The Randall’s Island Park Alliance’s Urban Farm is a 40,000 SF environmentally-sustainable garden and outdoor classroom at Randall’s Island Park. The mission of the Farm is to offer local children and families the chance to experience and learn from agriculture in an urban setting, as well as to teach essential life skills and support academic learning through hands-on classes exploring how choices about food affect their health, the environment and their communities.
The Urban Farm is located at the southern end of the island, adjacent to the Park’s playground, a picnic area, playing fields and comfort station. The Farm has been designed to provide students with the opportunity to plant, harvest and compost, as well as to learn sustainable gardening practices such as rainwater capture, crop rotation, soil fertility, photosynthesis, pollination and botany. The garden is composed of 80 raised beds, two greenhouses, four rice paddies, and a garden made out of plastic milk crates. A play space in the form of tunnel doubles as a trellis for growing gourds; other trellises are used to grow cucumbers, squash and bitter melon. The Farm’s berry patch is composed of high bush and low bush blueberries, raspberries that fruit both in the summer and fall, cranberries, two pear trees and numerous grape vines. An adjacent orchard offers over 50 apple trees. Each year, ten baby chicks are purchased and raised in the garden.
School groups can visit the Urban Farm through our Edible Education Program; in addition, the public is invited to visit for our annual special events and on Exploration Days when the Farm is open to the public during the summer months.
The Urban Farm is home every year to a flock of chickens. Each spring, we raise a new group of chicks from their first day of life until the late fall, when we donate them to nearby schools and community gardens. The chickens’ pasture is a tenth of acre, giving them plenty of space to scratch, forage and run as well as providing a space where students can interact with them in a safe, supervised environment.
The rice paddies at the Randall’s Island Urban Farm are some of the only known rice paddies in New York City, and offer visitors a rare chance to see how a foundational part of the human diet is grown. They are also a fascinating example of how artificial wetlands ecology is used in food production. Each paddy holds 1,000 gallons of water in its soil and 1,600 grains of rice every season; each is powered by a solar-operated aeration pump. The rice is organically grown using aquatic plants; fish eat mosquitoes and mosquito larvae and protect the rice from other insects. Fresh water is added to each paddy every day using gravity-fed rain barrels.
Randall’s Island Park hosts 67 apple trees and eight peach trees, as well as a variety of persimmons, cherry, pears, blueberry and raspberry bushes. Newton Pippens and apples imported from Kazakhstan are featured in the Urban Farm. The Newton Pippen is a local variety of apples first developed in Queens near Newton Creek roughly 300 years ago. Kazakhstan is the region of the world were the apple is believed to have first developed in nature, and wild apple forests flourish there to this day. Randall’s Island’s trees were grown from branches harvested by researchers in the region and then grafted onto rootstock here in New York.
The outdoor kitchen acts as the central meeting space of the Urban Farm Edible Educational Program. Here, students connect before and after their lessons, and the kitchen provides a space to cook simple meals. Using human-powered tools and utensils, students work as a team in the kitchen to cook meals for themselves and their friends; they can experiment with different recipes, from simple salads to pan-roasted popcorn. It is also the home of our bicycle-powered blender, which provides a lesson in engineering while allowing students to create watermelon smoothies, hummus, and pesto – all without electricity.
Compost Bins & Rotating Crops
RIPA works to create an environmentally-sustainable ecosystem at the Farm, through integrated practices and the cultivation of healthy soil. Compost bins are fed by a solar-powered forced-air system (a gift from Green Mountain Energy’s Sun Club). A small fan, powered by a solar panel, forces air through compost piles; that air provides oxygen to diverse beneficial insects, invertebrates, bacteria and fungi, which in turn break down food scraps, weeds and leftover crops. Students in the classes apply the compost created in the farm to the vegetable beds, learning valuable lesson in cultivating soils and vegetables all at once. In addition, RIPA grows cover crops that benefit the soil; for example, a mixture of oats and peas maintains and builds levels of nitrogen in the soil, and buckwheat provides biomass and protection of the soil during the summer months. Careful crop rotation – changing the vegetables grown in a given bed from one year to the next – enables crops to draw different nutrients from the soil, and discourages the pests and diseases that might develop and prey upon them. As a result, RIPA is able to use fewer fertilizers and inputs, instead growing healthy, varied crops using sustainable agriculture.