Randall's Island Urban Farm

Randall’s Island Urban Farm. photo by Sha Huang

Giant bok choy leaves, golden tomatoes, lemony sorrel, and koshihikari rice all flowing over the sides of their raised beds. You are surrounded by an oasis of lush, bountiful diversity that any northeastern gardener or farmer could hope for, and the thing that brings you back to reality is the commuter train passing over the Hell’s Gate Bridge, 300 feet above you, every 20 minutes – “you can set your watch to it” says Nick Storrs.

Mr. Storrs is one of the head farmers at Randall’s Island Urban Farm – a one acre plot on the southern tip of Randall’s Island and managed by the Randall’s Island Park Alliance. The urban farm – whose mission is “to create and sustain an organic farm that involves… students in all aspects of farming the garden, as well as preparing, serving and eating food” – began in 2006 as a small 2,500 sq. ft. garden, and has since grown to over an acre, including dozens of edible plants species, chickens, and an adjoining apple orchard; they even grow rice!

The three (soon to be four) beds of koshihikari rice are what drew our three-person film crew to Randall’s Island on this late summer afternoon. When asked why they were growing such a difficult, water-intensive, crop in New York City – where rice is not native – Nick humbly nodded his head with anticipation, as though he had his answer ready and waiting. He said that growing challenging crops, like rice in NYC, helps them – and farmers all around the world – to better understand what kind of things can be grown and in what kind of places. This sort of thinking may help us to meet food scarcity issues head-on: “increasing the diversity of the foods that we grow increases our food security,” he said. In addition Nick believes that we should literally be closer to our food, and that growing rice here allows the swarms of school children who flock to Randall’s Island to have a better understanding and appreciation of their food. Aside from that, Nick simply likes to farm – “On a personal level I think it’s beautiful… and I enjoy growing challenging crops, and being pushed as an agriculturalist to grow everything that I can as well as I can.”

Randall’s Island Farm has been a great find for our hyperlocal meal, however much of the seed used to grow their crops, including the rice which is purchased from Kitazawa Seed Company in California, is from outside of the city limits. Perhaps only 10 percent of their seed is saved and replanted the following season, disqualifying most of their produce from our meal, given strict regulations. Yet one species stuck out as particularly local: the Newtown Pippen Apple. This light green apple variety is said to have originated in New York City, and was widely grown and praised in colonial America. Nick told us that letters between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington debated the best type of apples, and indeed mention the Newtown Pippen. In the end, the experiences and food that we received on Randall’s Island are not only a source of nourishment, but also a source of pride.