23/09/2020

Fancy learning a bit more about growing your own food? Chris Riotta’s hoping to rely less on factory farming and more on his Brooklyn vegetable patch

I read somewhere a few years back that all of my favourite fruits and vegetables just so happen to rank among the highest in levels of pesticide residue and other contaminants used in industrial agriculture.
Sweet summer strawberries, beautiful bell peppers and juicy red tomatoes all topped the list in the Environmental Working Groups Dirty Dozen: an annual report outlining which crops contained the most of pesticides like permethrin, a neurotoxic insecticide, that year. But I never consented to a side of neurotoxins with my $16 (£12) salad and for that ridiculous price, Id rather avoid eating leftover pesticides with my lunch, or any at all for that matter. 
Not to mention, the worlds filthy obsessions with factory farming and industrial agriculture reached new heights over the past decade. The ways our societies produce food for ever-increasing populations have resulted in air pollution clouding entire cities, fertiliser runoff overwhelming streams and rivers, and that very food we rely on lacking the nutrients we need to lead healthy lives. 
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With that in mind, I went to a garden nursery in New York City four years ago and picked up three organic seedlings: strawberries, cherry tomatoes and peppers. My apartment in Brooklyn has a reasonably-sized backyard, though Id later learn there are also options for people who like to grow their own vegetables but lack the space to do so, including more than 500 community gardens throughout the city.
In my mind, I had no business growing a garden. I didnt think I had a green thumb in fact, I knew I didnt have one, since every household and office plant Ive ever owned has died under mysterious and usually rapid circumstances. But to my great surprise, the tiny garden was a success: in just over a month, I began to see strawberry stems sprouting from the soil, pepper leaves growing and yellowish tomatoes forming on a vine. Much of my first crop never became edible, but I was nevertheless excited about the prospect of eventually feeding myself an entire meal made from my own backyard. 
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1/17 Balkisa Zakow, 25, with her twins Hassan and Ousseni, Tombokiery village, Niger
At nine months pregnant with twins Balkisa Zakow, 25, feared she wouldnt have the energy to give birth. A devastating drought made Balkisas harvests fail, made food prices soar, and then forced her family apart. Her husband migrated in search of work to earn money to provide for his young family, leaving her heavily pregnant and alone.
Sometimes if my husband had money he sent it to me so I could eat. Sometimes the money just doesnt come, she said. I was worried I wouldnt have the energy to give birth.
But seven-month-old twins Hassan and Ousseni are lucky, they were born the night after Red Cross support came to Tombokiery village, Niger. The Niger Red Cross provided the family with a small cash grant.
A Niger Red Cross volunteer told me to go first because she saw how exhausted I was. I used the money to buy food, then I went back home to sleep feeling relieved. Before sunrise I had given birth to my twins.
2/17 Aissa Garba, 65, gazes out of the window of her home in Tombokiery village, southern Niger
Last years drought made Aissas crop fail, leaving the family with nothing to eat. In the Sahel rainfall has become erratic and wet seasons that people rely on are shrinking.
The Sahel has one of the driest climates in the world, people who live here have always been incredibly resilient, are now having to adapt and survive to ever harsher conditions.
The region is almost one degree hotter than in 1970 and could rise by several degrees by the end of the century. Record hot spells, desertification, loss of crops and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are reducing peoples ability to feed themselves. Mothers are forced to eat just one meal a day so that their children can eat.
3/17 Herbs dry in the entrance to Aissas home
When we had enough we ate three times per day, but during the shortage we only had one meal a day. The children were always following us, crying because of their hunger but we had nothing to feed them, said Aissa.
But the Niger Red Cross brought us a cash grant. We bought millet and some rice, and with that we chased the hunger away.
4/17 Rabi Chibkao, 56, and her granddaughter Aicka Danyabou, six months, at a Red Cross nutrition centre in the village of Kiéché, southern Niger
Six-month-old Aicka is struggling to gain weight. Its been a month since her mother died and her grandmother Rabi has brought her to the Red Cross nutrition centre for help. The centre provides support to mothers and babies, weighing infants and measuring their upper arms for signs of malnutrition.
The pair are two in a long queue waiting for help but a shortage of the nutrition supplement plumpy nut means that Aicka is still not at a healthy weight.
Rabi said: I had been feeding her cassava flour but I noticed didnt help her much. When she has plumpy nut it helps a lot but sometimes there isnt any. It has made my life very hard to bear. You cant take care of a child properly if your own life is not good.
5/17 Ingredients for a Kuwo porridge with cassava
Ingredients for a Kuwo porridge with cassava, which are given to families of malnourished children visiting the Red Cross nutrition centre.
6/17 Ai Naliguido, 40, and her son Aboul Aziz, four, in their village of Kiéché, southern Niger
Aboul, four, is small for his age because severe malnutrition left him physically stunted. Across the Sahel 1.5 million children are acutely malnourished, one in five will die before their fifth birthday.
