When Mike Repasch-Nieves and his wife, Vanessa Seis, took over the management and organization of Edgemere Farm in Queens last year, they had no idea they’d be farming during a pandemic.
“Not only is it like a shotgun wedding, but we are facing a challenge of a new normal with this virus,” said Seis,
Usually the farm gets help harvesting from community volunteers. With most community gardens and farms now closed to the public, it’s up to Repasch-Nieves, Seis and their pared-down team to prepare for the growing season.
The couple and a small group of farmers have been harvesting the half-acre lot in Far Rockaway, maintaining at least six feet separation at all times. April has brought a variety of tulips, herbs, greens and spring vegetables to Edgemere Farm.
People who work in urban agriculture in New York—in farms and community gardens—are adjusting to the new reality of harvesting during a pandemic and trying to provide fresh food to community members in need.
“Now, with the pandemic, we are reminded of the real value of having accessible, local, fresh food. We’ve seen the demand skyrocket in the last month,” said Repasch-Nieves.
Since New York issued a shelter-in-place order, community members have been more interested in buying compost to grow their own vegetables and herbs, said Seis.
Edgemere Farm primarily serves the neighborhood of Far Rockaway, an area that has long been considered a “food desert.” It grew out of a 2013 initiative to provide fresh food to the community and cultivate crops on underutilized land.
Some volunteers who sell Edgemere Farm’s produce at a farm stand have transitioned to taking orders online or via email.
“We’ve been minimizing contact and making things as streamlined as possible,” said Repasch-Nieves. “But it also breaks our hearts because one of the big values this farm provides is the social component. People are very connected to this space.”
The New York Restoration Project, another local gardening and green space initiative, supports 52 community gardens across the city. Now, many gardeners are tending to the plots of community members at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, said Annel Cabrera-Marus, the program’s director of engagement and programming.
“Community gardening is a cooperative effort,” said Cabrera-Marus.
The gardens, which are usually open to the public at least 20 hours a week, are now only visited by small groups of members in charge of maintaining the space.
“Folks are paying attention to the stay-at-home order, and our gardeners want to do whatever it takes to help this crisis pass,” she said.
Depending on the health status of staff, some gardens need to have more precautions in place than others.
Maple Street Community Garden in Prospect Lefferts was quiet for three weeks after Lory Henning, who manages maintenance at the garden, contracted COVID-19.
After coming down with symptoms, Henning reached out to the core team of volunteers, and immediately suspended garden activities. Now, a small group of members are back at the garden, maintaining social distance from each other and preparing to fill five new beds with soil.
“We want to be able to have a full growing season, and we think the gardening community needs it too,” said Henning, who has since recovered from the virus.
“It’s a relief to be back, it’s like a tiny whiff of the old way of life,” she said.