November 2, 2010

Brooklyn Grange Pushes Successful First Season

Volunteers head to their next task at Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm in Queens, NYC

Marking the end of the harvest with their last farm stand yesterday, Brooklyn Grange celebrates its first full season of growing fresh organic veggies for New York City residents on a one-acre rooftop right here in the city. GrowingCities had the pleasure of volunteering at the farm on a recent Saturday afternoon, probably one of the last beautiful sunny days
of the year.

Located in Long Island City, Queens, the farm's surroundings sure don't remind you of farmland. In fact, with the farm pretty much invisible from the ground, the maze of elevated train tracks, old industrial buildings, and generic car dealerships nearly convinces you that you're in the wrong place. But once you climb the six flights of stairs and open the door onto 43,000 square feet of lush farm, you quickly forget that you're in Queens.

You would probably never guess it from the farm's excellent organization, variety of healthy produce, and impact on local food culture, but Brooklyn Grange has been operating for less than a year. Already selling their food to local restaurants and at local markets, the farm also ran a successful CSA program this season and is looking forward to next year.

Brooklyn Grange's founding five - Brandon Hoy, Anastasia Cole, Gwen Schantz, Chris Parachini and Ben Flanner. Photograph from farm's website.

Founded in Queens in 2010 by five Brooklyn residents (go figure), Brooklyn Grange hopes to improve access to quality food, connect urbanites to their farms and food production, and to make urban farming a viable enterprise and livelihood (as in yes (gasp!), make some money). Indeed, the business is a commercial farming operation, and they are hoping to expand to additional rooftops in the future. At the same time, Brooklyn Grange is community oriented and open to the public on a regular basis. School groups, families, and volunteers are welcome to visit the farm, take a tour, and participate with daily operations.

Anastasia Cole, one of the farm's five founders, shows us around on our arrival

Head farmer at Brooklyn Grange Ben Flanner had previously founded Brooklyn's Eagle Street Rooftop Farm with Annie Novak in 2009, which was the first soil-based rooftop farm in New York City. On the back of that experience, Flanner has teamed up for this venture with co-founder of the Bushwick Food Cooperative, Gwen Schantz, co-founders of Roberta's restaurant, Chris Parachini and Brandon Hoy, and service industry veteran Anastasia Cole.

Volunteers clear expired tomato plants and consolidate the stakes used to support the plants

On this Saturday afternoon at Brooklyn Grange, we worked with Ms. Cole and a handful of other volunteers to prep the farm for the end of the growing season, taking down the no-longer-productive tomato plants, bringing the organic waste to the compost pile, and setting aside the bamboo stakes that had supported the tomato plants. Butterflies fluttered around the rooftop, the sun glistened, and the hours flew by. It is truly an amazing way to spend a day, amidst lush basil, tall okra, and deep purple eggplants, with the great towers of Manhattan always in view. Nibbling on the few remaining tomatoes from the fallen plants, even the smallest ripe cherry tomato packs more flavor than anything you could ever hope to find in a New York corner store.

The first task for the founding five was to find a suitable rooftop site for the farm, which proved to be quite strenuous and, among other techniques, involved examining aerial views of the city on Google Earth at length. But in the end, the group found a great sturdy old factory building in Long Island City, owned by real estate company Acumen Capital Partners - who were already interested in the idea of installing a green roof.

"Oh, we'll give you a green-roof," they said.

And they weren't kidding either. In only two weeks, the Brooklyn Grange install was complete, and they were planting seeds for the 2010 season. The farm was designed and installed with the support of architects and engineers who assessed and approved the roof of the building. About 1.2 million pounds of soil were lifted onto the 7th-story roof by crane, starting at 4am to avoid disrupting traffic in the area.

1.2 million pounds of soil was hoisted onto the roof in the spring. Photo by Nicole Bengiveno of The New York Times

Like a majority of structures in New York City, the building is prewar, built in 1919. The roof is a thick slab of reinforced concrete, sits on a grid of sturdy columns roughly two feet in diameter, and can itself support roughly 130 pounds per square foot. All of the farm's materials combined only weigh between 30 and 40 pounds per square foot, even when the soil is fully soaked with water - much less than the structural limit of the roof.

Volunteers help to install the farm in the spring. Photo by Nicole Bengiveno of The New York Times
Roughly six month later, these crops have had a productive season

At their one-acre site, Brooklyn Grange boasts hundreds of thousands of plants, with over 40 varietals of tomatoes, a dozen pepper types, various radishes, carrots, beans, kale and other greens, and much more. Because they are a small farm relative to rural standards, the owners opt to grow crops with high turnover (such as lettuce), or high yields (such as tomatoes) which makes it far more likely that the new farm will turn a profit quickly.