His body was very weak and he was so thin, said his mother Ai Naliguido. It was just Garri I was feeding him made with some corn-meal, or millet.
I took him to the hospital every week and they gave him plumpy nut. Im so relieved that he got the help he needed to get stronger. He has gotten a lot better. She said.
Niger Red Cross volunteers from the nutrition centre visit communities to show mothers how to get the most nourishment from millet flour and drought tolerant root vegetables like cassava, which helps to keep children healthy.
7/17 Ali Naliguido’s empty bowl
8/17 Hassi Seyni, 30, sits with her son, Mohamad Moufitaur, 15 months old in Tombokiery village, southern Niger
First the drought made the harvests fail and then food prices inflated so high even the very basics became unaffordable for Hassi Seyni and her family. Her husband, like many others, was forced to leave to find work to earn enough money to feed the family.
We got really fearful because many men fled and left the women on their own, said Hassi. When he (her husband) has some money he sends it to us. This is how we lived.
With support from the Red Cross we bought some bags of millet and corn. We bought some vegetables and some condiments. When your conscience is free from problems and you get to eat. Then you can think about the future.
9/17 Hassi Seyni eats couscous with baobab leaves
10/17 Drought resistant millet and the different ways it can be used at the mill run by a womens cooperative in the village of Gurguzu, southeast Niger
Millet is a drought resistant crop. Stems are stripped by hand and the grain pounded into flour which is slowly mixed with boiling water to make two, a thick white paste which is a staple across the region. Alternatively, water can be added to the flour to make porridge.
Millet is a good source of carbohydrate but eaten alone lacks the vital nutrients needed as part of a balanced diet. When its available sauces are added to give flavour such as the leaves of the Baobab tree.
The mill is run by a womens cooperative group and allows the whole village to buy grain at a cheaper price than in the market, it also helps to ensure the price is less volatile in the lean season.
11/17 Millet being hand stripped
12/17 Drought tolerant cassava grown at the Red Cross market garden
During the lean season a shortage in food forces the prices up to unaffordable amounts for many families. The market garden helps the local community to grow their own food and helps to stabilise prices during the lean season.
13/17 34-year-old Ouma Azzika with goat she was given from the Niger Red Cross
Ouma Azzika has seven children to feed. She received this goat from the Red Cross as part of a project supporting women to provide enough food to feed their families during the lean season when food is most scare. As well as providing milk, the goat can be sold at the market to earn money to buy food.
14/17 An empty bowl and spoon in Tombokiery village, Niger
15/17 A child is weighed and arm measured at the Red Cross nutrition centre in the village of Kiéché, southern Niger
16/17 A traditional cooking pot used to cook tuwo in Tombokiery village, Niger
17/17 Niger Red Cross nutrition centre sign
1/17 Balkisa Zakow, 25, with her twins Hassan and Ousseni, Tombokiery village, Niger
At nine months pregnant with twins Balkisa Zakow, 25, feared she wouldnt have the energy to give birth. A devastating drought made Balkisas harvests fail, made food prices soar, and then forced her family apart. Her husband migrated in search of work to earn money to provide for his young family, leaving her heavily pregnant and alone.
Sometimes if my husband had money he sent it to me so I could eat. Sometimes the money just doesnt come, she said. I was worried I wouldnt have the energy to give birth.
But seven-month-old twins Hassan and Ousseni are lucky, they were born the night after Red Cross support came to Tombokiery village, Niger. The Niger Red Cross provided the family with a small cash grant.
A Niger Red Cross volunteer told me to go first because she saw how exhausted I was. I used the money to buy food, then I went back home to sleep feeling relieved. Before sunrise I had given birth to my twins.
2/17 Aissa Garba, 65, gazes out of the window of her home in Tombokiery village, southern Niger
Last years drought made Aissas crop fail, leaving the family with nothing to eat. In the Sahel rainfall has become erratic and wet seasons that people rely on are shrinking.
The Sahel has one of the driest climates in the world, people who live here have always been incredibly resilient, are now having to adapt and survive to ever harsher conditions.
The region is almost one degree hotter than in 1970 and could rise by several degrees by the end of the century. Record hot spells, desertification, loss of crops and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are reducing peoples ability to feed themselves. Mothers are forced to eat just one meal a day so that their children can eat.
3/17 Herbs dry in the entrance to Aissas home
When we had enough we ate three times per day, but during the shortage we only had one meal a day. The children were always following us, crying because of their hunger but we had nothing to feed them, said Aissa.
But the Niger Red Cross brought us a cash grant. We bought millet and some rice, and with that we chased the hunger away.
4/17 Rabi Chibkao, 56, and her granddaughter Aicka Danyabou, six months, at a Red Cross nutrition centre in the village of Kiéché, southern Niger
Six-month-old Aicka is struggling to gain weight. Its been a month since her mother died and her grandmother Rabi has brought her to the Red Cross nutrition centre for help. The centre provides support to mothers and babies, weighing infants and measuring their upper arms for signs of malnutrition.
