Urban Agriculture Is On The Move

Vertical farming. Rooftop gardens. A greenhouse on a boat. Pop-up farms on stalled construction sites. Farms in the beds of trucks. The urban farming movement is reaching a crescendo. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York, where there are over 500 community gardens and between 15 and 30 urban farms according to a 2011 brief by the Urban Design Lab. And there is plenty of room for growth on the city's 14,000 acres of arable rooftop space and 600 empty, stalled construction sites.

Riverpark Farm, one of Manhattan's most ambitious urban agriculture projects, embodies the future of urban farming. Directly connected to Tom Colicchio's Riverpark restaurant, the 15,000-square-foot farm is built on a nearby stalled construction site on the Alexandria Campus. "We're expert restaurateurs but we're novice farmers and even though we have experienced growers, a lot of the things we're doing here is new even to them," says Riverpark's head chef and partner Sisha Ortuzar.

Unlike traditional farms, all of Riverpark's crops are planted in milk crates, making them easily transportable. The crops were initially grown upstate while Riverpark's Ortuzar and partner Jeffrey Zurofsky waited on permits that would allow them to transfer the fully grown and ready-to-eat crops to the empty construction site in Manhattan.

"Right now there is land like this that is sitting empty, and if someone can do something like this in a short period of time it's great — and then it can move. Different farms can jump from site to site," says Ortuzar. If and when construction resumes on the Alexandria Center's second tower, the crops, in their crates, will be relocated.

Unsurprisngly, not all urban farms are eager to compete for expensive Manhattan real estate, and many have turned to the outer boroughs or even a nearby river as alternative growing sites. Like Riverpark, the garden at Roberta's, in the gritty Bushwich section of Brooklyn, is tied to the restaurant. About 15 percent of the produce used at the pizzeria and restaurant comes from greenhouse garden in the courtyard, which satisfies both the customers' palates and their curiosity about where their food is grown. Last week alone, the garden produced 10 lbs. of eggplant for the restaurant.

Avoiding real estate and land costs altogether, the organization New York Sun Works launched "The Science Barge" in 2007. This pop-up portable farm used hydroponics to grow over 800 lbs. of food off shore. Other farms, like Brooklyn Grange in the Long Island City neighborhood overlooking Manhattan, opted for larger growing space and settled on a 40,000-square-foot rooftop in Queens. The Grange plants an impressive 40 varieties of tomatoes as well as hundreds of thousands of other plants. On a smaller scale, truck farm, founded by filmmakers and occasional farmers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, is a 1/1000th acre "farm-on-wheels" that grows only as many crops as can fit in the back of a pick-up truck. While Brooklyn Grange sells its crops via farmstands and local restaurants, the truck farm literally brings the produce to its customer's doorsteps.

Whether large or small, however, New York's urban farmers have increasingly designed farms that shorten the distance between producers and consumers. "If urban gardening is here to stay, it needs to be portable and flexible to change with the ever evolving city," says Melissa Metrick, head gardener at Roberta's. "If a building gets bought or a space/neighborhood changes, a garden is much more likely to survive if it can be moved or altered."

Even seemingly rooted farming methods like vertical farming have the potential for enormous mobility. Vertical farming advocates propose that each floor of a building or skyscraper could be its own farm, thus eliminating the need to expand horizontally. Dr. Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor and director of the Vertical Farming Project says that small–scale vertical farms could be used to help regions facing famine. He likens the idea of building ready-to-ship farms in storage units to the portable hospital units (MASH units) used in the Korean War.

Back at Riverpark, the team learned that war isn't the only emergency that calls for crop portability. In August, Hurricane Irene put the portability of Riverpark Farm's crated plants to the test. The staff was able to move every plant into the restaurant's dining room before the storm hit, allowing the farm to avoid the type crop damage that devastated many farms in upstate New York. Ortuzar says that Riverpark was conceived to move mainly because they don't expect the land adjacent to the restaurant to be vacant forever. "When we were thinking about the need for mobility of the milk crates (planters), we never thought that this would also apply for natural disasters," he says. "The plants did great indoors for the weekend. The tomatoes actually benefited from the higher night temperatures and grew stronger."

For more resources related to the types of farming discussed here, check out these organizations' websites: