Public Foraging Farms Are Sprouting Up On Barges Along The Coast

Floating Farm on Shipping Barge
Floating Farm on Barge. Photo via Swale

by Nikki Ekstein (Bloomberg) If you always thought Central Park needed more edible plants, you’re in luck.

Come April, a farm full of fruit trees and other crops will float to locations in three New York City boroughs, and visitors will be invited to enjoy nature by literally picking, snipping, and sowing to their hearts’ content. Located on a 5,000-square-foot barge, “Swale” will include 4,000 square feet of solar-powered growing space, including a perennial garden, an aquaponics area, and an apple orchard sponsored by Heineken USA’s Strongbow Apple Ciders atop a large man-made hill. (The hill allows deeper root space for fruiting trees.)

The project will be open to the public, but it’s more interactive exhibit than floating Central Park; only 75 people can board at once, and docents will usher guests around the grounds. Free educational workshops will include “painting with plants” and “dying natural fabrics,” and volunteers will always be on hand to explain how thoughtful permaculture planning can create a virtually self-sustaining farm.

But founder Mary Mattingly’s goals go far beyond providing city dwellers with a high-design place to forage for mushrooms in their next attempt at Beef Bourgignon.

She wants to make people work harder for public spaces, and public spaces work harder for people. She wants to create a model for sustainable urban farming. She wants to create an educational space. And she wants to eradicate the problem of food deserts in blighted urban neighborhoods.

“We don’t have much access to stewardship in New York City,” Mattingly told Bloomberg, “so we wanted to highlight and cultivate opportunities around that idea. People care for spaces that they can pick food from.”

That’s exactly what appealed to the approving committee at the New York City Parks Department. “We are trying to prioritize community engagement,” said Bram Gunther, co-director of the Urban Field Station, who cited a growing field of study that believes that community involvement, empowerment, and land management must all go hand in hand. “This project will act like a magnet, in a way, and inspire people to civic action,” he added.

That’s exactly Mattingly’s plan. Eventually, she hopes community investment (and city grants) will take the project from floating farm to philanthropic powerhouse. She’d like to use it as a springboard to raise awareness of such food deserts as Hunts Point in New York’s South Bronx, where, Mattingly says, “10,000 trucks pass through each day, and everyone has asthma, and nobody has access to fresh food.” In her perfect world, Swale becomes a conduit to a public park in the Bronx, where “people could pick food 24 hours a day.”

Here’s the only issue with that: Public policy in New York makes that kind of project legally impossible—or close to it—as it currently stands. And on a trial run last summer, Swale barely raised enough funds to keep itself going for a second season. Its manifestation this year in the East River was made possible by the partnership with Strongbow, which has made it a brand pillar to conserve and create orchards around the world. Before Mattingly can sustain entire neighborhoods, she’ll need to sustain Swale itself.

There’s reason to believe in the project, though. First, there’s Mattingly’s own record: In 2009, she spent half a year creating and living aboard a fully self-sustained ecosystem on a barge in New York, which partially inspired the Swale project.

Then there’s the success of other so-called “food farms” around the country.

©2017 Bloomberg News