The pair are two in a long queue waiting for help but a shortage of the nutrition supplement plumpy nut means that Aicka is still not at a healthy weight.
Rabi said: I had been feeding her cassava flour but I noticed didnt help her much. When she has plumpy nut it helps a lot but sometimes there isnt any. It has made my life very hard to bear. You cant take care of a child properly if your own life is not good.
5/17 Ingredients for a Kuwo porridge with cassava
Ingredients for a Kuwo porridge with cassava, which are given to families of malnourished children visiting the Red Cross nutrition centre.
6/17 Ai Naliguido, 40, and her son Aboul Aziz, four, in their village of Kiéché, southern Niger
Aboul, four, is small for his age because severe malnutrition left him physically stunted. Across the Sahel 1.5 million children are acutely malnourished, one in five will die before their fifth birthday.
His body was very weak and he was so thin, said his mother Ai Naliguido. It was just Garri I was feeding him made with some corn-meal, or millet.
I took him to the hospital every week and they gave him plumpy nut. Im so relieved that he got the help he needed to get stronger. He has gotten a lot better. She said.
Niger Red Cross volunteers from the nutrition centre visit communities to show mothers how to get the most nourishment from millet flour and drought tolerant root vegetables like cassava, which helps to keep children healthy.
7/17 Ali Naliguido’s empty bowl
8/17 Hassi Seyni, 30, sits with her son, Mohamad Moufitaur, 15 months old in Tombokiery village, southern Niger
First the drought made the harvests fail and then food prices inflated so high even the very basics became unaffordable for Hassi Seyni and her family. Her husband, like many others, was forced to leave to find work to earn enough money to feed the family.
We got really fearful because many men fled and left the women on their own, said Hassi. When he (her husband) has some money he sends it to us. This is how we lived.
With support from the Red Cross we bought some bags of millet and corn. We bought some vegetables and some condiments. When your conscience is free from problems and you get to eat. Then you can think about the future.
9/17 Hassi Seyni eats couscous with baobab leaves
10/17 Drought resistant millet and the different ways it can be used at the mill run by a womens cooperative in the village of Gurguzu, southeast Niger
Millet is a drought resistant crop. Stems are stripped by hand and the grain pounded into flour which is slowly mixed with boiling water to make two, a thick white paste which is a staple across the region. Alternatively, water can be added to the flour to make porridge.
Millet is a good source of carbohydrate but eaten alone lacks the vital nutrients needed as part of a balanced diet. When its available sauces are added to give flavour such as the leaves of the Baobab tree.
The mill is run by a womens cooperative group and allows the whole village to buy grain at a cheaper price than in the market, it also helps to ensure the price is less volatile in the lean season.
11/17 Millet being hand stripped
12/17 Drought tolerant cassava grown at the Red Cross market garden
During the lean season a shortage in food forces the prices up to unaffordable amounts for many families. The market garden helps the local community to grow their own food and helps to stabilise prices during the lean season.
13/17 34-year-old Ouma Azzika with goat she was given from the Niger Red Cross
Ouma Azzika has seven children to feed. She received this goat from the Red Cross as part of a project supporting women to provide enough food to feed their families during the lean season when food is most scare. As well as providing milk, the goat can be sold at the market to earn money to buy food.
14/17 An empty bowl and spoon in Tombokiery village, Niger
15/17 A child is weighed and arm measured at the Red Cross nutrition centre in the village of Kiéché, southern Niger
16/17 A traditional cooking pot used to cook tuwo in Tombokiery village, Niger
17/17 Niger Red Cross nutrition centre sign
Each year, my garden has grown to new heights. I spend a significant amount of time researching what crops grow best in what locations, and how to plant my favourite vegetables in a way that yields maximum production throughout the three to four months of summertime in New York. As we enter a new decade of growth and learning, Ive made it a goal of mine to drastically reduce my reliance on industrial agriculture by committing to growing three months worth of what I would eat in vegetables every year. Beginning in late April or early May, I plan to build an urban garden consisting of at least 12 different vegetables, including everything from kale to Japanese eggplant, cauliflower to zucchini squash. 
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I have grown many of these before, and will teach you the entire process, from tending to the plants as seedlings, to providing the best methods for harvesting. Other plants will be new for me, and well learn together how to grow them in a sustainable way. After all, the best method for learning how to garden is getting your hands messy in the soil. 
I cant promise Ill be successful in reaching my goal last years harvest was significantly reduced by a heatwave that killed off nearly a third of my crop. However, if I am successful, that would equate to a 33 per cent drop in my industrial agriculture consumption in a one-year period. Even if I land somewhere among the stars, the result will still be significant. And perhaps along the way Ill convince one or two of you to get in the dirt as well.