Farming In Downtown Manhattan

By Josh Azar

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There’s a wild turkey named Zelda living in Battery Park, but she isn’t the only turkey there. Surrounded by the noise and energy of downtown Manhattan lies a one-acre educational farm enclosed by a turkey-shaped fence, called the Battery Urban Farm. In November of 2010, Millennium High School’s Environmental club approached The Battery Conservancy and asked for permission to grow vegetables in a plot in the park. Five months later, The Battery Conservancy gave them a farm, instead.

 Now the farm grows everything from beans and squash to popcorn. Through class field trips and other programming, Battery Urban Farm tries to teach school-age children and young adults about farming and sustainability. New York University’s Journalistic Inquiry class met with Lauren Kaplan, the Project Coordinator for the Battery Urban Farm and Volunteer Services Coordinator for The Battery Conservancy, on the morning of October 16th to find out more about the Urban Farm, its mission, and its struggles.

Journalistic Inquiry: What do you see as the larger issue that the Urban Farm is addressing?

KAPLAN: We had three main goals. One of which is to teach kids around the New York City community about growing and eating good food. Another is to teach them about sustainability through garden education, and trying to improve their interest in trying new foods. Those are basically the things we’re trying to achieve, and we do that mostly through classes. I know that we work with about eleven schools total.

JI: How do each of the teacher-led classes or schools go about reserving a spot in the garden?

K: We have information on our website, but basically they have to email me and fill out a form, and it’s on a first come first serve basis. For the most part, the schools that we’ve been working with are the same ones we’ve been working with since the beginning. When the farm first started, we went and we basically reached out to a lot of different schools. The ones that were interested sort of came and started working with us. Our programs were not then what they are now. They developed as a result of the different needs that we got from those teachers. So some needed a lot of help and guidance, and those are the ones we teach. The process is set up such that anyone can apply and there is no cost, but it tends to be that we work with a lot of the same schools.

JI: Can anybody walk in and get a self-guided tour? Can you just walk in off the street?

K: Yup! We’re a public park, we encourage people to do that. The gates are not always open, mostly just for dog purposes, but anyone is welcome. At some point we will probably begin locking the farm because we have had an increase in vegetable theft, and we have had wheelbarrows stolen in previous years. So we will have to lock it, but we will have open hours, and anyone during those open hours would be welcome.

JI: Have you ever been shocked by any criminal activity, like theft or graffiti?

K: The only sort of theft we really see is vegetable theft, and as much as that can be an issue, it’s sort of understandable. I mean it is a public park, and only up until recently we didn’t have a sign that says don’t pick the food. Part of us feels that we’re here to serve the community, and as much as we don’t want people coming in and taking the tomatoes that we’re planning on donating to a school, you’re in a public park. You’re going to have some degree of that. But otherwise no, there hasn’t been much. It’s not a very private place if you wanted to do dark deeds.

JI: Have you guys ever had a problem with the homeless? Do they ever just come here, and you find them eating the vegetables?

K: No more than other people off the street eating vegetables. We’ve seen various people shuffling off with a squash.

JI: Any Wall Street types?

K: I haven’t seen it myself, but I wouldn’t put it past them. I don’t think that the draw of free food in front of you has a limit to the age or gender or societal status of the people who see it. You would think that people that are homeless and didn’t have enough to eat would come here and take more food. In my experience, that’s not been the case.  And I don’t know if that’s because so many of us are disconnected that we don’t realize that there is food here. So many people come in and I tell them to taste a tomato, and they’re like, “you can just eat it?” Yes you can just eat it! Where do you think your food comes from?

JI: You said you donate the produce to public schools. Are they the same schools that come and take field trips here?

K: They are. I don’t know if they have to be, but so far they have been. And I think we’d like to keep it that way because then the food has more impact. This program, the Garden to School Cafe program, was created to allow food that was grown in school gardens to go to the school cafeteria. Because there’s no selling involved, you don’t have issues with vender contracts. They’ve extended it to include not just gardens on school property, but community gardens that give a couple of plots to the school, or in our case, an urban farm that is an educational farm. So we are a registered school garden.

JI: Have you seen any kind of independently triggered responses or reactions from the kids after going to these programs? Have you seen schools responding or individuals responding, taking what they’ve learned and doing something with it?

K: The short answer is yes. We hear reports from teachers that their students know more, that they make a lot more connections, that they’ll bring up stuff that they learned here, that they have a better understanding of a certain concept they’ve been teaching in school. The real challenge is getting that into some sort of quantitative, presentable measurement. That’s something we’ve actually been working on a lot. We’ve definitely seen somewhere between 40 and 75% of parents and students at different levels basically saying that their kids will eat more fruits and vegetables, or are more willing to try fruits and vegetables.

JI: Is there one big event that you have each year?

K: I would say that the majority of our work is given to regular programming, but the biggest event is the harvest festival. It’s a lot of fun. We have potato sack races, we’ve had bobbing for apples. There’s a lot of different things.

JI: What kind of challenges do you face being in such an urban area?

