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Astoria community farm brings fresh, organic produce to backyards and roofs

Photos courtesy Anna Poaster/Rob McGrath

What in front looks like a regular apartment building off 21st Street in Astoria is actually home to a backyard community farm looking to grow beyond its original space and help educate others about growing their own food.

Hellgate Farm started in 2011 after Rob McGarth, an engineer by trade, purchased a building with a very large backyard. Once he started to grow his own food, he realized he was growing more than he could use.

For the first couple of seasons, McGarth managed the farm on his own and later teamed up with The Queens Kickshaw, located at 40-17 Broadway, to set up a pop-up farm stand in front of the store. 

What began as a side project for him then turned into something he wanted to focus more attention on and, by the fall of 2012, Anna Poaster came in as manager of the farm with a focus on growing vegetables. 

HellgateFood

The following year, a neighbor allowed the farm to expand into his yard. This got the team thinking about finding landowners in the Astoria and Long Island City area willing to allow them to go in and use backyard space to grow produce. In 2014, another neighbor around the block from the farm offered their space.

Now, Hellgate Farm has a total of four sites, including the original in McGrath’s backyard. One is on a rooftop of a Long Island City business. The growing of the sites then pushed the team to become a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), meaning landowners or “members” who offer their land to grow a farm/garden would receive a share of produce every week.

In its first year as a CSA, Hellgate Farm will work with landowners to grow organic vegetables and fruits and turn their underutilized backyards and rooftops into valuable garden space. In exchange for the work and care of the spaces, Hellgate Farm just asks landowners to pay for materials such as soil.

“I think people are really removed from their food, people don’t know what broccoli looks like when it grows,” Poaster said. “People are really into local foods. We are able to engage all these building owners who maybe have an interest in food, green space, and just making their space better for tenants and they really end up gaining a lot of education of what it is like to grow a garden.”

This year, Hellgate Farm plans to expand to two or three more gardens, with an emphasis on continuing to have open and personal communication with landowners.

Together with growing vegetables at the original site, Hellgate Farm also raises chickens, houses bees on the rooftop working with local beekeeper Tom Wilk, and has a garden on the roof as well. They have also partnered with local shops such as Astor Bake Shop and Vesta Trattoria and Wine Bar to provide them with local fresh produce.

Manager Anna Poaster, Hellgate Farm Founder Rob McGrath, and intern Eric Dittmore. (Photo by Paul Miller)
Manager Anna Poaster, Hellgate Farm Founder Rob McGrath, and intern Eric Dittmore. (Photo by Paul Miller)

As the Hellgate Farm team, now consisting of volunteers and a live-in intern, gets ready for the 2015 season they have also turned to Kickstarter in hopes of raising a goal of $1,500 to purchase an electric wood chipper. The campaign has raised $420 since Monday.

The wood chipper would be used to turn the leaves and branches they remove during trimming and pruning the spaces into mulch that would be used on all the sites.

“It feels awesome. It really has been humbling to see how many people care about this thing,” Poaster said. “To see a lot of supporters is really touching.”

A lot goes into finding a site to convert into a farm or garden, according to Poaster, but they are open to finding more locations in the Astoria and LIC area. Hellgate Farm’s season goes from the beginning of June until the last week of October.

For more information visit hellgatefarm.com or email eric@hellgatefarm.com. To donate to the Kickstarter campaign, click here.

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