An airport — crowded, smoggy and rife with security concerns — seems like an unlikely locale for a farm.
But JetBlue was intent on growing potatoes and other produce at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. It took three years of jumping through hoops before the T5 Farm, named for its location outside Terminal 5, came to fruition in early October, the company says.
"If it sounds crazy from the outside, it sounds mind-blowingly dumb inside an airport community. A lot of people raised their eyebrows," Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue's manager of sustainability, says. But she decided to go for it anyway, in part because the company was already making soil with composted JetBlue food waste in the Hudson Valley.
The goal of the unusual new tarmac farm? To promote "urban agriculture, supply local schoolchildren with a living laboratory about healthy food, give free produce to our crew members and add a literal green space to the customer experience," she tells The Salt.
The 24,000-square-foot space has been planted with mint, kale, carrots, arugula, ginger, lavender and herbs. But the No. 1 crop is blue potatoes. The company says it hopes the farm will produce 1,000 pounds of them per harvest to use in the TERRA Blues potato chips served on board.
When deciding what crops to grow, Mendelsohn says she wanted to avoid berries and other foods that can attract wildlife, like birds, to the airport.
Katherine Preston, environmental director of Airports Council International-North America, concurs that they might endanger both wildlife and passengers. "The major issue really is hazardous wildlife," she says.
Still, JetBlue wanted to get as many herbs and veggies on its farm as possible.
"We want to make enough of a variety that someone walking through could make multiple different dishes out of what we had," Mendelsohn says.
But who exactly might be cooking from this airport farm?
Don't get your hopes up, JetBlue fliers. You won't be able to pick a sprig of lavender or peruse the kale before your flight. For now, the company says passengers won't be eating anything from the farm other than the potatoes in a small number of TERRA chips.
The farm will be open to JetBlue employees who work at the airport, and in the future, local children.
"Airports are like small cities. We wanted to give the community around the airport a positive way to engage with the space," says Mendelsohn.
The company hopes the farm will serve as a "living classroom" for schoolkids in Queens and will partner with GrowNYC, a nonprofit focusing on environmental programs for New Yorkers, to make that happen.
So is this just one airline's crazy attempt to distract customers from the fact that it releases huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions? No, says Mendelsohn. "That's what our robust fuel savings and offset programs are for."
And, according to Preston of the Airports Council International-North America, a lot of other airports are finding ways to incorporate food into sustainability plans. The Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Chicago airports are donating leftover food to food banks and composting food waste and coffee grounds. A handful of other airports lease out property for farmers to grow alfalfa and biofuel crops, she says.
"This project really is the tip of the iceberg," Preston says.
Moving forward, she expects more airports to watch and learn from JetBlue's partnership with JFK. Airports tend to have unused exterior space, and JetBlue claims its farm won't be exposed to any additional pollution from jet emissions.
"It's the same air that you breathe anywhere in New York City next to a road. It's New York City air and New York City water," Mendelsohn says.
Preston says she also believes that food from an airport farm shouldn't be riskier than any other vegetable garden or farm in an urban environment.
"I'm not aware of any future plans [for other airport farms] as of right now," Preston says. "But I'll be watching. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot more popping up."