Winter’s a tough time for any farm, and especially for farms that are just starting out. The 15,000-square-foot Riverpark Farm at Alexandria Center, a collaboration between Riverpark restaurant and the Alexandria Center for Life Science, is no exception. “The storm this week got us by surprise because we weren’t prepared for it,” says Sisha Ortúzar, Riverpark’s chef and a co-founder of the farm along with Jeffrey Zurofsky and Scarlet Shore. But the cold weather isn’t going to halt the farm completely. In fact, Ortúzar has plans to grow vegetables throughout the winter months.
“We’re covering the planters with conduit pipe that’s bent around the crates and has layers of plastic and heat membranes. So we’re going to be able to grow throughout the winter.” Among the plants the farm will be harvesting in the upcoming months are heirloom varieties of spinach and kale, carrots, root vegetables, and a few perennials. Still, while the farm supplied anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of the restaurant’s needs during peak months, over the winter months it will be supplying significantly less. But Ortúzar acknowledges that growing a little is better than growing nothing. “I never thought we’d be able to do that,” he says, marveling at the idea of year-round planting.
It’s one of many hurdles that Ortúzar and his team have faced in creating a farm in a bustling metropolis. “The first challenge obviously was to secure the space,” says Ortúzar. “After that, trying to get the project green-lit took time because we built the farm on a stalled site which hadn’t been done before. It took some explaining and the people who gave us permits took some time. But after that it’s been surprisingly smooth. When you think about it, the concept is simple: Put some dirt on a crate. Things I thought that might be issues, like rodents, we haven’t had any of that.” Ortúzar also brought in soil from upstate, and dismisses the idea that pollution significantly affects the plants. “My opinion if we’re concerned about the quality of the air, then maybe we shouldn’t be breathing it.”
Since its debut, the farm has been a give-and-take between farmer and chef. “[Farmer] Zach [Pickens] works with the kitchen, giving a forecast of what’s coming in. He’ll say, ‘I have 20 pounds of squash to harvest tomorrow,'” says Ortúzar. “And the kitchen reacts to that with the menu. The farm forms the menu, whether we like it or not. But the kitchen also makes requests. At the beginning of summer we found some great lemon verbena. But then later it wasn’t available at the market. So now we have the farm where we can grow those types of things.”
Ortúzar, however, notes that next year the kitchen staff will plant more according to its needs and in a way that truly maximizes the space. “This year, we just planted what we thought we’d like to have and a lot of it worked, but we also know we can make the farm more productive,” he says. “On the same crate we can have a tomato plant or cabbage. The tomato plant will yield 30 pounds versus the one cabbage. Because we don’t have infinite space, we’re going to get a lot more specific.”