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A Pop-Up Farm Opens in Midtown Manhattan

When a construction project stalled, a real estate company, a restaurant, and an environmental group built a temporary farm instead.

In New York City, spaces left empty by the recession have hosted temporary stores, restaurants, and museums. And now one company has put together a pop-up farm. In a complex just east of FDR Drive, rows of vegetables and herbs are thriving in black milk crates that can be picked up and transported at any time. Although a construction wall surrounds the farm right now, there are plans to build a white picket fence around the area and put a table in its center, where patrons can choose to eat. Diners will be able to sit among rows of squash, tomatoes, and basil and look up to see the Empire State Building just blocks away.

The farm has sprung up in the middle of the Alexandria Center, a bioscience complex where a cluster of towers was scheduled to go up. The first tower was completed by 2010, but when the project stalled the developer decided that rather than let the space sit empty, it would use the opportunity to start growing fresh vegetables for Riverpark, the Tom Colicchio-branded restaurant that’s on-site.

The developer and the restaurant partnered with GrowNYC, the organization that runs New York City’s farmers’ markets and promotes urban agriculture. For now, Zach Pickens, who works for the organization, is serving as the project's full-time farmer. He says there are some advantages to working with the portable set-up. Farm staff can rotate plants into the most favorable light conditions or raise and lower the plants if they want. They can choose which ones to place closest to the farm’s fence, for a more favorable aesthetic. Whereas farmers who plant rows of crops tend to get as much as they can out of a planting before tearing out a row, tilling the ground, and planting a new crop, Pickens can make more specific decisions, tearing out the plants that are suffering or done producing, while leaving those that are still thriving intact.

The crated plants require more water than they would if planted in the ground, as the soil in the crates can only hold so much. The farm team has been promised better drainage, but right now Pickens and his assistant wear tall, rubber work boot or Crocs to deal with the puddles of murky water seeping between the rows of crates. And some plants with more extensive root systems can’t be grown in crates at all.

The greatest advantage of the portable system, though, is that the farm's very existence. Because a building will go up here one day soon, the project’s designers weren’t going to build a field from scratch. In the meantime, the chefs from Riverpark can wander down to harvest herbs in a pinch or to discuss menus. They can specify that they want eggplant grown to two inches, not six. And they can direct the farmers grow vegetables like bronze fennel or ruby-streak mustard greens that they’d otherwise have to scramble to locate at the city’s farmers’ markets.

“We’re not pioneers in the sense that other people are growing vegetables, too,“ says Sisha Ortúzar, the restaurant's chef and co-founder of the farm. “What’s special is that this is New York’s most urban farm and the biggest farm tied directly to a restaurant in the middle of the city.”

In New York, where real estate is at a premium, building urban farms doesn’t necessarily make sense: the urban economist Ed Glaeser, for instance, has argued that tall buildings will create more energy savings than farms in these situations. But in this case, there’s no need to compromise. New York City has more than 600 stalled construction sites and 596 acres of vacant public land that are sitting idle: if there’s no building on these bits of land, why not build a farm, at least temporarily?

Even after the building goes up in the space the farm now occupies, the project could continue on in other open spaces, Ortúzar said. For now, at least, Riverpark may be the most urban farm-to-table project in existence. It’s certainly the only restaurant in the city where you’ll be able to choose between dining with a view of the East River or dining among the plants that provided the food on your plate.

Photo credit: Ari Nuzzo. Used with permission.

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