Rooftop Farming in New York City

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New York's Brooklyn Grange Farm serves as a model rooftop urban farm.
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Grange Farm interns prepare beds for direct seeding and transplanting.
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Anastasia, cofounder of the Brooklyn Grange Farm, harvests Forellenschluss Lettuce for distribution to restaurants and CSA members.
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Michael and Anastasia harvest Forellenschluss lettuce and garlic for the farm stand and CSA distribution.
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Farm Manager, Michael Meier, harvests amaranth for distribution.
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A group of interns prepare the beds for planting.
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Anastasia harvests lettuce for distribution to CSA members, and for sale to participating restaurants and at the farm stand.
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Farm intern Vanessa prepares a bed for transplanting starts.
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Farm intern Vanessa harvests a good bunch of garlic.

Nearly every gardening magazine, agriculture publication, or horticulture blog these days contains some mention of urban farming. The trend toward producing food in the heart of metropolitan settings is growing rapidly and is certainly evident in the United States’ largest city. Amid the mass of concrete underfoot and towering into the New York City sky, there is a new tier of urban farming gaining momentum. Brooklyn Grange Farm, located in the Long Island City section of Queens, lends a whole new meaning to the concept of urban farming.

This one-acre commercial organic farm is located atop the Standard Motor Products building, a six-story warehouse built in 1919. A team of farmers, interns, and agriculture apprentices grow many types of herbs and vegetables from early spring through late fall, usually November, depending upon the timing of the first killing frost.

In its third year of production, the farm grows and sells mostly salad greens that include both savory and sweet lettuce mixes in the early spring, moving on to hot and sweet peppers and 40 varieties of luscious tomatoes in the summer. While these items make up the “bread and butter” of the business, other popular items include Swiss chard, kale, squash, several types of beans and peas, a wide variety of root vegetables, two types of strawberries, as well as plenty of herbs.

Feeding the Urban Masses

A visit with restaurant veteran and director of communications and sales, cofounder of the Brooklyn Grange, Anastasia Plakias, provides some insight into the significant impact that rooftop farms can have on feeding the urban masses. While rooftop farms likely will never replace in-ground traditional agricultural practices, they are definitely adding a new dimension to the farming scene.

Brooklyn Grange farmers help to reconnect New York citizens to good, healthful food by improving their access to farms and farmers. Selling the vegetables at the weekly farm stand located in the lobby of the building means that many people walk or bike their vegetables home, and the food never comes in contact with petroleum-powered engines. Grange accepts WIC clients, further providing healthful food to women and infant children. The farm stand is open noon to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, May through October.

The farm produces enough food that all employees help themselves to food from the diverse selection of vegetables and herbs. Because it also sells produce to several local restaurants, including Roberta’s in Bushwick, Giuseppe Falco at Vesta in Astoria, Marlow & Sons, Joseph Leonard, and others, Grange employees grow specialty items for chefs. They try to strike a balance of higher-end and harder-to-find gourmet items with common vegetables for the average home cooks.

A source of income for the farm is its CSA which brings in money early in the season when expenses are greatest. Then Anastasia and her fellow farmers make sure that CSA members get their money’s worth throughout the season. Sensing that many CSA members weren’t using up their vegetables, Anastasia began the practice of providing recipes with the weekly distribution, ensuring that recipients make good use of the healthful food.

Most traditional crop-producing farms also have animals, and so does Brooklyn Grange Farm with its 15 laying hens and 30 beehives, with most of them being located at the second farm at Brooklyn Navy Yard. In fact, the bees are expected to produce a couple thousand pounds of honey that tends to fly off the farm stand during the summer. They are also breeding survivor bees with one another in order to have a NYC-hardy genetic bee stock in a few generations.

Challenges of Rooftop Farming

Farming on a rooftop is not without it challenges. Plant varieties must be chosen to withstand the high winds and intense, direct sun typical of high buildings. Fortunately, the world of plant diversity provides enough different varieties to make this relatively easy.

The most obvious challenge is how to get “dirt” several stories up where no natural soil exists. The soil used at Brooklyn Grange Farm is purchased from a Pennsylvania green roof supplier. It’s composed of compost for organic components, largely organic mushroom compost that is a by-product of mushroom agriculture, and lightweight porous stones. While the stones look like small gravel, they’re actually much lighter than natural rocks, creating a lightweight growing medium that will not burden the structure of the building and that will also slowly break down and add trace minerals needed by the plants. Building of the growing field required 1.2 million pounds of the soil packaged in one-ton bags to be hoisted by crane to the top of the six-story structure.

That soil was not put directly onto the roof without a membrane being added first. Underneath the soil is a green-roof system which consists of several components. First is a root barrier that prevents the plants’ roots from penetrating the surface of the roof. Second is a thick layer of felt, followed by drainage mats with small cups to hold excess water from heavy rainstorms. The stored-up excess water provides needed moisture to the soil and plants during dry conditions to reduce the need for watering. Finally a thin layer of felt is added to prevent the drainage mats from filling up with soil.

