Riverpark's Sicha Ortuzar with his rooftop farm celery photo by Bonnie Hulkower
I had heard a lot about the Riverpark Farm before I arrived at the rooftop farm above 430 East 29th Street near First Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The press release touted Riverpark Farm at Alexandria Center as New York City's "most urban farm." Quite a few farms have been sprouting up recently on rooftops and public spaces across NYC, so I was curious to see what made this 15,000 square-foot farm the "most urban," aside from its location in the concrete jungle that is midtown Manhattan, near the infamous Bellevue Hospital. Riverpark Farm co-founders, Jeffrey Surofsky, Sicha Ortuzar, and Scarlet Shore, were up for the challenge and threw down the gauntlet to defend their farm's title. In just a few short months, they have successfully transformed a temporarily idle construction site into a productive urban farm.
The Riverpark Farm At Alexandria Center Photo By Bonnie Hulkower
Jeffrey noted, "well, it is an empty development site on top of a parking garage near the Empire State Building and FDR. And except for the farm, we are surrounded by pavement." Also although other restaurants have gardens that supply produce for their menus (for example the West Village's Bell, Book and Candle has a rooftop farm that Sicha called "cute") what makes Riverpark's farm unique is the volume of produce they grow, on average 50-100 pounds of cucumbers a day- and that is just cucumbers alone.
Most Adaptable Farm? Milk Crates are the Key to Success
Jeffrey waxed philosophic that what also makes his farm the most urban it that it is completely portable and modular. Since the farm will ultimately have to be moved, the vegetables are planted in black milk crates filled with soil. The planters, 3,400 of them, are seeded upstate by Fred Wiklow, at his orchards in the Hudson Valley. The seeds are then germinated at a farm in New Paltz, N.Y., then trucked down to NYC. The milk crates makes the farm very adaptable. The portability of the planters allows them to be rotated to get maximum sun, and they can be raised or lowered depending on how they are growing. Over the next few weeks, the milk crates will be moved around to make room for a deck that will hold a 12 seat farm table .
Regardless of whether the farm is the most urban, it is very impressive. The farm supplies fresh produce to the adjacent Riverpark Restaurant, where Sicha is the chef and Jeffrey is the money man. But the two of them and Tom Colicchio, the restaurateur, could not have done this without the Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. being an amenable partner. The site of Riverpark Farm was originally slated to be the Alexandria's West Tower, which was scheduled to be completed by 2010, but that project stalled. Instead of letting the site sit empty, the owners worked with the restaurateurs to develop the empty space as a temporary farm to grow vegetables for Riverpark, the Tom Colicchio restaurant on site.
How It All Started
Jeffrey's favorite experience when he worked at Union Square Café was walking to the farmers market and selecting produce for the day's menu. Jeffrey missed that when the other restaurants were located further from the Green Markets. Then one day, Sicha, Tom and Jeffrey were looking down on the empty site from one of the towers and on that day the farm idea was born. In addition to the Riverpark restaurateurs and Alexandria developers, the team consists of two farm managers/gardeners, 1 full-time and 1 part-time, as well as one intern from the Fresh Air Fund. Jeffrey is a member of GrowNYC which connected him to Riverpark Farm's advisor, Michael Robertson. Robertson used to be with Queen County Farm and now has a farm in Red Hook, New York.
Some new squash was just planted on August 1st, while older plants are on their way to the compost heap. Riverpark Farm will remain at its present location until construction starts on the other tower, at which point it will relocate to another part of the center's four-acre campus. The property developers just started advertising the property. Construction will eventually resume on the site, which is the future home of Alexandria's west tower. The farmers have planned through fall 2012.
What Do They Grow?
Although the farm was only planted a few weeks ago, it is already supplying the restaurant with a bounty of vegetables and herbs. There are 6,000 plants. Vegetables being grown are: celery, 10 kinds of tomatoes (beefsteak, plum, cherry and several heirlooms), heirloom radishes, carrots, peppers (jalapeno, habanero, and sweet peppers) many varieties of eggplant, okra, cucumbers, squash and lettuces. Herbs include: chives, parsley, cilantro, dill and too many varieties of basil to mention including genovese basil, thai basil, greek basil and baby basil.
The soil used in the Riverpark Farm's planters comes from upstate New York, which means that it is free from potential urban contaminants. The farm is close to the FDR freeway, so the farmers also conducted air quality testing before they farmed on the site. All of the air quality tests came out even better than anticipated.
Public Access: Farm Table
When the construction fence and wall comes down this September, the front of the farm will be visible to the public. But it isn't a community garden or public park, so it will not generally be open for public use. There will however, be a special Farm Table, open for reservations that will be situated among the more than 6,000 plants and will feature family-style meals that highlight produce handpicked that day. So the diners will be able to eat where their meal was grown.
Fried okra from the farm Photo by Bonnie Hulkower
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