K: Squirrels are a big pest for us. I used to think squirrels were really cute and I still kind of do, but they bury nuts everywhere, and they especially love to do it on the beds that we had just raked flat. They’ll chew holes in the irrigation tape when they’re thirsty, so you’ll have these spurts of water that you have to fix every week. I left a muffin once, and it was no longer to be mine. When I came back, there was a squirrel sitting on my bag with my muffin. Someone once saw the fence and asked us if it was a deer fence, and I had to remind him that even though he’s from New Jersey, we don’t actually really have deer in the park, so they are not a problem. People are not supposed to have their dogs off-leash but they do anyway, so dogs will come in and if they run around the farm they can really destroy things. On the one hand we are very public and accessible, which is great for learning and education, that’s what we want this space to be, but it also means that we have those kinds of challenges.

JI: Are there any challenges that you face here because you’re farming in the middle of the city that you wouldn’t face farming somewhere out in the country?

K: Because there are so many people, we have more compaction of our soil. That prevents air from getting down there and makes it difficult for water, difficult for the roots to get down there and get the nutrients they need. And in the city, a lot of the soil is contaminated with lead and other toxins.  We happen to have all new soil, this was brought in from Long Island compost.

JI: I feel the subway rumbling under my feet. Does that have any effect on the garden at all, or the growth?

K: I think it gives the roots a little massage and I bet they like it. Just joking. I don’t think it has any real effect we’ve noticed. The compaction itself happens in the upper levels of the soil.

JI: What is the city’s role in the farm?

K: We work in partnership with them. We’re not allowed to do anything permanent without permission and permits from the city. The farm is not technically permanent. When it was originally built it was supposed to be a temporary, one-year project. The Battery bikeway is coming through to connect the bikeways on the east and the west sides. We will be here next year, which we were not really expecting. The farm will be a part of the Battery Conservancy going forward, but there may be an interim period where this area is under construction, where we might have temporary gardens located in other areas.

JI: Are those locations already decided on?

K: There is talk of where they could be, but they’re not solidified at this point and so we’re not really prepared to talk about where those would go.

JI: Does the city provide any funding?

K: In some cases. We did receive grants from Bloomberg.

JI: Personally?

K: Yes. We don’t get regular city funding.

JI: How did you get involved with the organization here?

K: I got involved because I had been working in publishing for a number of years. But I grew up in a very rural area, and I had always been interested in the environment and plants. I grew up on eastern Long Island. I read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and it changed my life.There are a lot of other pieces leading up to that, but I decided I wanted to do something I felt more passionately about, and this is something I absolutely feel really strongly about.

JI: Are you vegan?

K: I’m not, no. And I don’t think you have to be vegan or vegetarian to support this movement. Many people are going to eat meat, they’re never going to give it up. and I think that it’s just as important to learn to value vegetables and eat less meat, but also learn about where your meat is coming from. Here we focus on how food is grown.

JI: Are the veggies organic?

K: They are not certified organic. You’ll find that organic and certified organic are very different things. but we grow organically and we grow using sustainable methods. No fertilizers, no pesticides.

JI: We’re talking about sustainable foods, getting people to eat healthier. How would you mediate the price of good foods and vegetables? People that don’t have a lot of money, how would you get them to eat healthy and affordably?

K: There are definitely programs out there that are trying to do that. I believe Grow NYC has a program where you can use food stamps, they’ll add 2 dollars to it if you’re spending it on the green market. There are programs that are also providing more information, giving you recipes and stuff. I don’t know that the Battery Conservancy really has a stance on this, but I personally feel that we as a society have come to expect paying very little for our food, and I don’t think that’s realistic or sustainable. I think we should all be prepared to pay more for good food.

JI: What is the response from the community right here? The neighboring buildings.

K: The residential community has responded very positively. Whenever we have festivals or open volunteer days, a lot of people from the neighborhood will come down and bring their kids. We’ve had no real negative responses from anyone. We haven’t really heard too much from the businesses. It’s been generally positive. No one has come in and said “I hate this farm.” People have hated the fence.

JI: The farm is very close to the World Trade Center. That juxtaposition of that icon and the farm. Do you ever get a chance to think about that contrast?

K: I think it’s nice for that to be so close to something that’s regenerative, and growing more life.

JI: How did you recover from Sandy?

K: The biggest devastation to the battery conservancy was actually our office. It flooded floor to ceiling. We lost everything that was in the office. All of our files, our documents, our materials, everything. The park itself had a lot of salt damage because of flooding and so we reached out to other areas that had had this kind of flooding damage and asked how they dealt with it. Our horticultural staff is very knowledgable. We basically flushed out the soil with a lot of water, to try and get that salt to recede, and we cut back a lot of our perennial plants to get rid of the salt damaged material, and a lot of the plants have come back, so that was very successful. We did lose a lot of our winter crop. Now it’s just a question of testing the soil, and after the winter rains and the cover cropping everything is pretty much back to where it should be. Hurricanes are a natural occurrence. There’s nothing we can do about them. What we really need to do is be changing the kinds of habits that we as a society have that are causing the increase in and severity of these storms. That’s not something that’s going to help us tomorrow, or next year, or two years from now, but that’s the kind of thing we need to do long term. When a storm comes, there’s only so much you can really do.

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