urban agriculture as a viable future. Right now, urban agriculture remains more symbolic, because we are not feeding significant numbers. It is a paradox then, that farming 5 acres of the most symbolic place, Central Park, could feed thousands of people. Unfortunately, an administration that forgot to put food in the PlaNYC for a sustainable future will need a lot of convincing to even debate farming Central Park.

Farmyard cabbages & salad mix.

Farmyard cabbages & salad mix.

I think it would be amazing, hopefully the NYC Food Charter will help create more opportunities like this. At least in New York City, there is a growing urban farming movement that has attracted a lot of attention. What are the challenges with growing food in dense urban areas compared to traditional rural farmland?
You would think that space would be the most challenging part of urban agriculture, but surprisingly, it’s not. We have plenty of land: 1300 unused acres in Brooklyn alone. We have proven that people are willing to donate their land to the local food cause. The most challenging part is financial sustainability (which is the same for any farmer). In the last 100 years, the percentage of income that Americans spend on food has dropped from 24% to 10%! Our mission is to grow affordable produce, but we have to constantly defend fair food prices. Assuming that we can continue to get land for free, three programs that could significantly decrease the cost of urban agriculture are to reinstate the NYC compost program, reinstate the leaf collection program, and increase the efforts of the mulch program. The city already collects food scraps, leaves, and trees for the landfill: these resources have to be harnessed on a city-wide level and made available to farmers. Rebuilding healthy soil is critical since trucking in top soil is expensive and not sustainable. Lastly, decentralization, which is our biggest asset in Brooklyn, also creates logistics challenges that add time to our already busy schedule.

So how can we encourage cities to allocate more urban space to farming?
First we need an advocate in policy circles; an urban farming representative that works with the Department of Agriculture and the Mayor’s Office. The New York State Department of Agriculture has been very supportive of our plans, but they are completely overworked trying to cover the demands of farmers in NYC. Urban agriculture could increase significantly in the city if food was considered a basic city right in zoning laws the way that air and light are regulated now. A new zoning law could mandate 20 square feet of garden/farm for all new residential buildings per occupant. If we don’t integrate urban agriculture into the future urban fabric, we will always be picking up temporary swaths of land. Borrowing an idea from the NYC Food and Climate Summit, I would love to see developers get taxed on vacant property in order to promote using them for urban agriculture.

Imagine that all this could be grown right in your backyard!

Imagine that all this could be grown right in your backyard!

Those are great ideas, it seems the main issue is to get key policy makers to really buy into the idea of urban agriculture sooner rather than later. Watching the news these days, it’s easy to feel like the challenges we are facing are insurmountable. What gives you hope for the future?
Food debates hitting mainstream media give me hope, Michael Pollan on the Jon Stewart show saying things like, “The food system gives clients to the health care system.” People like my niece and nephew give me hope: they are in high school and very interested in educating themselves to make food choices they feel good about. After watching Food Inc., I asked if the movie might alter their vegetarianism: would they eat meat from a farmer that had treated their animals well? They said they would probably continue not eating meat, and now they were going to ask more questions about the source of their dairy. With food debates hitting mainstream, more of our children are asking where their food comes from. It may be cliché, but when the future generation becomes engaged citizenry, I get excited. The kids are going to start demanding an equitable food system, and the policy makers are going to have to respond if they want to stay in office. One of the potential clients BK Farmyards has for next year is a seven year old boy who dragged his dad to talk to me, because he wanted to grow carrots and spinach in the yard. Now that is exciting.

What does the good life mean to you?
The good life means that there is plenty of fresh food available to everyone that needs it, and we are all sharing our favorite family recipes. Sharing food unlocks so many memories and passions. The other night, I was sharing a meal with Matthew Tilden founder of SCRATCHbread and the smell of the meal gave me a crystal clear memory of my father from childhood. The good life means we not only share our hopes, dreams, and memories, but also our last crust of bread with our neighbor. When the last bite of a shared dessert threatens to go uneaten because both people want the other to have the last bite: that is a glimpse into The Good Life.

Video by Liza de Guia, foodcurated.com. Photos courtesy of BK Farmyards.
Help sponsor the development of a 1-Acre youth farm in Partnership with High School for Public Service on Kickstarter.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. My family came from a farm and they had victory gardens every summer in backyards and vacant lots. Fresh mint sauce is great. Is this an idea yet on meetup.com?

  2. Stacey, this is truly awesome! Beautiful pictures, too. I checked out your link to bkfarmyards.com above and I’m impressed with your mission, your team’s background and particularly your How It Works section. You seem to have a solid plan. I’m interested in doing something like this in my neck of the woods. Question, in addition to having the land owner fund the start up costs, do they also pay for your labor and/or the produce? Or how is your work funded?

    Thanks,
    Rebecca (bdiggin)
    bdiggin.com

  3. hi, Stacy, do you work in NJ too? I’d like you to work in my Big backyard.
    thanks,
    Renu

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