Battery Urban Farm: Plant Your Own Seeds of Nature Education

By Duan Liu 

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Around 9 o’clock in the morning, a group of elementary school kids flocked into this weird turkey-shaped farm in the Battery Park for their weekly class. They sat around their educator for a basic lesson and went to get hands-on experience of taking care of the plants they grew by themselves. This farm educator-led class, in which educator leads the kids to get a very comprehensive view of farm curriculum, was hosted by Battery Park conservancy.

Amid the noisy and crowd under financial district’s skyscrapers, Battery Urban Farm quietly maintains its peaceful yet lively natural gardening routines. As an educational farm, it devotes most of its efforts to teach young children in schools and adults how to farm and grow food, thus deepening their understanding of sustainability through farming.

This week, New York University’s Journalistic Inquiry class invited Lauren Kaplan, the project coordinator for the Battery Urban Farm and the volunteer services coordinator for the Battery Conservancy, to share her thoughts and feelings about the farm.

Journalistic Inquiry: What was the motivation behind the farm?

Kaplan: The farm started in 2011, but it really started before that, in November of 2010, when a group of high school environmental club students from Millennium High School approached the Battery Park conservancy and asked if they could grow vegetables in the park. So the conservancy instead of giving them a little quad, started to create an urban farm. And that was basically how the farm started.

Journalistic Inquiry: What do you think is the larger issue that the urban farm is trying to address?

Kaplan: We have three main goals: The first one is to teach students and people in New York how to grow and eat good food; The second one is to teach them about sustainability through gardening education, which includes composting and nutrition cycling; the third one is to make humans more sustainable in their daily practices, and growing food is part of that. We also try to increase their interests in trying new food and eat more vegetables all through garden education.

Journalistic Inquiry: During your busiest season, how many staff do you need to run this?

Kaplan: We have had 2 full-time and 2 part-time staff. I believe that the part-time staff may now become to be full-time. And we have numbers of volunteers who can help us get things done. But it’s basically that four staff and the entire group of Battery Park Conservancy, which is around 25 to 30 people in the office and in the park that combined. We have support staff that would do event writings and promotions, and all kind of other things that we obviously need to work with them.

We probably will be teaching up to 2,500 students this year alone. So it’s a lot of work but we obviously will have to collaborate with the teachers who are coming. There are a lot of relationships and partnerships that are going on.

Journalistic Inquiry: What the schools or the children’s response to the learning program here?

Kaplan: Whenever I go to the observe class, the educator taught me that he can see learning is happening on a case by case basis. It is visible on a lot of cases, and we can hear it. Kids make more connections with the plants they grow, and have better understanding of certain concept that they’ve been teaching in the school. A lot of parents say that their kids are more willing to try vegetables, more interested in being outside and learning outside. So, certainly we get good response. The real challenge is to change it into some quantitative, presentable measurement. We are working on it now by doing surveys on parents whose kids just attend the class or with teachers who bring their students here

Journalistic Inquiry: How did you get involved in the organization here?

Kaplan: I got involved because I had been working for publishing for numbers of years, but I grew up in a very rural area and just have been very interested in environments, plants and food. And basically I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma that changed my life. There are lots of pieces of readings other than that for sure, but I decided to do something that I felt more passionate about. So this is something that I absolutely feel very strongly about.

Journalistic Inquiry: Are you a vegan?

Kaplan: No, I’m not. And I don’t think you need to be a vegan or a vegetarian to support the movement. In fact, many people are going to eat meat and they are never going to give it up. I think that it is just important to learn and value vegetables and eat less meat. I am also thinking about where the meat is coming from. So we focused on how food is grown, where you get the food, and how that’s important to you, your diet and the environments, and to the natural circles that we all rely on. The same is true for meat, we just happen to not have cattle in our farm…

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Journalistic Inquiry: What kind of challenges do you face, being in the urban farm?

Kaplan: Squirrels are big pest for us. I used to think they are really cute, and I still kind of do. But I also don’t really like them now, because they bury nuts everywhere. They especially like to do it on the beds that we had just raked flat and just ready for planting. They would come in and dig holes, and they bury peanuts in this, which we don’t need, we are not trying to grow peanuts at the moments. Even if we do, we don’t need squirrels’ help.

We have a lot of humans coming in, some of them will pick up the plants that we are planning on picking with kids or sending to school. So that would be an issue. People with their dogs in the park—people are not supposed to unleash their dogs there, but they do anyway. Dogs will come in, if they run around the park, they can really destroy things. So those are the challenges to the space itself.

On the one hand we are very public and accessible, which is great for learning and education, which is what we want the place to be. But it also means that we have those challenges and difficulties to control.

Journalistic Inquiry: Did you do anything to protect the plant from disasters that are similar to Sandy?

Kaplan: Hurricanes are natural occurrence; there is nothing we can do about that. The only thing we can do is to… we could try to raise the walls but ultimately nature disasters are what they are. What we really need to do is to change the daily habits we as a society have that cause the increasing numbers of the storms. That’s not something that’s going to help us tomorrow, next year, or two years from now. But that’s the kind of thing that we need to do in long-term to help fix this kind of problems.

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