With restaurant gardens on my mind, I spent last weekend in New York City. During my trip I wanted to see how other urban farming projects are establishing partnerships with chefs and restaurateurs. On Monday, I visited Riverpark Farm in Manhattan, an urban farming project that grows thousands of pounds of produce for Riverpark Restaurant on the East River.
Riverpark Farm is unique in several respects. While many urban farming projects operate as independent businesses or non-profits, the employees of Riverpark Restaurant run this farm. Riverpark’s partners located the farm in a vacant space adjacent to the restaurant, the future site of the currently stalled Alexandria Center for Life Science West Tower. After the recession began in 2008, developers halted construction of the tower, leaving behind an unsightly vacant lot. Conveniently, Riverpark restaurant, located in the Alexandria Center East Tower, had an idea for how to put the space to use, and Riverpark Farm was born.
Farm manager Zach Pickens grows food for the restaurant in a portable container system built out of milk crates. When construction eventually resumes, Riverpark hopes to move the milk crates to an alternate location on the Alexandria Center site. When I visited, Zach lamented the difficulties of growing during the cold New York winters. To combat the cold, he built a system of hoop houses that allowed the farm to extend the growing season into December and January; it was certainly a novelty to see cabbage and collards growing amidst drifted snow. Not surprisingly, Zach’s bible this winter has been Elliot Coleman’s book on four season farming.
After touring the farm, I headed over to the restaurant to escape the rain and sample the farm’s produce. Although the menu featured less produce last weekend than during the peak harvest months of summer, I was able to enjoy basil cardamom tea and lettuces grown less than 1000 feet away. It was delicious.
One of my favorite aspects of working for Farmscape is getting the chance to meet other individuals in the urban farming community. Both in the non-profit and business sectors, the leaders of the movement are smart, ambitious, creative, and friendly. Because urban farming is a relatively new concept, it’s easy to feel a bit crazy about your work. I feel out of place as I carry 40 pound boxes of Sluggo past the cafe tables of Little Dom’s, and I’m sure that Riverpark felt similarly when they received a shipment of thousands of milk crates on East 29th Street. Visiting projects like Riverpark is reassuring--urban farming isn’t crazy, it’s a vibrant movement that’s rapidly growing in cities across the country.