Farmer Heroes | June 20, 2007

McKinley Hightower-Beyah

New York, NY

Aug., 2007 Update: “The agricultural community of New York City celebrates the life McKinley Hightower-Beyah as community gardener and activist. McKinley passed away in August 2007, leaving a legacy of community empowerment and food justice. McKinley will be warmly remembered for his commitment to feeding and training his community, greening the city, and supporting farmers.”

Just Food in New York City is a long-time Farm Aid funded group. Their work to foster new markets and food growing opportunities for family farmers, urban farmers and urban gardeners alike has kept many farms in business and fed thousands of families across the city. A cornerstone of Just Food’s work in the city is leadership development and training so that communities can take on the work of bringing good food to their neighborhoods. Urban farmer, Mckinley Hightower-Beyah helps this work by training new trainers – growing the movement one volunteer at a time.

Farm Aid talked with Mckinley Hightower-Beyah who owns McKinley’s Organic Growing Station. Mckinley is an urban farmer and has farms in three different locations, all in New York City; Far Rockaway, Queens, and South Jamaica.

Q:How did you become an urban farmer?

A: I started with urban agriculture in Augusta, Georgia, in 1950 when it didn’t have that terminology. I had no idea then that there was ever such a thing as “urban agriculture.” My grandmother and I grew vegetables such as collard greens, turnips and all the other greens. We grew in our yard. We raised chickens right there in the city. We raised rabbits and made soap for a laundry business. We later migrated to New York City in 1955, where we started a garden in an area called South Jamaica. Today, I grow produce for the Hamer-Campos Farmers Market from that same garden.

I didn’t always consider myself a farmer. I did know that through the years I cleaned out empty lots and grew food and gave it away for free and all that. It wasn’t until the 90s that I began to see how it all came together to help communities and the voids that existed in our community. And I served the purpose, even without much compensation, and received comfort that I was helping.

Q: Is the farmers market an important part of your community?

A: The Hamer-Campos Farmers Market serves the Far Rockaway peninsula, which suffers from a high degree of food insecurity – people just don’t have access to fresh, local food because there are very few vegetable stands with quality fresh produce. We work to redeem the large amount of USDA assisted programs that provide for free produce for the community, such as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), the Women Infant and Children (WIC) program, senior program (SFMNP), and Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. We also have a Hamer-Campos gleaning operation where we provide needy families with surplus produce from the local farmers who transport their produce to our market. Through the 14 years we have been in operation, we have been a market for many local farmers. We work to help them stay in business. We serve a mutual need to each other.

Q: When did serving your community become such a big part of your work?

A: After operating several food pantries and soup kitchens, I was given the authority to operate a farm project in direct relationship with a food pantry and soup kitchen. We grew on two lots enough food to supply our 500 weekly clients seasonally, and we received many accolades and awards for that. Many of those coming to the food pantry are suffering from diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. We saw the therapeutic effect that our food had when people came to the pantry, and we could pull collards from the ground and give it to them fresh, pull carrots from the ground and give it to them fresh.

Q: What are some of the challenges of growing food in the city?

A: We developed in 1994 an organic garden to grow produce to sell at our market. This was the Hamer-Campos Farm project. It existed for 12 years but due to the recent urban development in our community, we lost those two acres at the end of last season, October 2006. It could not be avoided. The Far Rockaway area has been an area that had many, many open lots. It came under urban development in the past 10 years, so last year, the area that we had for our two-acre farm project has been converted to a YMCA. New supermarkets are proposed, shopping centers are proposed. However, nothing can replace a real farmers market and farm site. We are developing a new site in South Jamaica but it is slow going.

We are tirelessly working through the efforts of Council on the Environment, New York City Housing Department, and any other way that we can find to secure an area in Far Rockaway that we can produce locally grown produce. Meanwhile, we work diligently with our Long Island farmers. We look forward to buying from a new farmers market at Hunts Point. We are working on getting a trucking operation to send the produce out to us. In the past, we rented a van to pick up from farmers, or to meet farmers half way – we have all kinds of creative programs to make sure that we have the best locally grown produce.

Q: What are you growing this summer for the market?

A: Currently we grow for our market corn, collard greens, cantaloupe, strawberries, swiss chard, mustard greens, turnip greens, tomatoes – our tomatoes were selected for Outstanding in the Field to represent Queens – a lot of cayenne peppers, sage, rosemary, lettuce, okra. We try to look for the high-end crops – you can get a premium price for okra and cayenne peppers. As much as you harvest, they continue producing through Thanksgiving. We do companion planting, intensive growing techniques, vertical growing, and the snake gourd/long squash, our specialty. We have it hanging from the trees. We won an award for our long squash from the Brooklyn Borough president, Brooklyn GreenBridge, at Green Thumb harvest festival.

Q: Does growing food with urban consumers change what you plant?

A: We try to concentrate on ethnic foods that are the types of foods people like. When people come to our markets we want to make sure that we have what they want. We grow fennel for East Europeans, we grow long squash for people from the West Indies, bok choy for the Asian community.

Q: Do you have a favorite vegetable?

A: Okra. Okra does so much to help the digestive system and that’s a very valuable part of everyone’s life. And it’s very easy to save the seeds. One of my specialty workshops is seed saving.

Q: What do people need to know about farmers, urban and rural?

A: Farmers need to know that people love them so they don’t think that they are on their own. Farmers must be constantly inspired to continue their great work.

Q: Where can we buy your vegetables?

A: Hamer-Campos Farmers’ Market & Crafts Fair
P.S. 42, 430 Beach 66th Street, Far Rockaway
Saturdays, 8am – 3pm

Date: 6/20/2007

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