By Claire Voon
At the southern tip of downtown Manhattan, where the bustle of crowds meets the rumbling of the subway, the rattle of traffic, the rumble of airplanes and the occasional blaring of a ferry’s horn, lies a garden peppered with rows of fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables. Battery Urban Farm is a public, one-acre educational farm located in the heart of Bowling Green that provides an outdoor learning space for those interested in learning about cultivating fresh produce. Although its gates are always open to the public during its April through November growing season, the farm devotes most of its program to events and weekly classes for school-age children and young adults on sustainability and healthy eating. Priding itself on nurturing a fertile green place amidst the rows of concrete towers, the farm strays from using fertilizer, pesticides and other false amendments. A project of the non-profit Battery Conservancy, Battery Urban Farm works in partnership with the city but receives most of its funding from private donations and grant money.
NYU’s Journalism Inquiry class recently spoke to Lauren Kaplan, project coordinator for the farm as well as volunteer services coordinator for the Battery Conservancy about the farm’s origins, its challenges and its effects on the New York community.
Journalistic Inquiry: What was the motivation behind opening the farm?
KAPLAN: The farm started in April 2011, but it really started before that in about November 2010, when a group of high school environmental club students from Millennium High School approached the Battery Conservancy and asked if they could grow vegetables in the park. So the Battery Conservancy — instead of giving them a little plot — decided to create an urban farm… There’s been an increase in interest in the food movement and in urban farming and sustainable agriculture and organic eating. So I think when those Millennium students approached the Conservancy that was just the moment for all of that to happen.
JI: What do you see as the larger issues the urban farm is addressing?
KAPLAN: We have three main goals, one of which is to basically teach kids and the NYC community about growing and eating good food. Another is to teach them about sustainability through garden education, and that includes composting and nutrient cycling and all the different ways that humans can be more sustainable in their daily practices…And trying to improve [students’] interests in trying new foods, eating more vegetables, all through garden education.
JI: What are the most popular kinds of produce you grow here, and how do you choose them?
KAPLAN: We try to grow a wide variety for learning purposes and to try and expose everyone to it, but we definitely have certain staples that we’ll grow a lot of. Kids love carrots — they’re fun to harvest. They’re familiar. Tomatoes, turnips…I’ve also seen kids go crazy about these white little salad turnips. They’re sweet, they’re delicious, they’re beautiful. It’s a nice thing for kids to be able to pick, wash and eat. We do a lot of kale. We do a lot of lettuce mixes and salad greens. Sugar snap peas are very popular in the spring and the fall, again for kids. But then we do some crazy stuff, like husked cherries. Kids are amazed by these little things that come out of these husks.
JI: How do you run during the winter?
KAPLAN: We are not currently a four seasons growing farm. We don’t do a lot of season extensions for a variety of reasons. We would like to, and we’re hoping to incorporate that. There are some plants that can “overwinter,” meaning that they can either keep growing over the winter, or they’ll stop growing, but they’ll basically be stored in the soil until we harvest them throughout the winter over the spring. Some of those crops will be okay if it snows, some of them won’t. So, for those that won’t, we’ll probably try to build some sort of row covers or something to gently protect the areas of the farm that we plan to still grow in. In this climate we have to be prepared for snow and deep freezes. Those will happen, so we’ll try to use the average frost date to know when we have to have things harvested or planted by and sort of plan according to that.
JI: What kinds of challenges do you face being in an urban area?
KAPLAN: Squirrels are a big pest for us. They bury nuts everywhere, and they especially love to do it on the beds that we just raked flat and cleared and are ready for planting — or ones that we just planted. They will chew holes in the irrigation tapes when they’re thirsty, so we’ll have these spurts of water that we’ll have to fix every week. We have a lot of humans coming in, and some of them will pick from the plants that we were planning on picking with kids or giving to schools. People are not supposed to have dogs off-leash, but they do anyway. Dogs will come in, and if they run around the farm they can really destroy things.
On the one hand we’re very public and accessible, which is great for learning and education, and that’s what we wanted this space to be, but it also means we have these kinds of challenges that are difficult to control. Because we have so many people, we have potentially more compaction of our soil, so when we walk on it, it obviously compresses the soil, and that prevents air from getting down there. It makes it difficult for water, it makes it difficult for the roots to move around and get the nutrients they need…so that’s why we try to keep people on the paths.
JI: Following up on challenges, how did you recover from Hurricane Sandy?
KAPLAN: The park itself had a lot of salt damage because of flooding, and so we reached out to other areas that have had this kind of flooding damage and basically asked them how they dealt with it. We basically flushed out the soil with a lot of water to try to get that salt to recede and we cut back a lot of our perennial plants — not here in the farm but in the garden to get rid of the salt damage material. A lot of our plants have come back, so that was really successful. And here in the farm, the same thing, but because our plants were annual, there was no cutback, there was no hoping they would come back next year because they weren’t going to anyway. We did lose a bunch of our winter crop…and after the winter rains and the cover cropping everything was pretty much back to where it should be.
JI: Did you do anything to prevent similar events from happening again?
KAPLAN: We could try to raise the farm, we could try to build walls, but ultimately natural disasters and storms are what they are. What we really need to do is be changing the kinds of daily habits that we as a society have that are causing the increase in and severity of these kinds of storms. That’s not something that’s going to help us tomorrow or next year or two years from now. That’s the kind of thing we need to do long-term to help fix this kind of problem.
JI: You donate the produce to public schools — are they the same schools that come in for field trips?
KAPLAN: They are. I don’t know if they have to be, but so far they have been. In fact, I think we’d like to keep it that way because then the food has more impact. Schools have to be part of the Garden to School Café program…[which] was created to allow food that was grown in school gardens to go to the school cafeteria. And so [the organization has] extended it to include not just gardens on school property but school gardens if you’re a community garden that gives a couple of plots. We are a registered school garden, and because of that we can give food to schools that are registered to [the Garden to School Café program].
JI: Have you seen any kind of independently triggered responses or actions from the kids after going through these programs?
KAPLAN: Yes, whenever I got to observe a class, or whenever an educator tells me about classes, she sees the learning happening on a case-by-case basis. We also hear from teachers who report that their students know more, that they make connections, that they will bring up things that they’ve learned here while they’re in the classroom. They have a better understanding of certain concepts they’ve been teaching in school. We’ve definitely seen somewhere between 40 and 75 percent of parents and students at different levels, saying their kids will eat more fruits and vegetables, that they’re willing to try vegetables that are new to them, that they are more interested in being outside and playing outside and learning about things in the outdoors.
JI: Since the urban farm has such a positive influence, have you ever been shocked to see any criminal activity?
KAPLAN: The only kind of theft we see is vegetable theft for the most part, and as much as that can be an issue for a variety of reasons, for what we do, it’s sort of understandable. I mean it is a public park and only up until recently we didn’t have signs that said, “Don’t pick the food,” and part of us feels like we’re here to serve the community anyway. So as much as we don’t want people coming in and taking the tomatoes that we’re planning on donating to a school, you know, you’re in a public park, you’re going have some degree with that. Otherwise, there hasn’t been much.
JI: What is the response from the neighboring community?
KAPLAN: The residential community has responded very positively. This is their park. This is their neighborhood, so whenever we have festivals or open volunteer days a lot of people from the neighborhood will come down, bring their kids. It’s a nice place to be outside and teach their kids about food. We’ve had no real negative responses from anyone. Sometimes the Wall Street types will walk around and say, “Oh my grandma had a garden,” or, “This is so nice.” So it’s been generally positive. Nobody has come in and said, “I hate this farm. Why are you here?”