Friday, February 3, 2012

A Farm Thrives in Lower Manhattan

In a small coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights, I met with Camilla Hammer, the manager of the Battery Urban Farm in Lower Manhattan's Battery Park. “People would walk by and say, ‘What are you doing?’” she laughed, describing the farm’s beginnings. “We still get this all the time—‘What is this? A farm in Manhattan? Why are you doing this?’” Still, most people were very positive, if surprised, she adds.

The farm encompasses about an acre, shaped like a turkey and surrounded by a bamboo fence, which gives the space a protected feel, says Camilla.

The Battery Conservancy, a nonprofit that works alongside the parks department to maintain Battery Park, hired Camilla in January 2011 as an intern for its farm project. The Conservancy was just initiating the project at that time. They essentially wanted her to guide the project, and in the span of one growing season, they promoted her to project manager and then to farm manager.

I asked her if the city kids are eager or afraid of getting dirty. There’s a misconception about city kids not wanting to get dirty, in her experience, Camilla says. “Some of them love it, some of them don’t, just like kids in the country,” she says. “It’s a real mix,” she says. Some of the private school kids with country homes love to garden; others don’t.

“The kids love the worms,” Camilla says. “I have to hide them; they get so distracted. One girl had never seen a worm before, she adds. “This one girl came to the farm, she was probably six, and she had never seen a worm before. She was kind of shocked, I mean, she was scared,” she continues. “But then I picked it up and held it out to her and said, ‘Come here, come look at it, this is a worm.’ She knew what a worm was; she had just never seen one. She actually kind of ended up liking it. …Even the ones who are initially grossed out by the worms, eventually, once they see the other kids touching them, and they see that it’s okay, they just love them.”

In addition to educational programs for kids, the farm gives all community members the chance to come out and volunteer for a day, or on a regular basis. Short-term opportunities are important because they let people try it out, Camilla says. In the project’s first year, half the space served as a community farm, and the other half became adopted plots where individuals, families, or businesses could grow their own food. They’re phasing out those plots to make the whole space an educational community farm, she says, to make sure the space is used to its maximum potential.

I asked Camilla about the challenges she dealt with in the farm’s first year. “The rats were a problem,” she said. “And because I was the only paid employee—I had ten interns—because I’m the farm manager, and it’s kind of my responsibility to deal with the rats, it’s hard for me to make the unpaid workers do it.” They had a powdery mildew issue and a few minor crop diseases, but nothing major.

The city is planning to install a bike path through the farm in the coming year, hopefully after the growing season, Camilla says. However, they’ll move the farm to another, permanent location, taking a year off during the construction phase.

Originally the farm was just a one-year project. That has since changed. “We’re going to make it permanent,” she says. “And that’s a really incredible thing, and it just shows what happens when people really come together.”

This means a lot to the kids, she says. “They get really proud of it. That’s a big thing. They’ll always bring their parents and say, ‘This is my farm.’”

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