How JetBlue ended up with a potato garden at New York JFK

JetBlue has a new garden at New York John F. Kennedy Internatonal Airport. Photo: JetBlue. 

JetBlue has a new garden at New York John F. Kennedy Internatonal Airport. Photo: JetBlue. 

How did JetBlue end up with a farm outside its Terminal 5 at New York John F. Kennedy International Airport?

You may remember my post last week about the new garden. It is 24,000 square feet and it features roughly 3,000 crates of potato plants, herbs and other produce. The biggest crop will be blue potatoes.

I spoke recently with Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue's head of sustainability (yes that's a real title), about the challenges of gardening at the airport. 

Here's a lightly edited version of our discussion. 

How did this come about?

It started when a coworker and I were talking. We were saying, 'How come everything in Brooklyn is so cool?' We decided one of the ways Brooklyn made itself cool was through rooftop gardens. We said, 'We could do that at the airport.'

It started out as a joke. But the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea. We know that being at an airport is hard. And green spaces relax people. 

We put it together as a way to celebrate the fact that the airport doesn't have to be a terribly stressful place. This was just an empty parking lot. It wasn't giving customers and crew members anything. 

As a Californian, I don't believe you can actually grow produce in New York. Don't you have a short growing season?

It's longer than people think. We can grow up until late November, and we can start again in late March and the beginning of April. We are really only down in December, January and February.

Who is tending the farm?

We have a farmer. This is not a volunteer garden situation. This is thousands and thousands of pounds of produce per season. It is really hard work. We have a professional farmer, Katrina. We found her through a nonprofit, GrowNYC. She will be taking professional care of it. 

What are the limits to growing produce at an airport?

We cannot plant anything that flowers - no wheat, no berries and no tomatoes. It has been a really interesting experiment in learning what the Port Authority [of New York and New Jersey] says will not attract birds. The plants we have are safe for an airport.

Is there any concern about pollution near the airport?

There is not. This is pre-security, so there is less  emissions around it. And the two most important factors are the soil and water. If you don't know, the water in New York City is high quality. And we got organic dirt from a farm in Upstate New York. 

Would you consider a similar project elsewhere? 

To be honest, I have been pulling all-nighters for the past week and sleeping very little for the past month. I have barely begun to think about another airport.

But how about Long Beach Airport in Southern California, where there is year-round sunshine? Wouldn't it be perfect? It's a JetBlue focus city. 

I wouldn't be surprised but I can't say we have any plans at the moment.

You have already started harvesting from the farm so that's a good sign. But is there anything that makes you nervous about this operation?

It's a farm at an airport. We are worried that we don't know what to be worried about. There is truly nowhere to turn for advice on this.