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Riverpark Farm

When our South American/Iberian producers were last in town, a number of us visited Riverpark, a Tom Colicchio Restaurant that overlooks the East River at 29th Street.  Giddy with wine (Scinniri from Sicily) and bellies full, we were given a moonlit tour of the Riverpark Garden, located just outside the restaurant.  No wonder the “Baby Lettuces” that we’d eaten was one of the freshest salads I’ve ever had–each leaf popping with its own distinct flavor note; they were the result of the ultimate farm-to-table experience, made with greens that had just been harvested from the 15,000 square foot “stalled site” farm next door.

Curious to learn more about the nature of this farm-to-table production, a process that’s so close to the heart of TEW and the winemakers we represent, I returned for a tour during daylight, as the fall harvest was nearing its end, and later spoke with Sisha Ortúzar, the Chef/Partner at Riverpark, and Co-Founder of the farm.

Born from a collaborative partnership with Alexandria RE Equities who owns the property, between Scarlet Shore the Executive Director at Alexandria and Jeffrey Zurofsky a Partner at ‘wichcraft, Riverpark Farm is the first farm in New York City to be planted on a stalled construction site.  Launched in September, the farm sits on the future site of the West Tower at Alexandria Center, making temporary use of the land.  For sites whose developments were stalled due to the economic downturn, this is a resourceful means for site developers to maintain their permits while awaiting additional funds.

In April of this year, Riverpark farm began the process.  Considering the time that it might take to obtain permits, they planted everything at Wilco Orchids, a nursery upstate, and had the plants ready to transport in milk crates.  Eggplant, okra, baby kale, collards, mustard greens, herbs, edible flowers, cranberry and green beans, tomatoes, lemongrass and beets.

“We gave them [Wilco Orchids] a list of what we use, and what we’d like to have,” said Sisha.  “We took an educated guess on what to plant.  Now we know the level of production and what the restaurant uses…Next year, we’ll be more strategic…40 habanero plants; it’s too much.  Now we’re drying them and making sauces.”

In addition to knowing how much to plant, they also learned of the need to stagger.  At one point this season, they had 150 cucumber plants ready for simultaneous harvest; they were “pulling 50 pounds a day for two weeks.  We had cukes everywhere,” said Sisha.  “We’ll know better next year, looking at how much one crate can produce.”  One square foot can produce one eggplant plant, which yields 15-20 pounds, or a single cabbage. And while the farm isn’t the single supplier to the kitchen, it does produce 40-80% of what the kitchen uses weekly.

For the upcoming winter, they plan to cover 20% of the crates with winter/cover crops, like alfalfa or winter peas, grassy material to protect the soil during the colder months.  Next spring they’ll till this soil to provide it with nutrients.  The other 80% of the crates will be planted with crops that can survive the winter–spinach, carrots, and radish–and covered with tunnel frames, heat membranes and thick plastic.  When it comes time to transfer the land back to its original intent, the farm will be taken apart and dispersed over the 4.5 acre campus.

Riverpark Farm has received visitors from Germany, Vancouver and Portland, and they know of similar projects on the West Coast.  However, no one has heard yet of any similar projects in the city.  With Scott Singer, the Manhattan Borough President, in favor of making use of the 600+ stalled sites around the city, the urban farm is a ripe opportunity.

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