Exclusive: Agritecture Interview With Manhattan's Largest Outdoor Urban Farm
Agritecture Exclusive Interview
After visiting and speaking with urban farmers in different cities, you quickly realize how different each operation is. Every farmer is utilizing their space in a unique way, growing something different, and has a different business model. No two urban farms are alike. This was especially evident at the farm at Riverpark in Manhattan.
I’ve visited this farm at peak growing season during the Summer months and during the more barren Winter months, but each time I visited the farm I was greeted by farmer Jonathan Sumner, who was busy solving that day’s challenge on the farm. This time he was dealing with integrated pest management, “It’s the part of the season where you start fighting battles that you can’t win,” he said jokingly while holding a spray bottle of neem oil.
Jonathan Sumner is a ‘traditional’ farmer turned urban farmer. I ask him about how his knowledge of traditional agriculture is altered to relate to an urban setting. He told me, “It’s more interesting to note the things that don’t apply. For example, the time of day to water. Typically farmers harvest and water crops during the early morning, but this farm is mostly in the shade, so I don’t have to keep crazy farm hours.” Needless to say, every day is a new learning experience when farming in the city.
The farm at Riverpark is nestled between the FDR, a highway that runs along Manhattan’s east side, and the Alexandria Center in Manhattan. The farm is utilized by Tom Colicchio’s restaurant, Riverpark, located just a few feet away from the farm. The farm is a partnership between the restaurant and the Alexandria Center, “Because the farm is not the main revenue stream for either business (Riverpark and Alexandria Real Estate), neither business would suffer a large financial loss if something were to happen to the farm. Not being a landowner nor business owner, not having to grow my living, and not having to find a market for my product all allow me to experiment with more difficult and perhaps less productive crops without taking any financial risk”, Jonathan explains.
I asked Jonathan what some of the challenges are as an outdoor urban farm that operates year-round; soil, sunlight, and space. “The farm is made of 6,400 milk crates, 3,200 of which are lined with landscaping fabric and filled with soil, each sitting on top of an empty crate. Since the beds are raised, wind passes underneath them freezing the soil during the colder months. Surrounded by tall Manhattan skyscrapers and being situated on the East River, the farm only receives a few pockets of sunlight. However, the mobility of the farm has been useful because the crops can be easily rotated to follow the sunlight. Space is another issue when dealing with urban environments. We have to get creative with space by utilizing the building footprint, public areas, and parts of the restaurant. Our farm is really spread out in 2-3 main areas.”
Problem-solving on an urban farm is also a challenge, “Our irrigation system was basically born out of necessity. We asked ourselves how are we going to water this farm? The result was pretty much the only way that it could be done.” It is hard to irrigate 3,200 individual plots of soil. So drip stakes are used. It is more beneficial by delivering water that way rather than top watering. Additionally, It is 10x more efficient as far as water usage goes. Drip stakes allow the farmer to decide the depth to water. This helps with overall root health and developing a healthy root system.
Farm to Restaurant in Minutes
Jonathan has an interesting role working so closely with a restaurant because he often has to deal with all the situations that arise on the farm, pest control, crop damage, etc, in addition to situations that arise in the kitchen. Farming and restaurant life, two arguably stressful environments. I asked Jonathan if he had ever worked this closely with a chef, “I had a general understanding of what chefs wanted, but now I’ve learned so much about flavor and texture. Everything has a different flavor and texture throughout each stage of growth. For example, a radish seed pod is an item that wouldn’t typically be grown for a farmer’s market but in our case, we can harvest it. Another example is with spring garlic, we flash fry the roots and serve and also dehydrate into a powder for green garlic powder. All of the herbs we grow we dehydrate and use all winter long.”
Riverpark is a unique operation, it is the fastest and freshest farm to table restaurant in New York City. Crops are harvested just feet away right before kitchen preparation. Not many restaurants in NYC can get their ingredients within 24 hours, so this operation certainly stands apart. “I work closely with the chef and kitchen to harvest items and bring to their station getting the product at hour one of shelf life and using it at hour 3, with dinner service at hour 4, no one else has that.”
But food production isn’t the only reason this farm exists. The farm was designed strategically for the restaurant and it’s customers to enjoy. Jonathan starts crop planning with Executive Chef Andrew Smith and Chef De Cuisine Evan Sloan in the Winter to plan ahead for all seasons. “It is such a positive feeling, as a grower, getting to see the process from seed to plate and to have an influence on shaping the menu. Knowing the dish that I am growing for in February to be served on the Spring menu.” On a restaurant farm, there are also specialty items grown for aesthetic purposes, not just for the menu. All crops grown are used in some capacity for the restaurant, “We started growing corn to break the wind off the FDR and for advertising to highway passersby. We decided to feature the corn on the menu as popcorn incorporated into a pork belly dish.” There is ongoing communication between the farm and the kitchen, as the harvesting is done directly in the kitchen.
The farm layout is inviting and decorative, inclusive of a dining table set up within the farm for a special private dining experience. The amount of customization that goes on is unique for a grower and for a chef. Jonathan tells me that it’s his reward to have to do all his tasks daily to keep up with making it a beautiful space. And keep all people involved happy. The farm provides a narrative and unique dining experience; fresher is better when it comes to a flavor benefit.