City-Inspired Urbanization of Farming in Battery Park

Oct. 28, 2013 by Yelin (Christina) Chung

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A few steps from the Staten Island Ferry terminal in the southernmost tip of Manhattan lies the cozy little Battery Urban Farm, a turkey-shaped enclosing that provides an educational experience for visitors of all ages.

Born from the request of eight students within Millennium High School’s Environmental Club in 2010, the Battery Park Conservancy agreed to grant a section of the park to the students, as well as open it to multiple schools and urban students across Manhattan. The Battery Urban Farm is co-operated by the Battery Park Conservancy, and grows a variety of vegetables and fruits, ranging from eggplants to okra. Its purpose is to educate students of all ages about farming efficiently and composting, as well as irrigation and introduce farm-to-table eating. The farm is also as unadulterated as the produce that it grows: there are no pesticides, fertilizers or any artificial additives to the soil. The fence itself was a donation from the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit called “Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop” by artists Mike and Doug Starn, and was wittily designed into the shape of a turkey by designer Scott Dougan.

Recently, New York University’s Journalistic Inquiry class interviewed Lauren Kaplan, the project coordinator for the Battery Urban Farm and the volunteer services coordinator for the Battery Conservancy, in order to dig deeper into the roots of this farm’s beginnings.

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Journalistic Inquiries: Can anyone walk in and get a self-guided tour?

Kaplan: 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.

Journalistic Inquiries: What kind of challenges to you face being in an Urban area?

Kaplan: Well, 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 from school so that can be an issue. I’ve seen people with dogs that are in the park, and you’re not supposed to have dogs off-leash but they do anyways. Dogs will come in, and if they run around the farm, they can really destroy things. On one hand we’re very public and accessible so it’s great for learning and education, which is what we want it to be, but it also means that we also have those kinds of challenges that are difficult.

Journalistic Inquiries: Speaking of difficulties, how did you survive Sandy?

Kaplan: The biggest devastation to the Battery Conservancy was actually our office. We were located at 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 and help from the city and other things. And now we have a new office space.

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. Our horticulture 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 damage material.

Journalistic Inquiries: Did you do anything to prevent similar events from happening again? [Events like Sandy’s devastation.]

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.

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Journalistic Inquiries: What do you see as the larger issues that 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 another goal is trying to improve interests [in children] in trying new foods, eating more vegetables, all through garden education, mostly through classes.

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

Kaplan: Because there are so many people, we have more compaction of our soil. That prevents the air from getting down there and makes it difficult for water, difficult for the roots to get down there, and [to] 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.

Journalistic Inquiries: I can feel the subway rumbling under my feet, does that have any affect on the garden?

Kaplan: I think it gives the roots a little massage and I bet they like it! [laughs] The compaction itself happens in the upper levels of the soil, so it doesn’t run as deep as the subway system.

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

Kaplan: 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 and they’ll add 2 dollars to [the total] if you’re spending it on the green market. There are programs that are also providing more information, giving you recipes and stuff.  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.

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Journalistic Inquiries: You donate the produce to public schools [in the area]. Are they the same schools that come and take field trips here?

Kaplan: They are; I don’t know if they have to be, but so far, they have been. We’d like to keep it that way because then, the food has more of an impact. This program, the “Garden-to-School Café” 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 vendor contracts.

Reported by: Yelin Christina Chung

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