Next-Gen Leaders in Urban Farming | Hannah Sharaf

Square Roots | 09.27.18

Hannah joined Square Roots in 2017 as part of our second cohort of farmers. She’s spent the last year growing in our hydroponic vertical systems, becoming a part of the local farming community, and learning the ins-and-outs of the business of urban farming. We asked her to share a bit about her journey to being a next-gen leader in urban farming.

Square Roots farmer Hannah Sharaf harvesting arugula.

Farmer Hannah Sharaf harvesting arugula at Square Roots in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

SR: Tell us a little about yourself and what sparked your interest in urban farming.

HS: My parents exposed me to the delights of good food and complex flavors at a young age. I watched my father experiment with developing his own sauces while I did my homework at the kitchen table. My mother explained to me the importance of the “holy trinity” in Cajun/Creole cooking as she made a family favorite, Jambalaya, for dinner. We have boxes filled with treasured family recipes, handwritten and splattered with the fruits of meals well-enjoyed. I grew up with a respect and a love of good food and culinary prowess, but had yet to explore how that food had made its way to my plate in the first place.

“I grew up with a respect and a love of good food and culinary prowess, but had yet to explore how that food had made its way to my plate in the first place.”

My interests in cooking evolved into agriculture after reading Dan Barber’s The Third Plate and Larry Olmsted’s Real Food/Fake Food. Both explored the relationships between farming practices and healthful food in a way that inspired me to think critically about my place in the food ecosystem, and forced me to question whether the food I made for myself was as nutritionally dense as it was flavorful. I made a number of changes to my food consumption habits in an effort to be more mindful of the quality of produce I was eating and to be more conscious of how my routines affected the environment. Although my individual efforts failed to reverse the effects of climate change (sorry, world), I was able to realize the health benefits almost immediately. I came to the realization that the food we cook is only as good as the food we grow and have access to; it was through this understanding that I felt I could treat the source by growing healthy food for others to enjoy.

It was at that point that I began searching for opportunities to farm in NYC, where local and sustainable food systems were sorely needed to feed a growing population. The technology behind hydroponics and vertical farming intrigued me, given a lack of land resources in the city as well as some of the environmental benefits of utilizing CEA. I was interested in learning more about the efficacy of closed-environment farming and how it could contribute to the real food movement. It was during this exploratory phase that I found Square Roots and their Resident Entrepreneurship Program.

Square Roots farmer Hannah Sharaf and seedlings.

Hannah Sharaf checking in on her mustard green seedlings.

SR: Over the past year, how have you grown deeper connections to the plants and the farm?

HS: Growing food is an inherently intimate process. There are emotional and physical investments involved in every step of caring for a plant, from seeding, transplanting, to the inevitable harvest. When you put so much time and thought into ensuring that you give your plants the best chance to thrive at every critical growth stage, when those efforts fail, it can be devastating, especially when the solution is often to start over. However, when you do get it right, watching your farm become a field of green, teeming with healthy plants ready for people to enjoy, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.

“Growing food is an inherently intimate process. There are emotional and physical investments involved in every step of caring for a plant, from seeding, transplanting, to the inevitable harvest.”

SR: What knowledge in urban farming have you gained in the past year that you’d like to share with others?

HS: Agricultural systems are not simply a series of inputs and outputs that can be isolated to produce a specific outcome. Everything is interconnected in ways that are often only apparent after you have solved one issue, only to have three more crop up — oversimplification is an easy way to make more work for yourself. There is still much to be discovered with regards to the relationships between natural processes in our environment; it is important to have a healthy respect for the complexity of these interactions and to be mindful of the bigger picture when creating sustainable food systems.

SR: When you consider the future of urban farming, what are you most excited about participating in post-Square Roots?

HS: Conversations. Conversations about what the future of food looks like for our urban spaces. Conversations about how we can employ regenerative agriculture practices to make a meaningful impact against climate change, provide access to fresh, healthy, and affordable produce for all, educate the public on the intimate connection between our food and our health — the list goes on! It is through idea exchanges and knowledge sharing that communities can develop innovative solutions to the myriad of challenges that our cities face. Square Roots has provided me with a platform to continue to insert myself in these conversations and I’m excited to be a part of a solutions-driven and forward-looking community.

SR: Your Instagram is a place of beauty! How do you use (or want to continue to use) social media to connect with your communities?

HS: Thank you! If I’ve learned anything from this year, it is that agriculture is an industry built on knowledge-sharing. While much can be said about the negative effects of social media on our mental well-being, I’ve found it to be an incredible tool for farmers to share their learnings in a way that is accessible and enduring. It fosters conversations that link everyone involved in the food ecosystem, pushing the community to collaborate and innovate. As I continue my journey in this space, I feel compelled to share my own thoughts, knowledge, and discoveries in the tradition of farmers past, so as to inspire others to consider their place in the wider food community.

You can follow along with Hannah Sharaf on Instagram @grownbyhannah.

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