The Brooklyn Grange, a commercial rooftop farm in New York City
One of the biggest farms in New York City, the Brooklyn Grange, sits six stories above the sidewalks of Queens. It has over a million pounds of soil and spans an acre, with a view of the Manhattan skyline in the distance. The rooftop farm is the first of many the founders of Brooklyn Grange plan to build; they have visions of kale and tomatoes spilling over rooftops across the city to the delight of locavores. Now in their second year, they are looking to increase their growing power and encourage others around the world. We recently spoke with Ben Flanner, Brooklyn Grange’s head farmer, about how a rooftop farm works and solicited his advice for urban farming hopefuls.
Dowser: What did it take to get this going?
Flanner: Getting the farm going took a lot of work. We had to raise the funds, which we did via equity investments, interest loans, and the website Kickstarter. A lot of planning, negotiating, and pricing research also went into the early stages, such as figuring which were the best sources to use for soil and the green roof system, and then establishing our crop plans, sourcing seeds, irrigation, and everything else.
What were the barriers?
The main barrier to building the farm was finding the roof. We needed the right landlord who was open to the idea, and who also owned a roof large and strong enough to install our first commercial farm. Finding the right combination took some looking around, but we ultimately found Acumen Capital Partners, and we’ve developed a wonderful relationship with them. There are hundreds of other great roofs around the city for vegetable production, so now we’re continuing our focus on proving how well it works, in order to make more and more landlords comfortable with the idea.
What should other people know if they want to do this?
Running an urban farm with a business model takes a lot of hard physical work. As with all farming, your summers have to be completely dedicated. My fellow farmer Rob and I were up there just about every day this summer, tending the crops, selling, and harvesting.
We had a lot of support from the community, and that was, and will continue to be, integral to the project. But at the end of the day, any commercial farming project is a big endeavor. That being said, my grandma sums it up well when she says, ‘plants want to grow.’ We do everything we can to create a natural, balanced organic environment in which they can flourish.
Why a rooftop farm? Why not just build a farm outside of the city?
We were motivated to make the city in which we live a little greener, healthier and more delicious. We wanted to create a place where people could come buy fresh vegetables and actually see the farm on which they were grown, as well as make a contribution to the health of the environment. Doing so on a rooftop made a lot of sense because that space isn’t being used. I also really love both farming and New York City, so it’s an amazing opportunity to combine two great things into one.
What are your plans for the future?
Our team would like to see these rooftop farms spring up on buildings across the city, the Northeast and anywhere that it makes sense. In the near future, we are working on a nonprofit division dedicated to education so that students and youth from the city can come and learn first-hand about growing vegetables, and the wonders and benefits of sustainable agriculture. And we are also working on some consulting projects this winter, all the while keeping our eyes open for some expansion here in the city.
What do you think are the most innovative things happening across the U.S. in terms of urban farming?
There are a lot of inspiring folks working on projects. Certainly Will Allen winning a MacArthur Genius Grant for his work with Growing Power in Milwaukee was very well deserved. On a smaller scale, projects like Britta Riley’s Windowfarms is a innovation to encourage individuals to grow edibles in residential spaces. Anything that enables and encourages folks to grow more for themselves is great to see. There are also numerous rooftop hydroponics operations in different stages of planning. It will be interesting to see how those pan out. Aquaponics is also pretty cool — the concept of grouping plants with fish in cyclical systems, using the wastes from each to spur growth and health in the other.
What are some other groups working on similar projects?
The Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver, and Uncommon Ground in Chicago, Eagle Street Farm, which I started and ran last year, are all rooftop growing operations. I kept careful metrics on sales, and plant growth, to figure out what size roof we’d need to create a sustainable commercial rooftop farming venture. I visited Uncommon Ground in Chicago two years ago, and it was definitely part of the inspiration. In terms of scalable commercial operations, there is a lot of interest, but nothing launched yet. Sky High Harvest is one such project raising funds to get off the ground in Minneapolis – wish them luck!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo: Donnelly Marks