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Urban Farming and Menu Planning With Riverpark Farms’ Bryan Hunt and Jonathan Sumner

I have been on the grounds of Riverpark Farm for no more than — *checks watch* — 19 minutes when Jonathan Sumner, the property’s farm manager, reaches down into a bevy of lush plant life to pluck out a handful of green beans, which he then hands to us to eat. 

I feel that it is important for you to fully understand the complete situation here: Riverpark Farm is a straight-up, honest-to-goodness farm that’s operated in partnership with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s restaurant Riverpark, and it’s also situated directly above FDR Drive and a stone’s throw from the East River. You could help conduct Midtown traffic while also noshing on a particularly rare heirloom eggplant. 

Present with us is Bryan Hunt, formerly Riverpark’s executive chef, now culinary director for Colicchio’s whole restaurant group. The two have no shortage of thoughts and opinions on the topics of urban farming, farm-to-table dining (which, obviously, is what’s happening in front of my very eyes), and why farming, while wonderful, isn’t as romantic as it’s been made out to seem. For their literally and figuratively organic thoughts on the above and more, read below.

Bonobos: I cannot believe I just ate a green bean that was plucked from soil right above FDR Drive. Tell me about this place!

Jonathan Sumner: The first season on the farm was 2011, and that was one year after the restaurant, Riverpark, opened up. There’s two large properties here and the restaurant was already up at that time. But they stalled construction on the other tower and this site sat for a few years, so we approached them and asked if we could put some vegetables on that space. 

But eventually, they were going to have to finish the building, so when designing the farm, we wanted to try to find some type of modular system that could be moved. That’s why it’s all milk crates. It’s 6,400 milk crates, half of which are lined with landscape fabric and full of soil. 

The farm has moved a couple of times already. When Hurricane Sandy hit, we moved the entire farm inside. We filled the entire café with plants, then the whole private dining room. We had just started the farm. We didn’t want to lose everything. Those crates were pretty heavy. But with the air flow underneath, something could probably pick them up.

Why… milk crates?

Bryan Hunt: They did a bunch of research. They did light studies to study how much sunlight we got in different areas of the property. We did wind studies to see how strong the winds were coming off the river. They did studies on mobility. And this was the most portable thing they came up with.

Sumner: Being perfectly square, they fit together when they’re in a bed. There’s really not much space lost, and they have handles.

Besides portability, what else did you have to consider when constructing a farm in the middle of Manhattan?

Sumner: There’s three big factors, the first being sunlight. The majority of the farm is on the north side of this building. In the peak of summer, I don’t have much of a problem, but for most of the year, I get really spotty sunlight. So everything is planted according to what needs the most sun. Traditionally, when you have a diverse farm using organic methods, you want to rotate your crops regularly. I don’t really have that luxury because everything needs to be where it is based on sunlight. Instead, we rotate the crates.

The other challenge here is water. The crates are porous on all sides. If I over-water, that water runs out of the crates and leeches out a bunch of nutrients with it. But also being porous, they dry out quickly. Finding the right soil mix that’s going to be dense enough to stay in the crates in the wind, but also light enough to be able to hold water well is definitely something that’s very unique to this environment.

The wind is also challenging. We’re not on the roof of the building, so it’s not as extreme, but the buildings funnel that wind; it’s like a wind tunnel out there. That’s why a lot of the farm is trellised and why there’s corn along that back wall. 

There’s this growing regard of farm-to-table dining as being an extension of sustainability. What does true sustainability mean to you? 

Sumner: When we think about eco-friendly things, we don’t often think about the food system. Modern conventional agriculture is one of the least sustainable systems that we have. How we get our food is not sustainable, generally. And particularly in an urban environment, with more people moving to urban environments, we don’t have eyes on that system. It’s a thing we don’t have to see, so we don’t worry about it. Then, also, all that stuff has to get shipped to the urban areas. It’s a pretty big problem. Being able to do this here directly minimizes our impact, but also shines a light on what food looks like when it’s being grown. That turns a lot of people’s lights on. 

Onto clothes now: You two do very different jobs and I imagine what you wear to do those jobs is also very different. What would we find you wearing most days?

Sumner: For me, it’s all about function. Everyday at work, I’m typically wearing a double-knee pant with a bunch of pockets. I have tools and zip ties, all sorts of stuff I need handy all the time. Then I’m always trying to find the right t-shirt because I’m outside all day. It’s pretty simple for farmers. Footwear is a thing I don’t have to deal with. My farm doesn’t flood or get muddy or anything like that, so I don’t have to wear big rubber boots. I get to wear nice breathable shoes and a nice big-brimmed hat in the summer.

Hunt: In the kitchen, it gets pretty hot. You’re also standing on your feet a lot. I usually like thinner pants and very breathable socks. Shoes that are good for your posture, your back and your knees, are important. Then I like short-sleeved chef jackets that are a little cooler, and then always had the apron.

Sumner: I think mobility is a big part for both of us. We both need to feel free to move whichever way we need to. I spend a lot of time on my knees. It puts me at the right height for milk crates, so knee pads are an essential part of work at Riverpark Farm, for sure. Farming is backbreaking. People have very romantic notions about what farming is, but it’s mostly…

Hunt: Physical labor. 

Sumner: Holding your body at an awkward position and doing a really tedious task for a long time. But knee pads were a huge game-changer.

So with Jonathan doing that physical labor outside and Bryan heating up in his apron in the kitchen, how do you two work together to craft menus that revolve around what’s actually growing on the farm?

Hunt: There are things that grow in this region we know we really like. We know there are products we’ll use that are more of heirloom varietals or something that’s interesting, that’s either hard to get at the farmer’s market or you have to pay a premium to get. Then there’s things we want to have in a certain size. We can grow carrots to a certain size, radishes to a certain size, eggplants to a certain size. And it’s extremely rare for a chef to have control over something like that. 

Sumner: This is the largest outdoor farm in Manhattan, but it’s still quite a small space. Space on the farm is super-valuable. When we’re selecting varieties, we have to think about how long that crop takes. That’s another reason we focus on more petite items. We really want to feature the items we grow on the farm, and it’s much easier to do that when you can serve them whole. The moment we’re chopping something up, we’re losing that narrative on the plate.

It’s a really a big mix of planting. It all gets very specific… and then that plant usually goes out the window in the first month. I try to keep up with it.

Follow Riverpark on Instagram, @riverparknyc, and learn more about Riverpark Farm at RiverparkNYC.com.

Maura Brannigan is a writer and editor in New York, and is also often covered in dog hair.