by Stephanie Leontiev
A group of students enters the Battery Urban Farm as one of the farm elect classes the non-profit offers to schools in the city.
Picture Financial District with looming skyscrapers, men (andwomen) “walking with a purpose” in their tailored suits, and a classic go-to Starbucks on the street corner. Now plant a farm in the middle with fresh vegetables. Can you see it? That’s Battery Urban Farm: a non-profit organization that works in partnership with Battery Park to maintain the 25 acres of greenery while dedicating an acre of that landscape to the cultivation of crops. Battery Urban farm goes beyond simply functioning as a farm and also serves as an educational environment teaching young students about sustainability. Farm educator elect classes lead school groups K-3 on a weekly basis for a span of several weeks. With 25-30 people working in the office, 4 that are physically maintaining the farm, and upwards to 2,500 kids participating in the classes, there is much hidden activity going on in this plot of land. From Dutch planting to Native American planting, it is truly a unique oasis in the middle of the city.
NYU’s Journalism Inquiry class spoke to Lauren Kaplan, the Project Coordinator for the Battery Urban Farm and Volunteer Services Coordinator for the Battery Conservancy, to learn some of the insider information.
Journalistic Inquiry: What was the motivation behind starting the farm?
KAPLAN: The farm started in 2011 but even before that in 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. Instead of giving them a little plot, the Battery Conservancy decided to create an urban farm.
Journalistic Inquiry: What challenges do you face in an urban area?
KAPLAN: Squirrels are a big pest for us. 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. So, that can be an issue. People with their dogs in the park; people are not supposed to have dogs off leash but they do anyways. Dogs come in, and if they run around the farm they can really destroy things.
Journalistic Inquiry: As a follow-up on challenges, how did you recover from Sandy?
KAPLAN: The biggest devastation to the Battery Conservancy was actually our office. We were located in a below ground office just over there at 1 New York Plaza. We lost the entire thing. It flooded floor to ceiling. We lost everything that was in the office: all of our files, our documents, our materials—everything. That was the biggest loss. That we did recover from with grants, help from the city and other things. We now have a new office space.
The park itself had a lot of salt damage due to the flooding. So, we reached out to other areas that had had this kind of flooding damage and basically asked them how they dealt with it. Our staff is very knowledgeable. 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 damaged material. A lot of the plants have come back. So, that was really successful. Some did not, and so we are not replanting those anymore but something that is similar and will hopefully survive the salt. And here in the farm, same thing, but because our plants are annual, there was no cut back or hoping that they will come back next year because they weren’t going to anyway. We did lose a bunch of our winter crops. We tested the soil and after the winter rains and the cover cropping, everything is back to the way it should be.”
Journalistic Inquiry: Have you done anything to prevent similar things from happening again?
KAPLAN: [laughs] Oh, if we could prevent hurricanes you all would be a lot luckier! Hurricanes are a natural occurrence; there is nothing we can do about them. The only thing we can do about them is 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 to be changing the daily habits that we as a society have that are causing the increase in and severity of these kinds of storms. That is not something that will help us tomorrow, next year, or two years from now, but that is the kind of thing that we need to do long term to help fix these kinds of problems. So, whatever money we spend to try to protect the farm this fall or next fall next year, frankly, I don’t think it is really worth it because when a storm comes there is only so much you can really do.
Journalistic Inquiry: There was talk of a location change for the future?
KAPLAN: The location change you are referring to is probably because of the construction. The farm when it was originally built was supposed to be a temporary one-year project because there is a Battery Bike Way coming through to connect the bikeways on the east and the west side. Right now you have to get off your bike and walk it through the park. That is the construction that you can see over there: that is phase one. So, this was supposed to have happened already, but it has been delayed. We will be here next year, which we were not really expecting to be, but because the construction has been delayed, we will. That has nothing to do with the storm.
Journalistic Inquiry: So, next year are we not going to see a farm here?
KAPLAN: 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 until this construction completes. The farm would not look exactly as it does now, but it would still be probably in this general area and it would still be probably about an acre. So, it would come back to being more or less what it is right now.
Journalistic Inquiry: How did you get involved with the organization here?
KAPLAN: I got involved because I had been working in book publishing for a number of years, but I grew up in a very rural area and have always just been interested in the environment, and plants, and food.
Journalistic Inquiry: Where did you grow up?
KAPLAN: I grew up on Eastern Long Island– Norfolk. If any of you are familiar with there, it’s a lot of small farms, beautiful area with lots of wineries and vineyards. Basically, I read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and it changed my life [laughs]. There are a lot of pieces leading up to that for sure. I decided I wanted to do something that I felt more passionately about, and this is absolutely something I feel very strongly about.
Journalistic Inquiry: Are you a vegan?
KAPLAN: I’m not, no, and I don’t think you have to be a vegan or a vegetarian to support this movement. In fact, many people are going to eat meat and are never going to give it up, and I think that it is just as important to learn to value vegetables and eat less meat and more vegetables but to also think about where your meat is coming from. Here, we focus on how food is grown, and where you get your food and how that’s important to your diet and to the environment and to a lot of natural cycles that we rely on. The same is true for meat, we just happen to not be able to have cattle in the farm here.
Journalistic Inquiry: Would you consider branching out and opening up another farm in say, a rural area or outside of the state?”
KAPLAN: I don’t think that is something that the Battery Conservancy…is within its realm? The Battery Conservancy, as it is named, is really defined by the historic Battery space. We are very much connected to our downtown neighborhood, we are reaching out to the entire city with the field trip program and are trying to get more of the city involved in the farm and that has been happening. We have visits from Brooklyn, from the Bronx—all over the place.”
If you want to visit Battery Urban Farm, do so this Saturday, October 19, 2013 for their Annual Battery Urban Farm Harvest Festival. Come with family and friends to bring in the fall season. Check out more information here: http://www.thebattery.org/2013/10/22/harvest-festival-2013/