Where Growth is Always in Season: Urban Farms

As urban farms crop up around the state, fresh produce becomes available in unlikely places.

Garden State Urban Farms
Lorraine Gibbons, founder of Garden State Urban Farms, and Walter Barry, a former inmate now a hydroponic farm worker, set up a farmers’ market at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark.
Jerry McCrea/The Star-Ledger/Corbis.

Lorraine Gibbons of Maplewood grows vegetables that land in a lot of lofty places: New York City’s Gramercy Tavern, Warren’s Stone House and, during a presidential visit last year, Barack Obama’s salad bowl at a New York fund-raiser.

But Garden State Urban Farms—the business she founded on a half-acre lot in Newark under the name Brick City Urban Farms in 2008 with her former partner, John Taylor—is not a bucolic enterprise that shuts down when the days grow short.

This month Gibbons, 56, and a small army of assistants, will pull kale, collards, chicory, escarole, carrots, beets, radishes and more from Jersey soil in such unlikely spots as Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. That’s in addition to the bounty they’ll harvest at Gibbons’s 1,800-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse in Orange, which yields as much produce as two to three acres of open farmland.

“People who go to fancy restaurants don’t think their vegetables are coming from these urban places in New Jersey,” says Gibbons. “They’re thinking wide-open farms on a lot of acreage.”

Hydroponic farming shrinks the space needed to grow crops by delivering liquid nutrients to plant roots suspended in water. In addition to the hydroponic greenhouses, which are heated, at Newark Beth Israel Gibbons uses “hoop houses,” or unheated, semi-circular, tent greenhouses, as well as EarthBoxes—portable open containers. Her business sells its produce at an on-site farmers’ market at the hospital. The produce—from Newark, Orange and Hackettstown, where GSUF has 3,000 square feet of hydroponic greenhouse space from Greenway Flowers and Greenhouses—also lands at restaurants and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) organizations.

If the good work of providing fresh, local winter veggies isn’t enough, GSUF trains disabled veterans and paroled offenders and puts them to work, with pay, in the greenhouses. Since the farm’s launch in 2008, Gibbons has collaborated with Arthur & Friends, a Hackettstown-based nonprofit that trains developmentally disabled workers to grow produce for restaurants and markets. Arthur & Friends’ ideas about the mutual benefits of recruiting non-farmers to work with plants are put into practice at all GSUF locations. Its EarthBoxes, hoop houses and greenhouses rely on seed-planters from organizations like Jespy, a center for adults with developmental disabilities in South Orange.

Gibbons has also hired Orange High School students to work part-time. In addition to the money they earn, the students experience the literal meaning of one of the world’s oldest adages, “you reap what you sow.” Getting one’s hands dirty, she says, “is just a great way to spend your days.”

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