The Urban Farm at the Battery Conservancy is a one acre farm-space in the middle of 25 acre Battery Park in downtown Manhattan. Open since April of 2011, the Urban Farm functions primarily as an educational farm for public and private schools, largely in downtown area, to teach kids about growing food, healthy eating, and practicing sustainability. The students of New York University’s Journalistic Inquiry class got to talk with Lauren Kaplan, Project Coordinator for the Battery Urban Farm, about the farm’s programs, it’s challenges, and one of the biggest it’s faced so far—hurricane Sandy.
Journalistic Inquiry: What was the motivation behind starting the farm?
Lauren Kaplan: The farm started in 2011, but it really started before that in about November of 2010. 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. And this year we combine it—it was in two pieces originally. Now it’s one big continuous piece.
JI: So how does a school get involved in your program?
LK: We have a variety of different programs. Our farm educator leads school groups kindergarten through 3rd grade for a variety of classes during the spring and the fall on a weekly basis. So they’ll come for about 10-12 weeks in the spring or about 8 weeks in the fall and get a really comprehensive overview of farm curriculum.
We also have a field trip program and a teacher-led program, which is basically a community garden for schools. We work with about 11 schools regularly, about eight of those are teacher-led.
We also do volunteer days, and we have community festivals on the weekends. So there’s a lot of different things we do.
JI: What challenges do you face being in an urban area?
LK: Squirrels are a big pest for us. Somebody once saw our fence and asked if it was a deer fence and I had to remind him that we don’t actually have deer in the park. So deer are not a problem—squirrels are.
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 their dogs off leash but they do anyway. Dogs will come in—if they run around the park they can really destroy things. So those are some challenges just to the space itself.
On the one hand we’re very public and accessible, which is great for learning and education. And that’s what we want this space to be. But it also means that we have those kinds of challenges that are difficult to control.
JI: Following up on challenges, how did you recover from Sandy?
LK: The biggest devastation to the Battery Conservancy was actually our offices. We were located in a below ground office, one New York Plaza. It flooded floor to ceiling. We lost everything that was in the office: all our files, our documents, our materials, everything. We did recover from that with grants and help from the city and we now have a new office space.
The park itself had a lot of salt damage because of flooding. So we reached out to other areas that had had this kind of flooding damage and asked them how they dealt with it. And our horticultural staff is very knowledgeable. We basically flushed out the soils with a lot of water to try to get the salt to recede. A lot of the plants did come back, so that was very successful.
JI: So have you done anything to prevent a similar event in the future?
LK: Hurricanes are a natural occurrence. There’s nothing we can do about them. 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, but that’s the kind of thing we need to do long term to help fix these kinds of problems. Because when a storm comes, there’s only so much you can really do.