c.2013 New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — “It’s hard for first-grade fingers,” Camilla Hammer explained. “We tell them it’s like putting sprinkles on a cupcake.”
The first-grade fingers in question were about to plant “lettuce mix” seeds — mustard, kale and arugula — at the urban farm at the Battery, a carefully tended acre in the shadow of tall office buildings in Lower Manhattan. All of the children had their own space in a bed of dark, rich-looking soil, but the remarkable thing was that the farm was there at all. Hurricane Sandy did not wash it away.
The storm flung the topsoil this way and that, and what was not blown away was soaked in salty floodwater. The Battery Conservancy, the nonprofit group that runs the farm, called horticulturists in New Orleans to find out what they had learned during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “They said, Soak, soak, soak,’” recalled Warrie Price, the conservancy group’s founder and president. “They said: Turn the water back on. Get the salt at the roots.’”
The sprinklers had been shut off for the season, but plumbers were called in to make them function again. Even so, Price said on Tuesday that about 50 percent of the plant material had been lost. She said that replacements (and new topsoil, where it was needed) were purchased with $50,000 in donations raised during the winter.
So the farm, on the State Street side of the park, is once again home to organic vegetables, fruits and grains.
And Zelda, the wild turkey who has lived there since 2003, still toddles by. The storm did not do her in, either.
This is small-scale agriculture, bigger than growing plants in a window box, big enough for wheelbarrows, but not big enough for a tractor. And the look is not that of “American Gothic.” Battery Conservancy staff members wear T-shirts and jeans, not coveralls. If anyone posed beside an upside-down pitchfork, there would be skyscrapers in the background, not a small white house.
Soon, there will be bicyclists in the background; the conservancy plans to have bicycle paths through the park.
The urban farm opened in 2011 with Price’s group describing it as the first serious planting at the Battery since the 17th century. The idea for a modern-day farm began with the environmental club at Millennium High School on Broad Street, a short walk from the park. Education has become a focus for the conservancy: Some 2,000 students from more than 30 schools have now signed up to plant, water and tend the crops.
“For the families of those 2,000,” Price said, “we are not just a tourist park, as we are for the thousands who walk by during the day. The continued residentialization of Lower Manhattan means there are people in a live-and-work environment here.”
As the temperature soared last week, some urban farmers were planting, and some were already harvesting. On Tuesday, students from Public School 3, the Charrette Elementary School on Hudson Street, planted bibb lettuce. Students from Public School/Intermediate School 276 in Battery Park City harvested turnips, radishes and pea tendrils.
And the first-graders, from Public School 397, also known as the Spruce Street School, prepared the soil with watering cans made from yogurt cups with holes they had punched in the bottoms. “We told them they’re rainmakers,” Hammer said. “We used to use a watering can, but they’d fight over who got the watering can. And this uses less water.”
Anna Ellis, the conservancy’s farm educator, said that digging and planting makes an impression on schoolchildren. She said one class that had been to the farm was later assigned to do a how-to guide. The children could choose any object they wanted.
“They all did how to plant a carrot,” she said — something they had learned at the farm a few days earlier.
And how do you plant a carrot? On this farm, children are taught to use their fingers as measuring tools, she said. “They have to know how far down to dig the hole — down to the knuckle in your pointer finger,” she said, “and every carrot is three fingers apart, using their fingers as a ruler.”