Riverpark Farm: green acres, blocks from Park Avenue

The Tuesday after I moved soil at Farm-In-The-Sky, I left work during my lunch break to visit urban farmer and friend Matt Lebon at Riverpark Farm and Restaurant. The fact that a lunch-break visit to the farm from my office in East Midtown, Manhattan was feasible speaks to the urbanness of this particular urban farm. A thicket of high rise apartment and office buildings stretches across East Midtown and its neighbor to the south, Kips Bay, where Riverpark is located; parks and green space are scarce. I happened upon Riverpark in July while killing time before a movie I was going to see at a nearby cineplex. Following 29th Street east towards the East River, I sought the river’s open expanse and its promise of relief from skyscraper-induced claustrophobia. At First Avenue, the asphalt of 29th Street turns to cobblestone and passes a small security booth. Intrigued, I continued on without interruption by the guard in the booth. The road came to a cul-de-sac, opposite which was an unexpected sight: an attractively fenced-in lot with rows of green, lush plants growing out of elevated planters.

Before: Riverpark Farm in July

This was Riverpark Farm. The farm and its namesake restaurant sit on the public grounds of the Alexandria Center for Life Science, a research park for biotech companies comprised of sleek, ultra-modern buildings of glass and steel. The marriage of this highly ordered, lush space and the sterile architecture evoked a science fiction utopia. I was so swept away with the scene that by the time I returned to the cineplex the movie I was going to see had sold out.

Three months later, the weather was chillier and the sky grayer than on my first visit, but the farm was just as green. The space wouldn’t remain green much longer, though; by the end of the week, the space Riverpark Farm had occupied for over a year would have to be vacated. The farm was situated on a stalled building site, and construction on the site was slated to resume. Fortunately, Riverpark had anticipated this eventuality by using highly portable, stackable milk-crates as growing containers for its crops. By next spring, the farm would reconfigure somewhere else on the Alexandria Center’s grounds. With just days left before the move, I followed Matt through the milk crate maze as he furiously trimmed and harvested crate-plots of fragrant herbs. With the deadline for the move looming, Matt had to stay busy. That morning alone, he harvested 40 pounds of bell peppers.

Much as I would have liked to shirk work obligations and linger on the farm a little longer, my final visit to Riverpark’s original incarnation was brief. My mind, however, continued to linger with the farm even after I arrived back at my desk, my curiosity about how a farm came to be in such an unlikely environment still unsated. So I was grateful to be invited back the following week to speak with Zach Pickens, Riverpark’s head farmer, and Chrissa Yee, a project manager at the restaurant who helps coordinate operations with the farm. Our conversation covered a lot of territory, including Riverpark’s beginnings, how one becomes an urban farmer, and what the future might have in store for Riverpark and urban agriculture in New York as a whole. 

After: The former site of Riverpark Farm in late October (courtesy of Riverpark Farm)

The greening of a stalled site

It may seem foolish to start a farm on a site that you could be asked to leave at any given moment. For Riverpark, that moment came barely a year after its unveiling. But it was this very flexibility that gave the project life in the first place. “Because it was a stalled site, we were able to use that space for free, and I think that’s a big part of why this was a viable project for us,” says Chrissa Yee, the project manager.

Head farmer Zach Pickens explains, “In the city, access to land is the biggest barrier for urban farming, and so having a landlord that is amenable and not only likes the idea but is partnering to make it happen, is working alongside us to make it happen — that’s major, that’s something that really hasn’t happened before.”

Riverpark sought a permit from the NYC Department of Buildings to farm on the stalled construction site. With the support of the local community and GrowNYC, the non-profit organization that runs the city’s Greenmarkets (including the renowned Union Square Greenmarket), Riverpark won approval for this unprecedented “temporary alternative use” of a stalled construction site. And they’ve returned this community support in kind. Although Riverpark is a “for production” urban farm on private property that supplies produce to a single restaurant, it has opened its doors to the public at large, hosting school groups, providing free tours, and offering free Saturday workshops to other would-be urban farmers.

Farmer of a new frontier

Might Riverpark’s workshop attendees one day start their own urban farms? Everyone starts somewhere, and with urban farming, there’s no clear path to follow to make it a livelihood. This is partly because of the newness of the practice to the modern city, and partly because the myriad mutations of the concept of a farm are still proving their fitness in the urban ecosystem. Pickens’ own experience offers a glimpse of what it’s like to grow into a profession that hasn’t settled into a definitive shape. Though he grew up gardening with his parents in rural Ohio, it wasn’t until he moved to the city that he started gardening on his own — on a rooftop, no less.

