Imagining a Regenerative Farming Future on Staten Island's South Shore

 
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In September 2017 Kevin Skvorak reached out to the Regenerating Tottenville project. He explained that he was now living in St. George, on Staten Island's North Shore, and most recently had operated a small regenerative farm in the Park Hill neighborhood.  He looked forward to connecting with like-minded folks on Staten Island.

After connecting with Kevin we learned that he had grown up on a 360-acre ranch in Northern Idaho, and for the last 15 years had practiced regenerative farming and permaculture in the Hudson Valley region, including farms in Germantown, the Harlem Valley, and Delaware County.

We talked about how regenerative agriculture not only produces nutrient-rich food, but also enhances soil health, and how healthy soil removes carbon from the atmosphere and as such is one of the most critical tools at our disposal for mitigating climate change. 

Having experienced the ravages of Hurricane Sandy in which 24 residents lost their lives, Staten Islander’s know all too well the urgency of addressing this pressing environmental and humanitarian crisis.

 
 Regenerative farming practices augment soil’s carbon-sequestering power as they enhance its biodiversity. Permaculture is a broader design framework that includes regenerative farming, but also addresses wider societal needs like clean energy production, shelter, and the larger goal of mitigating and even reversing the degenerative ecological consequences of humanity’s current extractive economic systems.

Regenerative farming practices augment soil’s carbon-sequestering power as they enhance its biodiversity. Permaculture is a broader design framework that includes regenerative farming, but also addresses wider societal needs like clean energy production, shelter, and the larger goal of mitigating and even reversing the degenerative ecological consequences of humanity’s current extractive economic systems.

 

We also talked about how a regenerative economy creates the conditions for experimenting with alternative forms of business ownership, including worker cooperatives, and how communities can intentionally support these kinds of experiments in ownership.

In December Tottenville Historical Society President Linda Cutler Hauck, Conference House Park Director John Kilcullen, Susan Fowler, Manager of City Harvest’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, and Nadette Stasa, a member of the Ganas intentional community on Staten Island’s north shore met with Kevin to explore the exciting possibility of bringing farming back to the South Shore in a way that would place the borough of Staten Island at the leading edge of the city’s emerging regenerative economy. 

 
 Kevin Skvorak studied Permaculture with Geoff Lawton, one of the leading teachers and practitioners in the field. He has also over the years participated in a diversity of social experiments, including cooperative economics and intentional communities, often within the context of his work as a Regenerative farmer.

Kevin Skvorak studied Permaculture with Geoff Lawton, one of the leading teachers and practitioners in the field. He has also over the years participated in a diversity of social experiments, including cooperative economics and intentional communities, often within the context of his work as a Regenerative farmer.

 

"Basically the essential story of permaculture is that we are all at extreme risk if we don't radically address the issues of climate change, systemic and growing economic inequality, a collapsing biosphere, and an accelerating mass extinction," Kevin explained. "All of these problems are very real, and the actual survival of humanity and most of the rest of the natural world is what is at stake. Permaculture and other approaches like it hold the most promising solutions to this, our very real collective predicament.  This is the story that motivates me."
 
As New York City and Staten Island move into the 21st Century and together we face all the challenges it will bring, we talked with Kevin about how combining new and yet old traditions of agricultural production will be more valuable than ever to our survival.  We all acknowledged that urban farming and food production could be means to redevelop Staten Island— the historic bread basket of New York City—in a truly sustainable way.

 
 

Farming for the 21st Century will, and must, be very different than it was 100 years ago. "Now, as we face climate change head on, we know that how we do agriculture is more important than just the food calories it produces," Kevin maintains. "The carbon footprint of our current food system needs to be reduced, and re-localization and urban farming is an essential piece of that. And beyond reducing the carbon footprint and the  'food miles' in the current New York City diet, science-based approaches like regenerative farming and permaculture offer the promises of actually sequestering CO2 and providing a real solution to the challenge of accelerating climate change." 

We talked about beginning this new experiment in regenerative farming with perhaps a few acres of open land somewhere on the South Shore.

 
  Mt. Loretto would be an ideal location for an urban regenerative farm, not only because of its large expanse of open land but because of its storied history. Mt. Loretto farm was established in the late 19th century by Father John Christopher Drumgoole to give homeless and orphaned New York City children an opportunity to acquire farming skills.  Mt. Loretto functioned as a working farm—at one time 600-acres were in cultivation and pasturing—and as an orphanage up until the early 1960s when the last of its milk cows were auctioned off. A portion of the property was later sold to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and is known as The Unique Area for its rich biodiversity. The remaining property now houses the operations of Catholic Charities of Staten Island.

Mt. Loretto would be an ideal location for an urban regenerative farm, not only because of its large expanse of open land but because of its storied history. Mt. Loretto farm was established in the late 19th century by Father John Christopher Drumgoole to give homeless and orphaned New York City children an opportunity to acquire farming skills.  Mt. Loretto functioned as a working farm—at one time 600-acres were in cultivation and pasturing—and as an orphanage up until the early 1960s when the last of its milk cows were auctioned off. A portion of the property was later sold to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and is known as The Unique Area for its rich biodiversity. The remaining property now houses the operations of Catholic Charities of Staten Island.

 

New York City is an enormous and growing market for local and organic food, and this demand shows no signs of abating. The potential benefits for the residents of Staten Island to be part of this experiment in a new kind of urban farming are exciting to contemplate.
 
We all agreed that Staten Island could be a leading example for urban and local regenerative food production.  Kevin talked about how a regenerative farm could be a living laboratory for learning about, and experimentation in, permaculture design and practice, including perennial plant propagation, care, and installation.   In addition to providing produce for Staten Island's South Shore of Staten Island, and its first farmer's market, the farm could also provide ethnically diverse produce for the twenty percent of Staten Islanders who are first generation immigrants and must now source their produce from more distant markets outside the borough.

 
 The Gericke farm, located in Rossville, on the South Shore was a stop on our visit. Gericke has been a farm since since the late 1700s, and an organic farm since the 1940s.

The Gericke farm, located in Rossville, on the South Shore was a stop on our visit. Gericke has been a farm since since the late 1700s, and an organic farm since the 1940s.

 


He concluded together that we now have a window of opportunity to help move the economy of Staten Island into a truly regenerative direction. It is an opportunity that should not be missed, because the benefits of doing so will last for generations if we can do it right. 

Our next steps are to connect with others in the city and region who together have some combination of the knowledge, resources, time, and expertise to make this vision a reality.

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About Gericke Farm

 
 Conference House Park Director John Kilcullen talks about the history of Gericke Farm with our visiting group.

Conference House Park Director John Kilcullen talks about the history of Gericke Farm with our visiting group.