Amidst the towering skyscrapers and busting New York City traffic is a mobile, 15,000 square foot urban farm, called Riverpark Farm. Born through ideas of sustainability and more portable approaches to urban farming, Riverpark Farms partnered with Alexandria Center for Life Science and Riverpark restaurant to create one of the largest urban farms in New York City. The unique farm is located on the future site of Alexandria Center’s west tower. With the downed economy, building on the site has been suspended, leaving the lot a perfect place to create an urban farm.
More than just being a beautiful addition to the city, it supplies fresh produce to the Riverpark restaurant. Growing over 100 different types of crops, the farm proves a greener and more sustainable method of supplying local companies with produce. And the best part is, when construction starts back up on the site, all of the gardening is done in stacked milk crates, so they can just be picked up and moved to a new location.
Cofounder and Chef, Sisha Ortúzar, offered to answer a few more questions I had about their unique style of urban farming. In order to answer the rest of your questions, check out their website at Riverparkfarm.com.
How did the idea of these urban farms come about?
My business partner, Jeffrey Zurofsky, and I have been talking about urban agriculture for a while and thinking about where we could start a farm right here in the city. After opening Riverpark in 2010 we partnered up with Scarlet Shore of Alexandria Real Estate Equities to transform the stalled site next to the restaurant into the Riverpark Farm. We were fortunate that this large plot of land, right next to the restaurant, was available for at least a few years before it would become the West Tower to the Alexandria Center.
Do you have plans to start similar projects in other stalled sites throughout New York and the rest of the U.S.?
Not at the moment. Right now we are concentrating on the symbiotic relationship between the farm and the restaurant. We are focusing on making the farm into a productive and self-sustaining enterprise so that, in addition to being a great feature to the restaurant, it can be a model that could be replicated throughout the city.
You mentioned that you have a portable, 15,000 square foot farm, how is this achieved and why is necessary?
All the crops are planted in milk crates, which are lined with landscaping fabric to contain the soil. The need for mobility has to do with its location on a stalled site and will eventually have to be moved. It also helps with crop rotation and planting/harvesting. The milk crate is the perfect container, it’s a cubic foot, which allows for growing pretty much anything, except for stuff like watermelons and maybe corn, they stack very easily and they are very space efficient.
How do you avoid air pollution from contaminating your crops? Or is that not even an issue?
Not really an issue. Any pollution in the air remains in the leaves, so the fruit (tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, etc.) is not affected. And for plants were we eat the leafs (greens, herbs, etc) the key is to harvest them young, usually no more than a couple of weeks so that pollutants don’t have a chance to build up. The number one source of pollution in urban farming comes from using polluted soil. We brought clean soil down from upstate New York so we didn’t have to worry about pollutant build up. Before starting the farm we consulted with scientists from Cornell, who thought that our set up was very safe. Plus, the way I see it, if you are concerned about what the air is doing to the plants, you might not want to be breathing the stuff….
What is your relationship with GrowNYC?
They helped us set the farm. They mentored us on design, they connected us with networks of farmers and advisers. My partner, Jeffrey, sits on the board of GrowNYC.
What has been the city’s response to your farm?
Incredibly positive. We get daily requests from individuals and organizations that want to be involved with the farm, a lot of people want to visit, learn more and even volunteer. We have also received great support from city officials. We also received the Livable City Award from the Municipal Arts Society, for ‘making New York City a better place to live”
How does a team of only 8 (2 farmers) keep this going successfully?
The team that is listed on the website includes everyone who was involved with the development. The operation is managed by a much smaller group: the two farmers (one full time, one part time), our projects manager and myself. Although the farmers work very closely with the cooks and chefs to coordinated what is being grown and harvested on a daily basis.
What are Riverpark’s plans for the future?
For the next season we are looking into ways to increase the productivity of the farm by carefully selecting the crops we choose to grow, the way we schedule the plantings & harvesting and determining the right product mix.