The Hort’s Urban Ag Conference Earlier this Spring Featured Hands-On Workshops and Grassroots Inspiration

After a crazy and busy spring, NYC Foodscape finally has a moment to tell you about an awesome urban agriculture conference that happened about a month and a half ago. The Fifth Annual Urban Agriculture Conference took place over two days on May 29th and 30th at Randall’s Island Park Urban Farm and Riverbank State Park in Manhattan. The conference was hosted by the Horticultural Society of New York City, the Urban Agriculture Conference featured panel discussions, workshops and demonstrations from farmers who are raising vegetables, fruits, bees, and even livestock in cities where space, funds, and resource are all limited. The conference highlighted different types of urban farms and projects “that have successfully navigated the sometimes difficult waters of the urban agriculture movement.”

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Lettuce bed at Randall’s Island Urban Farm

Here are the highlights from the two days of workshops, demos, speakers and other activities at a very educational conference.

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Rice: From Propagation to Hulling

This was by far the most fascinating and most hands-on of the seven workshops. The Randall’s Island’s Urban Farm is home to four of New York City’s only rice paddies. They grow many varieties of rice from all over the world, including Japan, Italy and the United States. The Randall’s Island Rice Paddies are supported by various New York restaurants, corporations and foundations.

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Varieties of Rice

The farm grows 10 varieties of rice, mostly for educational purposes. Our NYC weather is not necessarily conducive to commercial rice production, but the farm takes the process and study of rice growing here quite seriously.

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Propagating Rice

The rice project is overseen by EunYoung Sebazco, who talked about the structure of rice and showed workshop participants how to start and plant rice in the paddies.


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Planting Rice in Paddies

By far the coolest part was actually planting the rice starts into the paddies. We planted them about 18 inches apart in a highly fertile paddy that has a layer of plant and fish compost at the bottom to help the rice grow.

Here are some interesting facts from the farm’s website about the paddies:

  • Randall’s Island is home to the only known rice paddies in all of New York City.
  • Each paddy is 3 ft. wide x 30 ft. long and 20 in. high.
  • Each paddy holds 1,000 gallons of water in its soil.
  • 1,600 grains of rice are planted in each paddy every season.
  • Each paddy is powered by a solar-operated aeration pump.
  • The rice is organically grown.
  • The Rice Paddies uitilize aquatic plants, as well as fish, to eat mosquitoes and mosquito larvae and protect the rice from predators.
  • Fresh water is added to each paddy every day using gravity-fed rain barrels.
  • The rice paddies are propagated in April and harvested in October, followed by one month of non watering and drying.

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Threshing, Milling, and Winnowing Rice

The rice from the paddies are threshed, milled and winnowed in November, but we got to give it a try using last year’s rice and some traditional (read: nonindustrial) rice processing equipment.

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Rice by-products

Besides being an important food staple around the world, rice is a very useful and versatile textile, craft material, fermentation activator and even an element in pottery and ceramics.

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Growing our own rice

Participants got to take home some rice seeds in a jar with rich compost courtesy of Randall’s Island Urban Farm, with dreams of starting their own rice “paddies” in 10-gallon containers.

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Summary of the Rice Season at Randall’s Island

Here’s a chart of the rice program season’s activities in 2012 to give you an idea of how rice is grown and harvested.

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Composting and Soil Management Workshop

The composting and soil workshop focused on the farms solar-powered forced-air composting system, which was donated by Green Mountain Energy’s Sun Club. The three bin compost system gathers energy from the sun with a solar panel and uses it to power an air fan that is connected to the back of the bins. The fan provides fresh oxygen to compost pile to feed the microbes which break down vegetable waste into compost.

