By Daniel Yeom
The Battery Urban Farm is a one-acre educational farm located right by the Stanton IslandFerry Terminal in Lower Manhattan, devoted to teaching school-age children about the concept of sustainability through farming. The farm grows a variety of produce like kale, tomato, okra, and carrot, allowing Manhattanite kids to first-handedly experience where food comes from.
We met up with with Lauren Kaplan, the Project Coordinator for the Battery Urban Farm and the Volunteer Services Coordinator for the Battery Conservancy, to talk about urban farming, sustainability, and squirrels.
Journalistic Inquiries (JI);
What was the motivation behind opening the farm in the first place?
Lauren Kaplan (LK);
In 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. The Battery Conservancy, instead of giving them a plot, decided to create an urban farm.
JI; What kind of challenges do you face being in the urban area?
LK; Squirrels are big pests for us. They are a huge problem. They bury nuts everywhere, and they especially love to do it on the beds that we have just raked flat and cleared, and are ready for planting. It disrupts the planting all the time.
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 the dogs off-leash, butthey do anyway. Dogs will come in, run around the farm, and they can really destroy things.
JI; Speaking of challenges, how did you recover from Sandy?
LK; The biggest disturbance to the Battery Conservancy was actually our office. We were located in a below-ground office over there in One 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, documents, materials, everything. We recovered from that with grants and help from the city. Now we have a new office space.
The park itself had a lot of salt damage because of flooding. We reached out to other areas that have had this kind of problem flooding damage and asked them how they dealt with it. We flushed out the soil with a lot of water, trying to get the salt to recede. A lot of the plants have come back. So, that was very successful.
Hurricanes are natural occurrences; there is 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. When the storm comes, there is only so much we can do.
JI; There was some talk about a location change for the future?
LK; The location change you are referring to is probably because of construction. The farm, when it was originally built, was supposed to be a temporary one-year project.
JI; So after next year, we are not gonna see a farm here?
LK We will be here next year. 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. We might have community gardens located in other areas until the construction completes. It will come back to be more-or-less what it is right now.
JI; What schools are you working with and how do they go about signing up?
LK; We work withabout 11 schools combined with the classes we teach and the teacher-lead classes. For the most part, the same schools we’ve been working with are the same ones we’ve been working with since the beginning.
Whenthe farm first started, we basically reached out to a lot of different schools and the ones that were interested in came in and started working with us. And our programs were not then what they are now. They’ve developed as the result of the different reviews we’ve got from those teachers. Some needed more help and guidance, so those were the ones we teach. And some are very independent – those are the ones with older kids, high school or middle school. Anyone can apply.
JI; How do you guys run during the winter?
LK; We are not currently a four-seasons growing farm. We don’t do a lot of season extensions for variety of reasons. We would like to, and are hoping to incorporate that.
There are some plants that can over winter, meaning that they can either keep growing over the winter, or they will stop growing but they will basically be stored in the soil until we harvest them throughout the winter over the spring. We are planning doing some of that.
JI; How did you get involved with the organization here?
LK; I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and that basically changed my life. I had been working in the publishing for number of years, but I grew up in very rural area (Eastern Long Island), and I’ve always been interested in the environment, plants, and food. I decided I wanted to do something that I felt more passionately about, and this is something I absolutely feel strongly about.
JI; How much manpower does it take to run the farm?
LK; We have had about two full-time and two part-time staffs. I believe that the part-time staff may now be coming full-time. And then we have a number of volunteers.
We will probably be teaching upwards of 2,000 and close to 2,500 students this year alone. So it’s a lot of work. We love it, but we have to collaborate with the teachers that come in. There is a lot of relationships and partnerships that go into that.
JI; What are some of the most popular produce?
LK; We try to grow a large variety for learning purposes, but we certainly have certain staples. Carrots – they are fun thing to harvest, they are familiar. Tomatoes. Turnips – I have seen kids go crazy about turnips. We do a lot of kale, we do a lot of lettuce mixes and salad greens. Sugar snap peas are a very popular thing in the fall, again for kids. Cherry tomatoes for tasting purposes…
But then we do some crazy stuff, like husk cherries. Kids are amazed to see these sweet little things. We try to do okra. Herb, lots of other things.
JI; What do you think is the larger issue that the urban farm is addressing? What is the big question?
LK; We have three main goals. One of which is to teach kids and the NYC community about growing and eating good food. Another is to teach them about sustainability through garden-education, that includes composting, nutrient cycling, and all the different ways that humans can be more sustainable in their daily practices. And trying to improve their interest in trying new food. Eating more vegetables. I just totally butchered the wording of those goals… They are worded much better than that on our websites.
But we are really focusing on trying to make the community more sustainable and trying to increase the understanding and values of food production and farming in cities.
JI; Have you seen any responses from the kids?
LK; Whenever I go to observe a class, I see the learning happening on case-by-case cases. It is visible in a lot of cases – we hear it. We also hear from teachers. Reports that students know more, make connections, bring up things that they learned here while they are in classrooms…
The real challenge is getting that into some sort of quantitative presentable measurement. We’ve been working on that a lot. Doing surveys with parents who have chaperoned, or whose kids have attended the farm classes, and with the teachers who bring their students. We’ve definitely seen somewhere between 40-75% of parents and students saying that the students will eat more fruits and vegetables, they are more willing to try fruits and vegetables that are new to them, they are more interested in learning about things that are outdoors.