NEW YORK – No one expects to find beets and carrots in a sliver of the South Bronx wedged between Metro-North Railroad tracks and a busy elevated highway.
But there they are, along with late-season eggplant, tomatoes, basil and habanero peppers, all growing in a pocket-sized farm called La Finca del Sur, Spanish for Farm of the South.
The formerly weed-choked vacant lot will be a classroom for a new venture called Farm School NYC: The New York City School of Urban Agriculture.
Starting in January, the school will offer a two-year course aimed at developing "the next generation of leaders who will work to use urban agriculture to transform their communities into healthy food communities," said executive director Jacquie Berger.
The school is not yet accredited, but Berger said a number of colleges have expressed interest in partnering with Farm School to offer accreditation in the future.
Once it is up and running, Farm School will join an urban agriculture movement that includes former professional basketball player Will Allen's Growing Power, which operates farms in Milwaukee and Chicago with the goal of creating "a just world, one food-secure community at a time."
The movement has a bimonthly magazine, Lexington, Ky.-based Urban Farm. Magazine editor Lisa Munniksma said Farm School would serve a useful purpose because "a lot of people who are interested in growing food for themselves or for others in cities or in suburbs don't have a lot of agricultural skills."
One of Farm School's instructors will be Karen Washington, a longtime urban farmer and a founder of La Finca del Sur, which sells its produce at a farmer's market.
Washington said she hopes Farm School will serve as a prototype for other urban centers by providing "the incentive to say, you know what? We can do the same thing."
On a crisp fall afternoon, Washington stopped by La Finca on her way to pick up chickens for a community garden in another Bronx neighborhood. It is legal to keep hens in New York City but not roosters — too noisy. Beekeeping was legalized this year.
She grabbed a handful of soil and said, "This is life here. This is what we call black gold because it's compost. Smell it."
Washington said she hopes to train students for jobs like working in the school system to oversee school gardens or canning and selling local produce.
A lifelong New Yorker who has grown food for 20 years, Washington also works as a physical therapist.
Her routine of rising early to farm before heading off to her day job is not so different from the lives of many small farmers in rural America, even if they till 300 acres instead of three.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average family farm household in 2010 will receive just 11 percent of its income from farm sources. The rest is largely from off-farm jobs. Sixty percent of the nation's family farms are small farms with gross annual sales of less than $10,000.
For Farm School students who hope to scratch out a living in agriculture, the second year of the program will include training in setting up a business plan, Berger said.
But for many the overriding goal is to grow nutritious food in neighborhoods where a dearth of fresh produce contributes to health problems like obesity and diabetes.
"When you grow food in the city it's such a visible act," Berger said. "It has such a visceral impact on the neighborhood around it."
Farm School will start with 10 students who will commit to one evening and one weekend day each week. Another group of more casual students will take one class at a time. Tuition is on a sliding scale starting at $1 per course hour.
Farm School is a program of a nonprofit organization called Just Food, which also promotes other agricultural initiatives in New York.
Berger said the school will have classroom space at Just Food's Manhattan offices but most classes will be hands-on and outdoors.
One of the first students will be Tanya Fields, a Bronx activist who said she believes in urban agriculture "as a community development tool."
Fields didn't start out as a farmer. "I don't really have a green thumb," she said. "I don't know how my acrylic tips are going to feel about this."