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From Eggs to Meat: Meet the Spring Chickens

In this workshop, participants learned about caring for chickens in a way that supports a successful food economy and a healthy, balanced farm. Topics included breed selection, egg hatching, raising chicks and adult birds, and feed and nutrition. The workshop also covered how to raise birds for profit, traditional and innovative ways urban farmers are marketing eggs and poultry, and a short overview of city rules and regulations. Here are the chickens and coop up close:

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Seed Saving

Zachary Pickens, farm manager of Riverpark Farm and the founder of Rooftop Ready Seeds showed us some simple simple techniques and tips for saving seeds to spend less money on garden seeds and preserve our genetic diversity. From tomatoes to kale to flowers and herbs, the workshop spelled out the science of seed saving as well as the unique considerations of saving seed in the city to help keep cross-breeding to a minimum.

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Day Tw0–Keynote Address from “Gangster” Gardener Ron Finley 

Among the speakers and panelists during the conference’s second day at Riverbank State Park was keynote speaker Ron Finley. Armed with a shovel, some soil and seeds, Ron Finley has come to be known as the “gangster gardener,” and his unexpected tactics have made him one of L.A.’s most widely known activists. Finley plants vegetable gardens in South Central LA — in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs. Why? For fun, for defiance, for beauty and to offer some alternative to fast food in a community where ‘the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.'” His TEDtalk is one of the most watched among of TED’s talks with over 2.3 million views.

Frustrated by his community’s lack of access to fresh, organic food, Finley inadvertently started a revolution when he turned the parkway in front of his South Central L.A. home into an edible garden in 2010. Ron’s goal was simple; bring healthy food to an area where there was none, making him see firsthand how gardens build community and change people’s lives. This experience blossomed into a quest to change how we eat and to teach youth that they have the capacity to design their own lives.

Based in LA, Ron is now working on the The Ron Finley Project, which has ignited a horticultural revolution worldwide. Finley now speaks at global conferences and in classrooms regularly, spreading his gardening gospel wherever he’s invited. He wants the world to know that if you change your food, you change your life.

Ron was recently featured in the “Can You Dig This?a documentary produced by musician John Legend. The film explores the urban gardening revolution currently taking place in South Central Los Angeles, what Finley calls one of the largest food “prisons” in the country. The film follows Finley and the inspirational personal journeys of four other ‘gangster gardeners,’ all planting the seeds for a better life. The director, Delila Vallot, recently won the LA Muse Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where the film had its World Premiere two weeks ago.

NYC Foodscape was contacted by Delirio Films, the filmmakers of “Can You Dig This?” asking for photos from the garden to use in the credit sequence of the documentary, in exchange for credit and special thanks. We’ll keep you posted about the films full release so you can keep an eye out for photos of Campos’ youth in the rolling credits!

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Where to learn more about Ron Finley and his work

 

More of the Randall’s Island Urban Farm

The one-acre Urban Farm on Randall’s Island cultivates a wide variety of organically grown fruits and vegetables. With over 80 raised beds, two greenhouse, a milk-crate container garden, and a trellis tunnel for gourds and climbing vines, the Urban Farm presents a wide array of crops, varieties, and growing methods. Most of the produce grown on the Farm is used in its education programs as students harvest, cook and share farm – fresh meals together at the end of every class. The excess is donated to local food pantries and non profits.

Herb Spiral

After seeing the herb spiral at the Randall’s Island Urban Farm, NYC Foodscape was reminded of our first herb spiral at The Talking Farm in 2008. This inspired us build the herb spiral at the Children’s Garden at Campos where the Three Sisters Garden was last year (for more information about the spiral, see Boys Club of New York’s Herb Spiral Project Incorporates Math, Permaculture Design, Soil Science, and MicroclimatesThe spiral at Randall’s Island is a beauty!

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Other Farm Features

From the Farm’s website: “The Farm’s hands-on outdoor kitchen and garden programs foster a deeper appreciation and understanding of our natural world, along with of how food is produced. The programs demonstrate how choices about food affect health, the environment and communities, as well as supporting academic standards in the life sciences.

Students participate in maintaining the farm by planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and composting, using sustainable gardening practices such as rainwater capture and crop rotation. Students also learn about soil fertility, photosynthesis, pollination and botany, as well as nutrition and the history of farming in New York City.”

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