Lessons in Sustainable Agriculture on Houston Street


Pass by the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers on Houston Street, and you might notice a gaggle of students elbow deep in dirt. Depending on the season, they could be planting seedlings, tending crops, or harvesting tomatoes while an instructor looks on and lends wisdom and suggestions. This is NYU’s urban farm lab, a working produce farm that’s part of the university’s food studies program.

“We envision it as a research, teaching, and community space,” says Amy Bentley, an associate professor of the food studies program who helped establish the farm with Jennifer Berg, the director of the graduate food studies program at NYU Steinhardt. “Students are really interested in it, because they’re interested in urban agriculture, sustainability, and green production. These are really key, important issues for these students. They think about future of the world, and they’re so engaged and interested in them. So students have pushed us to become more involved in issues of production, sustainability, and urban agriculture.

It took the duo seven years to surmount the obstacles to establishing the lab, from convincing NYU to jump on board — questions, Bentley says, included, “Was it going to attract rats? Was the soil contaminated?” — to dealing with bureaucracy in the city, including the Landmarks Preservtion Commission, since the Silver Towers have landmark status. “We didn’t even know if we could change the grounds at all,” says Bentley.

After clearing those hurdles, the farm was ready to plant last year, and it became the setting for the school’s urban agriculture class, taught by adjunct food studies professor Laurel Greyson. Greyson describes the course as a “mini crash course in urban agriculture,” though she says the class covers challenges that present themselves in both urban and rural settings. “We go seed to seed,” she says. “We cover everything from sowing to composting; we grow a variety of vegetables, and focus on cover crops in the winter.” Students follow the cycle of the seasons at the farm, spending as much time outside as possible, and supplementing their hands on experience with classroom lectures when necessary.

Once harvest season starts, students learn to can and pickle with what they pull from the earth, and then Greyson gives much of the produce to the faculty of the food studies department. She’s also working on partnerships with food banks, though she says there’s not so much coming from the farm at this phase that there’s a lot of extra. “But that’s something I’d like to implement in the future, especially at the height of the season,” she says.

Greyson also takes her classes on field trips to other urban farms in New York City as well as production facilities, like Mast Brothers Chocolate, where students can hear from a maker’s prospective the importance of sustainable farming. “It gives them an awareness of the urban consumer,” she says. And the trips also provide fodder to discuss food justice, food access, and community gardens.

It’s been a successful experiment. Greyson started with one section of the course, and she now teaches three — and each of those fills up on the first day of registration. Which means Berg, Bentley, and Greyson are thinking about how to develop the program for the future. “We’re hoping to gradually add more of a research component,” Bentley says. Greyson adds that she’d like to institute a more advanced class, where students can follow the farm for the whole year instead of just for a semester.

And the professors are adamant about this being a community space, too. “Every time I’m out there, passersby ask, ‘What are you doing? What’s going on?'” Bentley says. “It’s such a conversation piece. The sensory experience is calming beside the deafening roar of traffic on Houston Street.”

And that means there’s excitement over it’s growth: Greyson cites public workshops and events; Bentley says the team is thinking about bringing in classes from public schools. “It’s all in the experimental stage,” she says.