A garden grows in Brooklyn

NYC’s first agricultural extension agent helps community gardens grow

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A garden grows in Brooklyn

Photo by: Special

Agriculture probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of New York City. But beyond Times Square and Wall Street is a city that’s home to one of the largest urban green spaces in the country—Central Park—and more than 600 community gardens. In July and August 2010 alone, 40 of the city’s community gardens produced nearly six tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the organization Farming Concrete.

As New York City’s first agriculture cooperative extension agent, John Ameroso (BS ’68) spent the past 35 years helping these gardens grow. Although he officially retired in March 2010, he can still be found checking on gardens he helped start, serving on the board of more than half a dozen ag- and garden-related organizations and speaking to community groups about the power of urban agriculture.

Part of that power, and a large part of Ameroso’s mission, is providing communities across the city with healthy food options and instilling a sense of community responsibility.

After graduating from UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Ameroso spent two years in Vietnam with International Voluntary Service, helping peasant farmers with rice, vegetable and small animal production.

After returning from overseas, he wanted a job that would allow him to continue working with the public on agricultural issues. In 1976, the Buffalo, N.Y., native stepped foot in New York City for the first time to interview for a new urban agriculture extension agent position with Cornell University. He left with the job.

“In that first year, I knew more about getting around than people who live here their whole lives because I had to get out,” Ameroso says. “I was working all over the city with all kinds of people from different ethnicities and religions. Anything that promoted ag was my job.”

Community gardening hit a peak of popularity in the 1980s, a time when New York City had more than 1,700 community gardens. But Ameroso says there are still areas of the city that lack good food or fresh vegetables. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of those areas he calls a “food desert.”

Driving through the historically low-income neighborhood, fast food restaurants, check cashing services and corner bodegas dot the streets until suddenly a bloom of greenery pops into view. Behind a chain-link fence and abutting a crumbling white low-rise sits the Hattie Carthan Community Garden. It’s an oasis of fresh fruits and vegetables in the middle of concrete and housing projects. With 43 members, each with a small plot to tend, the garden produces lettuce, collards, beans and tomatoes—“simple foods,” says the garden’s vice president and market project director Yonnette Fleming. In 2009 and 2010, the young market produced and distributed more than 28,000 pounds of food to the surrounding community.

On an early fall morning, Ameroso hopped in his faded red 1988 Ford Ranger and stopped by the garden to get an update on its Saturday farmers market and offer advice on end-of-season cleanup. Even in retirement, he’s making sure New Yorkers have access to fresh produce and know how to grow it themselves.

—Amanda E. Swennes is the managing editor in the office of communications and technology services at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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To learn more about cooperative extension programs at UGA or to find a program in your county, go to http://www.caes.uga.edu/extension.