In 2011, a large urban farm was created to service the highly acclaimed Riverpark restaurant. Utilizing a stalled construction site, the farm was designed with mobility in mind using lined milk crates. This makes it easy to move and create the size and shape of the farm. At the beginning of this year, construction resumed and the milk crates were relocated. Now, the farm now exists a few feet away from its original location.
Following is my interview with Sisha Ortúzar, Chef at Riverpark Restauarant and Co-Founder of Riverpark Farm and Zach Pickens, Farm Manager at Riverpark Farm.
Monica Johnson: How is Riverpark’s urban farm different than other urban farms in NYC?
Sisha Ortuzar: “As far as I know, we are the only farm of this size attached to a restaurant, whose sole purpose is serving the restaurant. Our current location is around 10,000 square feet. This is our second location. We had to relocate after last season because construction resumed in the original site. Everything we grow here is for the restaurant. We decide what we grow based on what we want to cook in the restaurant. We have evolved what we want to grow year after year. Basically, we are growing less and less things. We started with over 300 varieties but it was just too much and it just didn’t make sense. There are only so many kinds of basil that you need.”“One aspect that is different about our farm is that it’s not a community farm, it is here for a very specific purpose, which is to grow food for a restaurant. Because of that, it is very tied into the rest of the way that we run things. It’s run as any business. Our goal is not to make a profit from it, but to have the farm support itself. All the food the farm produces for the restaurant at least pays its cost. It pays its own way. Because of that we have to think about what we grow. We have to think about what’s efficient and what has a good price on the open market. That’s how we figure what the value is of what we grow.”
MJ: Is it a daily conversation between the two of you (Zach and Sisha) about what’s happening on the farm? How much do you two talk and prepare?
SO: It’s definitely a daily conversation. Not just with me, but other chefs in the kitchen. A lot of the decisions happen in the winter. There’s quite a bit of planning that goes into it.”
Zach Pickens: “It really starts with a wish list from the kitchen. Based on the last growing season and what we liked and what we didn’t like and new things that are on our minds. The kitchen will come up with a good list of things that they want to grow each year and it’s my job to really go through that list and figure out what’s going to work best in the space and what makes sense. Then I come back with a farm plan, a working list of crops that we can grow for the year with all of my rotation.”
MJ: Sometimes you have to say no to certain things?
ZP: “Oh yes, definitely. We’re not going to not grow sugar snap peas, because that’s one of the best things late spring, early summer, but a lot of beans take a lot of space and to grow a certain amount that makes sense for this restaurant would take up all the space and we wouldn’t be able to grow other things.”
SO: “That’s the kind of efficiencies that we have to look into. It’s interesting – the progression of the crop selection. Some things we tried in the first year. We ended up with some Nasturtium plants. They were mainly for decoration around a dining table we had but then we got really excited about using the flowers, actually the leaves in a few dishes, so the amount of nasturtiums we grew the next year was quite bigger and this year even bigger because we really like using them.”
“Certain items we were unable to find at the Greenmarkets (farmers markets, lemon verbena for instance. You can find it at the Greenmarket, but not consistently and not to the scale we need. They grow what makes sense for them just like we grow what makes sense for our kitchen. They grow what they can sell for the best price. Growing a lot of lemon verbena is going to make us really happy but its probably not going yield a lot of money for the farmer ultimately because the general public is probably not as excited as we are. What was happening is that we would go to the Greenmarket and find it and then go back the next week and it would be gone. We wanted more so we decided to grow it ourselves.”
ZP: “Lemon Verbena is also hard to over winter so famers may not want to dedicate the space, time, and energy to keeping it alive. That’s a choice a farmer has to make. Does it make sense for me to concentrate on it or not? For us, it does because we use it a lot.”
MJ: What are some of the crops you’re excited about this year?
ZP and SO: “Strawberries are well established. Okra grows really well here because of the heat island effect; it’s really warm here. Most people think they don’t like okra, but prepared well we can change their minds. We’re really excited about that. We grow tons of peppers and make a lot of sauces that were serving. We dry peppers so that at the end of the summer we have way more peppers than we can use.”MJ: Looking toward the future what would you like to do and continue to do?
SO: “We’d obviously like to going with it. I think it’s evolving onto something really, really great. From the beginning, it’s been an amazing addition to our restaurant but we also feel its been a great addition to the neighborhood. It adds something very interesting to this part of town. It attracts a lot of people. We have been able to share this with a lot of groups and a lot of school kids. We have a lot of programs that help the community; gardening workshops and educational classes.”
“It (the garden) continues to evolve and get better every year. We’ve been able to put to work that this is a movable farm. The idea that you can grow in containers (lined milk crates) and make it flexible and adapt to the environment which is kind of what we all do, adapt to the urban environment as best we can. Because we are growing in these containers we can shape it however we want.”
“I’d like to continue doing what were doing and being a part for the community and the farming community and the city which I think I is important for many reasons. I don’t think we need to start growing all of our food in the city, because that’s just not possible, but I think what’s important about projects like this is and Eagle Street and the Brooklyn Grange, is that you show that you can do something and it doesn’t have to be a burden or a cost to the city. As long as there are people who are willing to do it for a good reason it can survive on its own. The Brooklyn Grange is a business. If by doing this we create little more awareness and get people interested in knowing where their food comes from-its not going to change the world, but its not harming anybody. It changes the very immediate area. That’s important to us. If all it does is affect the people around us, then that’s good enough. If we can convince the business community that this is something interesting and positive they can do, I think that’s a good thing. It’d be really great to get the business community behind this and try to do more of this.
To learn more about Riverpark Restaurant and Farm, visit them online.