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Harvest Day at the Urban Farm

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What can you grow on Houston Street?

Plenty, it turns out—and at noon on September 26, NYU faculty and students and a gaggle of community preschoolers gathered at the Urban Farm Lab's first-ever harvest celebration to feast on that bounty.

Would-be pickers, tentative at first, wandered among the vegetables and herbs that flourish in neat rows on the sloping plot nestled between the Silver Towers and Houston Street's six lanes of roaring traffic. Finally, after several friendly exhortations by Professor Jennifer Schiff Berg, director of the Steinhardt Graduate Food Studies Program, and Professor Amy Bentley, associate professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at Steinhardt to “please, grab a bag and fill it!” the guests got down to business. Students pulled beets from the ground and touched tomatoes, testing for ripeness. Professors snipped basil and sage; someone shared a recipe for stuffed eggplant. The children joined hands and paraded around the garden's perimeter, their tiny baskets filled to the brim.

The harvest was the reward of a long summer of hard work by Berg, Bentley, and the students and community volunteers who tended the plots. After earning a Green Grant and securing permission to start the first-ever urban farm on a landmarked site in the City of New York, Berg says, they took a rototiller to what was then an overgrown lawn and dug beds by hand. Then, they planted—lettuces from seed, seven varieties of heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, watermelons, and more—and waited. In the hot months that followed, some crops faltered: strawberries never materialized, peppers were a little hard on the tooth. But plenty of others thrived, as those who left the harvest weighed down with full bags could attest—and this was only the beginning.

The farm is designed as a research plot where students taking urban agriculture and food studies courses can explore the most effective ways to grow food in cities—a question that will become increasingly urgent as the 21st century wears on, Bentley says. A community space shared by NYU students and faculty, Silver Towers residents, and the children from the University Plaza Nursing School—the most dedicated farmers of all, Berg says—the Urban Farm Lab will also produce veggies that can be enjoyed among those groups as well as shared with community soup kitchens.

At the harvest celebration, at the top of the hill, guests munched on refreshments—a tomato tart, crudités—fashioned out of ingredients from the garden. But that didn't stop pedestrians on Houston from craning their necks in confusion. The most common question from cynical New Yorkers, according to Berg and Bentley? Whether the food grown here is safe to eat.

The answer, of course is yes: The idea that you can't grow food in a city is a myth, and the soil here has been tested for toxins twice. But if that isn't proof enough for you, check out the mouthwatering photos in the slideshow above (and don't miss the baby watermelons).

Watch a video about the Urban Farm Lab here.

—Eileen Reynolds

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