Annie Novak is unstoppable. It’s eight am, and sleeting outside—most Greenpointers would be tempted to hit the snooze button, roll over under the covers and promptly go back to sleep. But not Novak. She is already reviewing blueprints, coordinating a delivery of apples for her afternoon gardening lesson at the Green School in Queens, where she teaches an after school class once a week, and lacing up a pair of heavy-duty boots—a little bit of sleet isn’t going to stop her from turning over the compost at the Rooftop Farm on Eagle Street this morning. Novak is a force of nature—an urban farmer, an educator, a traveler, an organizer and, lucky for North Brooklyn, a Greenpointer.
Last year, Novak made headlines in Brooklyn and beyond with the Rooftop Farm on Eagle Street, a 4,000-square-foot fully-functional farm set up on the roof of a warehouse building on the Greenpoint waterfront. But that’s just the beginning. For the past five years Novak has worked at the Bronx Botanical Gardens, where she now runs the children’s gardening program; traveled around the world learning about agriculture, crop cultivation, sustainability and environmental policy; apprenticed for farmers all over New York State; and created the Growing Chefs collective, a group of like-minded foodies, naturalists, environmentalists and farmers who design and implement a variety of different food-related programs for children and adults.
“So much of what I love about land and agriculture is understanding the vocabulary of how it works,” Novak said. “How to get out of it what you want and what you need. I like thinking about human relationships with land, but not in a conquering way. If what I care about is the environment, and social justice and agriculture and sustainability, the best way to get other people to care about that is by breaking bread—everyone eats. It’s the best way to bring about social change.”
Novak first realized the connection between food and policy while studying abroad in Ghana during her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was working on a thesis project about chocolate, agriculture and development. After that, everything changed for Novak.
“I always loved chocolate, but when I got to Ghana I realized that I had never seen a tree, I’d never seen a bean. I had been studying it for a year and a half! It was then I realized that disconnect—it was like a lightbulb. After that, I got obsessed with learning where things come from.”
Recently for Novak, this has translated into food studies: Her Green School gardening class is truly field to fork: She begins with the seeds of an apple, and ends with an apple tartlet. The program is a blend of science, planting, exploring and baking. Most importantly, it is about making connections between what is on a plate and what is in the ground, on a vine or in a tree. At the end of the 12-week session, Novak hopes to plant the seeds—literally and figuratively—for an on-campus garden that will support the growth of plants and vegetables.
“The Growing Chefs’ motto is, ‘broccoli is not boring.’ That means, we want to take any piece of produce and introduce it to kids so they understand everything about it—that it actually comes from somewhere,” Novak said. “I also want to give kids confidence with things like knives and fire—this is something we’ve forgotten about—and a real connection to the outdoors.”
Before putting down roots in New York, and eventually in Greenpoint, Novak lived in Chicago, Illinois, where she was raised in a surprisingly un-foodie household. According to Novak, she wasn’t allowed to use the stove until after she had started college—the result of her mother’s especially sensitive palate—and ate the same simple meals every day of the week. She first tasted ketchup at the age of 15, and ate her first burrito as a college freshman. Though Novak’s fascination with food is a fairly recent development, she was brought up with a distinct appreciation for nature and its wonders, which influenced her affinity for agriculture.
“I’ve always loved nature. I wanted to be an astronaut, and I always loved the sea. The space and the sea,” Novak said. “You ride in a boat on the surface of the water, and you have a sense of control. But it’s a false sense of control. There is a limit to what you can know about the sea—you think you’re in control but you’re not. The ocean is stronger than you are, and so is the land. You plant the seeds, but you can’t control the conditions under the surface. I started by loving plants, and ended up loving seeds and dirt.”
Another thing Novak has fallen in love with is Greenpoint. Novak explained that agriculture, which is at the whim of the seasons and weather, has taught her patience and pace, while living in the city—especially in North Brooklyn—fulfills her inherent desire for a vibrant and exciting environment; Urban agriculture is a perfect blend.
“Part of agriculture is committing to a piece or land or a group of people for at least several years,” Novak said. “I have a soft spot for the city. Here, things move fast and people are always making changes. It’s the perfect place to have both.”
“Plus,” Novak continued, “In New York, people are totally willing to sit down and talk about Arugula for awhile.”
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