Urban farming: making it real in the Rockaways

Meet Heidi Woolever. Another amazing animal.

Heidi Woolever is a former sheep farmer, school teacher, daughter of peace activists, cheese blogger, Oprah-makeover receiver, and current caretaker of plants, chickens, and people living in the Far Rockaways. If you are considering taking your life in a new direction this year, take a moment and soak in some of her powerful energy on making meaningful change happen in your life and the lives of others.

Heidi Woolever, farmer at Edgemere Farm | photo by Valery Rizzo

What made you want to become a full-time farmer?

I want my work to be useful to the world. That’s why initially I became a high school teacher. It comes from my background. I grew up with the idea that community makes life rich and is part of why you choose what you spend your energy on. When I was teaching I felt that I was having a positive impact but I wasn’t really producing anything, or making anything myself.

The farm [I work on now] is really surrounded by the community. There are a ton of Caribbean people with a background of farming. At the same time, this neighborhood has a lot of people living in high rises and housing projects. It’s a very rich mix.

My thing is that you go towards what you want to do. I feel like I’ve finally arrived at a really good match for my interest and skills.

Economic engines look like this | photo Valery Rizzo

How did you decide to get into urban farming?

After college I got a job teaching high school but after several years I had this feeling that I can’t be in the classroom forever. One day, I was working with another woman and I remember her saying “I’m going to go to my other gig” which was at a community garden. And I thought, why am I not doing that?

In the early 2000s, when I met my ex, we decided to start a sheep farm. So we moved to southern Maine and started Woolever Farm. We didn’t have much land but we free-leased pasture from others in our area. I was a board member of the local land-trust and a member of my town’s conservation commission, and found that work to be super meaningful. Nevertheless, it took a while to shift to rural life.

After getting divorced I moved to a sheep farm near Catskill, NY, but this rural area didn’t click for me. It felt very isolated. I was in my early 40s — and I was feeling under stimulated. One day I read a profile in the New York Times about a girl in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, and it described her diet. She didn’t have much access to fresh food, and I had this idea that I could have an immediate impact by growing food for people.

And you decided to move to New York City?

Yes! Moving to New York is so daunting, especially trying to find land!

When I arrived, it was February and everything was frozen. One day I was chatting with someone who was walking his dog and he invited me to visit a farm he was starting in Far Rockaway, Queens.

And that was Edgemere Farm, which is where I farm now. When I first came to the Rockaways, my idea was to do teas and tinctures and focus on plant medicine. In the first year, I also grew a lot of tomatoes!

The last two seasons, we changed our structure and grew vegetables as a unit. I learned through the people I was working with. Growing up, we always had a vegetable garden in the yard, but this was my first time growing vegetables for market.

Harvesting (and ink envy!) | photo Valery Rizzo

Who is someone that has been mentor for you? What models do you use?

I have one farm partner, Matt Sheehan, he’s been my main teacher. He would say we’re collaborating. We use guidelines from a book called The Market Gardener by Jean Martin Fortier and follow Eliot Coleman’s methods a lot for our farm. Also, there’s a farm called Soul Food Farm in Vancouver that has a similar model but is on a bigger scale.

When you’re growing intensely in an urban environment, you have to be precise. We’re on a half acre and we’re trying to show we can be an economic engine in our community and do it in a way that doesn’t need to tap into grants to raise money, but still we’re able to pay ourselves and pay people in the community that work here.

What would you say to someone considering a start in farming?

I would really encourage anyone who is interested in production farming to pursue it. It’s not competitive. I mean, there could be one of me in every neighborhood and it wouldn’t be too many. We can never have enough, the more people to do this work, the better.

It’s the best decision I ever made because I never stop learning. There’s no right or wrong way to farm, you just figure out the best way to work with the animals, land, community, and weather. It’s so dynamic. You never stop expanding your knowledge.

How are you doing, economically?

On paper, I make 10k a year. It doesn’t seem enough to live on. I make it work — I rent from someone who is a friend of the farm and I eat what I grow. I barter. It is a challenge, you have to figure out way to make it work.

How do you feel about being a woman doing very masculine work?

Globally, women do so much of this work.

One of our workers is from Botswana, she grew up working the land with her family. They would work at 4AM before going to school and then after school as well. I’ve never seen anyone with that kind work ethic. She reminds me that there are a lot of women out there kicking ass.

Friends, get in touch with Heidi. She welcomes emails and Instagram follows and visitors to her farmstand. If you live in New York, don’t miss a chance to connect with this amazing woman and support her work.

Edgemere’s farmstand is open on weekends during the season (after Mother’s Day through fall) 385 Beach 45th Street Far Rockaway, NY 11691

Edgemere Farm, Rockaways NYC | photo Valery Rizzo

Biophilia is a collective of plant professionals. It is also a publication. We publish new articles, photos, and how-to’s here several times a week. We welcome submissions, feedback, seed packets and dandelion fluff. Kindly address all those things to >> plantsvnature@gmail.com.