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NYU Urban Farm Lab Teaches Important Lesson in Urban Ag

April 21, 2015 |

NYU Urban Farm Lab

NYU Urban Farm Lab

NYU’s Urban Farm Lab is not your typical classroom, but for students at NYU’s Food Studies program, it’s where they learn one very important lesson: how to grow food in the big city.

The Urban Farm Lab was the inspiration of NYU graduate student Daniel Bowman Simon who thought there should be an urban garden on campus. Unfortunately, the administration didn’t agree— at least not at first. But after five years of campaigning, Bowman Simon and members of NYU’s Food Studies Department got the administration on board, and the NYU Urban Farm Lab was born.

Located at Houston and Wooster Streets, NYU’s Urban Farm Lab is New York City’s first urban agriculture project situated on a Landmarked site, designated as a historically significant location by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Because of this designation, NYU struggled to get permission to use it for the Urban Farm Lab and continues to follow strict guidelines regarding its use.

“There were many, many hurdles to get through, but ultimately we were able to do it,” says Amy Bentley, Associate Professor in NYU’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and director of the Urban Farm Lab. “We’re really limited, however, because it’s on Landmarked property, so we can’t build any structures. We can’t do a greenhouse or anything like that.”

Despite certain limitations, Bentley and her colleagues in the NYU Food Studies Department have accomplished what they set out to achieve; they have created a space for teaching, researching, and experiencing urban agriculture on NYU’s campus.

“We thought it was important as a Food Studies program to have a garden. We don’t teach agriculture, but urban issues are very important to us, so we wanted to have a teaching and research garden. We call it an Urban Farm Lab. It’s not really a farm, but for New York City it’s sort of farm-like,” says Bentley.

The Urban Farm Lab, which is in its third season, was funded through a $25,000 Green Grant from NYU. The Green Grant provided funds for bed prep, compost, mulch, and tools, as well as the first year salary of the teacher for the school’s two credit urban agriculture course. Now that the lab is more established, however, Bentley says the department hopes to move away from grants and begin funding the program through the tuition received from the urban agriculture class.

The urban agriculture class was developed in conjunction with the Urban Farm Lab and provides Food Studies students with the opportunity to get their hands dirty as they learn how to grow food. The class, which is available in the spring, summer, and fall semesters, also involves readings, assignments, and field trips to other urban farms.

But Food Studies students are not the only ones benefitting from the Urban Farm Lab. A convenient collaboration has developed between the Urban Farm Lab and NYU’s Nutrition Department.  The Nutrition Department runs a teaching kitchen and the farm lab gives much of what it grows to the classes utilizing the teaching kitchen. In return, the teaching kitchen composts its food waste and gives the compost to the Urban Farm Lab.

The Urban Farm Lab is also developing relationships with the outside community by allowing anyone to access the farm space— not just students and faculty. Children from a nearby nursery school even have a row reserved just for them in the farm lab so they can plant and dig.

“It’s meant to be a community builder— a place where people can come and just enjoy gardening and get to know each other in a different place,” say Bentley.

Looking toward the future, Bentley says they can’t make many changes the Urban Farm Lab’s structure due to the site’s Landmarked status. However, they are hoping to get a little more experimental in coming years (it is a research garden after all). A few ideas they are toying around with include getting a beehive and reconfiguring beds into a terracing arrangement. But Bentley emphasizes that regardless of what new directions the Urban Farm Lab takes, its underlying mission will remain the same: acting as a catalyst for research, learning, and community involvement in the urban agriculture field.

“It’s good for people to be in these green spaces, to get their hands dirty, and to grow food,” says Bentley. “New York needs more green spaces and production spaces, so we definitely want to be a part of that and to be a strong presence in New York City for urban agriculture.”

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