ALBANY GROWS ON URBAN FARMERS

Deborah Gesensway
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Monday, May 9, 1988

James Frueh's 60 head of cattle sometimes butt up against the hikers, golfers and other city park explorers who share fields on the banks of the Normans Kill.


Across town, joggers and bicyclists have tripped over the waterlines that feed Hugh Ferguson's rice farming operation in the Corning Preserve. And the 50 vegetable gardeners who attempted to cultivate a new community gardens site in Hoffman Park last year found that they harvested more broken bricks and concrete blocks than tomatoes and zucchini.


Farming in the city happens more than some would think and is fraught with problems most farmers never have to face.


Frueh, a beef farmer based in Glenmont, rents 200 acres of city- owned land along the Normans Kill, known both as the former Stevens Farm and the Normanskill Farm. Frueh uses half the acreage as pasture for about 60 Angus cows and calves. He plants the other half with hay, corn and other feed grains.


"I call myself a city farmer," Frueh said. "You really get to love the place. ... You can't even tell you're in a city except for the lights from the Delaware Plaza." Frueh, who rents an additional 1,000 acres in southern Albany County, has been leasing the Normans Kill fields since 1960 when the land was owned by the Stevens family.


But farming in the city can be wearing. Frueh said he thinks that this year will be the last every time he finds his fences "cut by kids on trail bikes," catches teenagers hanging out by the barns or sees hikers, who think they are on public park land, crossing his fields.


The farm was purchased by the city in the early 1980s with the help of a state grant. The land, which can be reached from several narrow streets off Delaware Avenue near the bridge over the Thruway, contains several 19th- century farmhouses and barns, some yellow-brick roads and a uniquely designed bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Preserving the rarity of a working farm within a modern city's limits is one of the reasons that Albany officials are in the process of asking the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for permission to include the Normanskill Farm in the Albany Urban Cultural Park.


Since the state contributed to the farm's purchase, Albany Planning Director Willard Bruce said, "the state is encouraging us to use it more. A farming use would continue, but we want greater recreational use in terms of tourism and interpretation."


"I think it's a wonderful vestige of what life was like in the 19th century - how cities did have farms in them," said Elizabeth Spencer-Ralph, Urban Cultural Park director. "I think that farm is unique. Its location down in the valley has saved it." If the Urban Cultural Park were to take over the Normanskill Farm, there would be more chances for adults and children to visit the site, she said.


An Albany Planning Department study is looking at how more people can use the land classified as part of the city park system. But until questions about the Normanskill Farm's future use are answered, Frueh's crops will continue growing and his cattle grazing.


Joining them on the banks of the Normans Kill is the only truck farming-type business remaining within the city.


Project Strive, a non-profit group that works with troubled teenagers, grows organic produce, herbs and flowers on seven acres of land at the Normanskill Farm. The crops, last year valued at about $20,000, are sold to about 30 restaurants around Albany and as far away as Lake George and New York City, said David Bosworth, Project Strive's executive director.


"We call them gardens, but it's really a small truck farm," Bosworth said.


Each of the 12 teenagers who work at Project Strive's garden gets a small plot of land to plant whatever kind of vegetables he wants to. Project Strive's participants also work in greenhouses on Green Street in the South End.


Bosworth said he would like to see Project Strive's model expanded to other large city parks to create "a network of urban farms like they have in England. Instead of food pantries, the government lets them have a piece of the land to grow their own food," Bosworth said.


To some degree, Albany residents are already doing that through the Community Gardens Program. The city pays $8,325 to the Cooperative Extension Association of Albany County to manage the 14 community garden sites throughout the city.


Some of the 170 participants use their plots, most of which are about 20 feet by 20 feet in size, to grow enough food to make a dent in their food budgets. Cooperative Extension agent Donna L. Moore said she thinks that interest is growing in community gardens because more people want to know what chemicals are going into the food they ingest. Last year was the first time all gardens were filled, she said.


Members of Albany's largest community gardens - the 70 plots in Tivoli Park behind Livingston Village Apartments - have been particularly successful in growing crops other farmers in the region won't touch and that sometimes can't even be purchased in Albany supermarkets, Moore said.


"They are growing collard greens, sweet potatoes and other favorites brought up from the South," she said.


Albany's community garden plots were distributed last week, Moore said, and a few are available in the larger gardens like Tivoli Park. There are long waiting lists for plots in Ridgefield Park, Irving Street and Myrtle Avenue and Knox and Morris streets.


The growth in popularity of the community gardens has prompted city officials to make a commitment to their existence and ultimate growth.


For the first time, city officials made "a conscious decision" to set aside land in a proposed housing development for a future community garden, Bruce said. The development, on Lark Drive in Arbor Hill, which is being built by Charles Touhey for low- and moderate-income families, will have one lot left undeveloped so its residents can plant a community garden or build a park.


Also in the works this year for the first time is a Cooperative Extension- city joint application to the state for money from the Environmental Quality Bond Act that would allow them to buy or improve sites to be set aside forever for community gardens.


If neighborhood gardeners are planting vegetables not often found in local stores, along the banks of the Hudson River grows a supermarket staple that may be Albany's most unexpected agricultural product - rice.


Every year since the early 1980s, Hugh Ferguson of Colonie Street in Albany has been renting five acres for $150 at the Corning Preserve north of the boat launch on the west side of the bicycle path to grow rice as well as okra, squash and other vegetables for sale to Albany residents.


After working full time at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a painter, Ferguson, a native of Jamaica, spends his evening hours trying to prove that the city's climate can support profitable rice cultivation.


In good years, he said, such as 1980 through 1983, he was able to harvest as much as 6,000 pounds of long-grain rice for an acre of swamp land tucked between the fitness trail and Interstate 787.


This year, he said, he has tried planting a quarter-acre of rice and is praying for another long, hot, humid summer.


"In this area, it always is an experiment," Ferguson said. "I haven't had a crop in the last two years. One year it was an early frost. Last year it was field mice."


Although Ferguson usually coexists peaceably with the joggers, bicyclists and strollers who are using the preserve more and more frequently, farming in the city does have extra costs, Ferguson said.


He said he has to pay "a lot of money" for insurance, adding that a biker last year sued him when he tripped over a water hose lying across the bike path.


Or then, he said, there is the city Parks and Recreation Department experiment to raise birds at the preserve - birds that eat his crop.


"Sometimes it really is a challenge," Ferguson said.