“I got really excited about it, and this was a time when urban agriculture was just coming up and getting into people’s minds, so I was really excited to be a part of something that was just emerging. It was just kind of like a clean slate, like ‘let’s figure out how to make this work’, on rooftops, in backyards, on windows, whatever.”

Pickens’ initial idea was to combine urban farming with his interest in education, but says “eventually, I started to see business opportunities with urban farming, especially with restaurants. I had my hands in a lot of different projects. I wanted to explore a lot of questions about the food system and about urban agriculture and how to make it work best . . . I was working farmstands, youth run farmers markets with GrowNYC. I had started a school garden program, I started a rooftop garden for a restaurant in Fort Greene — I was just getting involved in everything I could.”

Pickens took a soil management course at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and counts “certified Master Composter” among his credentials, “a degree I’m kind of more proud of than my master’s degree,” he says with a laugh. But that’s about the extent of his formal farming education. He has otherwise learned mostly by doing, and by visiting other farms and sharing knowledge with other urban farmers. As Pickens puts it, “nobody’s written a book on this,” so the educational role assumed by so many working urban farms, including Riverpark, is essential to the growth of urban farming.

Riverpark is here to stay — and so is urban farming

There’s no doubt that urban farming is on the rise. Riverpark could be taken as a symbol of its ascendance; the fact that a high-end restaurant with the backing of a major celebrity chef started its own urban farm signals urban farming’s move toward the mainstream of the urban food economy. High-end diners are now putting a premium on locally-produced food, and at Riverpark they can eat as local as it gets. “The assistant executive chef would regularly come out and harvest his basil at five o’clock, half an hour before it’s showing up on a plate,” Pickens says, describing the affinity of the restaurant’s kitchen staff for the farm. “We even had some of the line cooks coming out and working a couple hours a week a little early before their shift and help harvest, help water . . . if they are on shift, they can come out and harvest exactly what they want for their station.” In its first year, Riverpark kept crops growing all 12 months with the assistance of low tunnel coverage, and was able to keep the “farm” modifier preceding many produce items (farm eggplant, farm purple tomatillos) on the restaurant’s menu year-round. Even now, with many of the farm’s milk crates stacked and tucked away behind the restaurant, Riverpark has kept lemon verbena and strawberries growing in adjacent low tunnels. (Fortunately, the bundled-up farm was undamaged by Hurricane Sandy, Pickens reported to me the week following the storm. Though it is close to the East River, which is actually a tidal strait connecting New York Harbor and the Long Island Sound, Riverpark was elevated enough to resist the historic storm surge flooding of coastal Manhattan.)

Low tunnels set up for winter growing

Having worked its way into the hearts of its diners and chefs alike — as well as spontaneous visitors to the Alexandria Center — Riverpark and the Alexandria Center are working together to find a new home for the farm. It could reappear as several discrete plots scattered throughout the plaza, or it could relocate to a consolidated space in front of the restaurant, according to Yee. Whatever the case, Riverpark remains committed to the task of bringing the farm back to the Alexandria Center’s grounds next year.

The farm’s spatial flexibility and mobility serves as a model that other urban farms could follow to obtain the precious real estate they need. Pickens suggests that a kind of “mobile farm” could be a viable business model for future urban farms; a container garden using portable hardware like Riverpark’s milk crates could move from one stalled construction site to another, packing up each time construction on its temporary home resumes. As of November 4th, there were nearly 700 stalled construction sites registered with the NYC Department of Buildings throughout the five boroughs. In theory, these stalled sites could represent an untapped resource for enterprising “nomad farmers,” to borrow Pickens’ term, who would trade stability for affordable real estate. However, many such sites would likely not be suitable for farming if the planned structures were already partially built. Still, even if a model relying on stalled sites proved unviable, there’s enough city rooftop space highly suitable for farming (a 2011 study by the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University’s Earth Institute identified at least 3,079 acres of such space) and unmet demand for local produce ($900 million, according to one study) to be sure that urban farming in New York City is far from reaching any limits on its growth. “Every single summer since I started farming in the city,” Pickens remarks, “I keep saying ‘alright, is this the year, is this the year that the bubble bursts and the trend dies and nobody cares anymore and they move on to something else?’, and it doesn’t happen. It just keeps getting stronger and stronger.” Urban farming might have once been viewed as a passing trend, but it has now gained the momentum of a movement that’s here to stay.

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