The Urban Agriculture Conference’s Manhattan farm tour—as in the central borough of New York City, not Manhattan, Kan.—called into question everything I knew about farming. And as a former farm kid, I know a little something about farming. I know, for example, that my family’s Indiana cornfields look nothing like the rooftop of the Waldorf Astoria.
Vegetables growing on the roof of a luxury hotel on Park Avenue are a potent symbol of the popular appeal of urban agriculture. But the inclusion of the Waldorf Astoria on a farm tour demonstrates just how far the term farm is being stretched these days. As I stood among the bees, herbs, and vegetables overlooking the terrace of the suite where Marilyn Monroe stayed, I exchanged glances with the New England farmer next to me, and we agreed: The rooftop garden was sublime, but it was not a farm.
What’s the difference between a garden and a farm? The popularity of small-scale sustainable agriculture, particularly in an urban setting, has blurred the line between the two. Even agricultural experts can get confused. In December, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden told a conference of young farmers at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., that she knows diversified growers sometimes hear from their local Farm Service Agency representatives that they are not farmers. Officials don’t always know what to make of those who grow small quantities of three-dozen crops instead of huge quantities of just one thing.
Confronting an assortment of plants on an acre of land, many Midwestern farmers I know would also call that a garden. Size matters, it seems. Yet size lies in the eye of the beholder. At the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference in November, a community gardener from Brooklyn, N.Y., insisted to me that something so large as an acre could only be a farm.
Convention holds that a farm requires a tractor or the presence of animals. But such distinctions fail when chickens and goats live in a community garden or when a 1,000-acre family grain farm has nary an animal in sight. Some people will say that location matters, that if it’s in a backyard, it must be a garden—just don’t tell that to Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen, who sold their rural farm after realizing they could make more money growing in an urban setting. They describe their business, called Wally’s Urban Market Garden, as a “multi-locational sub-acre urban farm.”
Unspoken hierarchies of class, gender, and race are at play in the definitions, too. To call someone’s farm a garden (with its feminized connotation), a hobby farm (with its elitist connotation), or subsistence farm (with its impoverished one) can carry a whiff of superiority.
Out of this morass of stereotypes, a useful distinction emerges: A garden produces food for private use, whereas a farm produces food (or flowers or fiber) for others. This idea gets closest to how the USDA defines a farm: “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold” in a given year. The only definition that matters to a farmer who wants to qualify for a federal grant, loan, or subsidy, it nevertheless surprises many people, since it means that a container planted with herbs counts as a farm if those herbs happen to be sold for $1,000 a year.
The Waldorf Astoria certainly produces a quantity of food worth more than $1,000. That the hotel uses the products itself rather than selling them at the nearest farmers market is a mere technicality.
A quarter-acre lot full of milk crates seems as unlikely a location for a farm as the roof of a hotel. But that is where Zach Pickens, the full-time farmer at Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortúzar’s Riverpark restaurant on Manhattan’s east side, grows produce—and the space happens to be the same size as his grandparents’ garden in Ohio, where Pickens first learned to grow plants.