The growing medium is high in nutrients when first applied, but that advantage is short lived. It’s a constant challenge to keep the soil in the 8-inch growing beds replenished to nourish the growing plants. Because the farm is organic and sustainable, composting is the most reasonable choice for enriching the soil. Brooklyn Grange farmers compost the organic remains of their own crops as well as collecting food scraps from individuals, restaurants, etc. Americans throw away 40 percent of food produced, and this is just one way to put that discarded food to good use.

Growing Organic

The Grange Farm grows all vegetables according to organic principles without any synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides. Although the farm is not certified organic by the USDA and organizers have no plans to apply for organic certification, they want to be certain that they are growing the most healthful produce. After all, these farmers serve these vegetables up on their own tables.

A visit to the top of the roof reveals more than just growing beds filled with plants. One will also find a complete vegetable washing station with water faucets and tubs for cleaning the freshly harvested produce. Once vegetables are harvested from their growing beds, they are cleaned on the rooftop and made ready for immediate distribution at the farm stand, to restaurants, or to CSA members.

Green Effects

Storm-water management is a challenge for many municipalities, especially one as large as New York City, and green roofs help to mitigate the burden on the sewer system by slowing the rate at which rainwater enters the sewers by acting like a giant sponge. Underneath the initial layer of soil the two layers of felt that absorb moisture help to retain water needed for the plants as well as slowing the rate to which it enters the storm water system.

Rooftop farming has more advantages than disadvantages. One is the fact that it can provide income for building owners who collect rent on previously unused space. Brooklyn Grange Farm has a 10-year lease with Acumen Capital Partners. Rooftop farms also typically insulate buildings, trapping in heat during the winter and cool air during the summer, requiring less energy to heat and cool upper floors. They also reduce the Urban Heat Island effect by cooling and cleaning the air around the farm.

Grange farmers point out that butterflies are known to sense and seek out temperature differences. Large numbers of butterflies flock to rooftop farms attracted by the significant drop in temperature of the rooftop farm compared to the black tar roofs around it. The city of New York gives monetary incentives for green-roof construction because of the ecological benefits to the city.

Another advantage to rooftop farming is the lower incidence of weeds, though the farm is not totally free of weeds. Wind and birds can deposit weed seeds even on top of a six-story building.

Open for Business

Brooklyn Grange Farm is a commercial endeavor and one of the first urban farms to achieve true fiscal sustainability in the United States. While Brooklyn Grange Farm is a commercial venture that is expected to turn a profit, Anastasia points out that her favorite part is welcoming community out to interact with the food they eat and educating them to the benefits of eating locally grown food. One thing that helps to do that is the educational non-profit component of the farm that allows for thousands of school groups to visit every year.

Brooklyn Grange Farm launched the City Growers educational non-profit organization with its mission to connect urban communities with agriculture, food and environment through farm education and advocacy in order to foster a culture of health and sustainability. Students of all ages come out to learn about the hundreds of thousands of plants being grown on top of a building.

Visitors are often surprised to tour the rooftop garden and find a venue for dining events. The farm is equipped to host receptions and cocktail parties for up to 175 people, and can accommodate seated dining events around its rustic banquet table for up to 60 people. Guests have sought out the rooftop farm to enjoy dinner parties, corporate retreats, and educational workshops while taking in the scene of the New York City skyline.

Any farming operation is labor intensive, and rooftop farming is no exception. Much of the labor for Brooklyn Grange Farm is provided by interns and apprentices. Interns are often enrolled in non-agricultural university programs such as environmental science or other non-related studies. They get college credit for their internships that allow them to work in this unique farming environment. Apprentices volunteer their time in exchange for learning agricultural practices.

Farm Manager Michael Meier began his tenure with Brooklyn Grange Farm as an apprentice in 2011. He was previously pursuing non-agricultural endeavors when he began reading about Jere Gettle and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. That led him to an interest in gardening and seed saving, and eventually led him to an apprenticeship at Grange. After completing that apprenticeship, Michael became the first hired employee and now holds the title of Farm Manager. As manager, he does every job there is to do on the rooftop and teaches other interns how to prepare growing beds, plant, compost, harvest, build chicken coops, and much more.

Brooklyn Grange Farm stated its early mission as “Being in the country’s largest city, the farm will create a new system of providing local communities with access to fresh, seasonal produce. We plan to expand quickly in the first few years, covering multiple acres of New York City’s unused rooftops with vegetables. The business has many environmental and community benefits, and allows our city dwelling customers to know their farmer, learn where their food comes from, and become involved.” Grange is doing just that. While the first of the Brooklyn Grange Farms is located at 37-18 Northern Boulevard in Long Island City, Queens, a second and larger one has recently been installed and is already producing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. e

For a classic recipe from this urban farm, see: Pan Roasted Root Vegetables Recipe.

Kathy McFarland is a life-long gardener and former English teacher with a love for writing, traveling, and anything outdoors. She and her husband Mike farm their 160 acres in the Missouri Ozarks.

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