Pepper plant at Brooklyn Grange

Okra plant

Fellow volunteer Erika Kessel shows off our collection of several tomato varietals. Erika writes a blog of her own called Sustainable Borough

All food on the farm is grown without use of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides. However, the farm is not certified as "organic" by the USDA, nor do the owners express interest in taking that route - a prevalent trend in the new urban food movement. Small start-up farms just don't have the resources to pay for the high cost of certification, and more importantly, they often don't want to. Beginning in the 1960s, the organic food movement was composed primarily of independent farmers, operating locally on a small plot of land. Organic certification was a nothing more than a trusted relationship between the farmer and consumer. Brooklyn Grange and many other urban farms are hoping to rebuild that trust by connecting with their consumers, hosting regular visits to the farm, and growing fresh, healthy, and delicious produce.

We took a break for lunch, and while making all of us farm-fresh tomato sandwiches, Ms. Cole told us a bit about the farm and her experiences in the food service industry. Prior to the foundation of the farm, while volunteering with JustFood, she did some work with local public schools, helping young students to plant edible crops in their schoolyard gardens. Ms. Cole had recently been distressed by the obvious disconnect between urban children and fresh food, but she remembers one question in particular from a young student.

"When are we plantin' the Chicken McNuggets??" he chirped.

Realizing that his query was sincere, she couldn't keep from shedding some tears, and was part of her motivation to become more active in the local food movement. "We can't keep going like this," Ms. Cole pleaded. "It's just not going to work."

While we ate our sandwiches, Anastasia spoke about the importance of sustainable farming for Brooklyn Grange. The soil was acquired from a green roof supplier and is a blend of organic compost and lightweight, porous mineral aggregate, which slowly breaks down to add trace minerals needed by the vegetables. While the first batch of soil was purchased for the farm's start-up, site-made compost will supplement future nutrient requirements. The farm has four spin-tumbler compost units, built and installed by Western Queens Compost Initiative, as well as an unsheltered compost pile to which we added the expired tomato plants.

Compost barrel by Western Queens Compost Initiative

Brooklyn Grange employs many techniques of companion planting, which takes advantage of beneficial relationships between plants to increase nutrient uptake, maintain pest control, enhance pollination, and control other factors that impact crop productivity. They grow marigolds among their rows of tomatoes, which deter pests including beetles, tomato hornworms, whiteflies, and nematodes. Clover is grown at the base of many plants because it is known to fix nitrogen levels in the soil, which is required for the healthy growth of many crops. Beans and peas are strategically planted to shade spinach and other greens that cannot survive the direct summer sunlight.

Bees at Brooklyn Grange increase crop productivity through their pollination efforts

Pollination on Brooklyn Grange is aided by visiting butterflies and an on-site beehive. The diversity of life on the rooftop is actually quite impressive, considering that only the bees were brought by humans. All other living creatures get there on their own, and yes that includes sometimes hundreds of butterflies. We were very surprised to find a bright green caterpillar crawling through the soil. It is special to think about this rooftop, so recently a barren wasteland, now able to support the entire lifecycle of an animal species. That is extremely significant. This caterpillar was conceived and hatched on the roof, will soon build a cocoon there where it will live through the winter, and in the spring, it will hatch as a colorful butterfly, ready to unknowingly assist the new season's crops through it's pollination efforts. Its a new ecosystem, the likes of which Long Island City has not seen in over a hundred years. Brooklyn Grange estimates that the increased productivity due to pollination pushed their sales thousands of dollars higher.

This caterpillar is part of a new ecosystem for Long Island City, atop Brooklyn Grange

The farm sells their produce weekly at farmers markets in Atoria, Queens and Bushwick, Brooklyn, as well as their own on-site market every Thursday. They run a Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA), which is a socio-economic model of agriculture and food distribution whereby individuals buy a season-long share and in turn receive fresh produce from the farm(s) every week. For their first season, Brooklyn Grange offered an 18-week share for $350, which works out to a 7-10 pounds of fresh veggies each week for under $20, a pretty good deal compared to most supermarkets and even other CSA programs. Brooklyn grange also hosts frequent events, regular walk-in volunteer days each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as farm tours. If you prefer to consume their produce through the restaurants they serve, take your pick. They sell to Roberta’s in Bushwick, Giuseppe Falco at Vesta in Astoria, Joseph Leonard, Fatty ‘Cue, bobo, Eat, and Juliette, among many others.

Sitting up on that rooftop, eating lunch surrounding by rows of green plants, highlighted by bright colors of the vegetables, only the occasional glance towards Manhattans sprawling skyline reminded me that I was in a major city. At 6 stories, even the street noise is fairly muffled. I certainly can't imagine having a more peaceful outdoor experience in Long Island City. One thing is clear about Brooklyn Grange - they are sure doing something right. With a little help from some friends, a successful Kickstarter campaign for $20,000, and a few months of growing, Brooklyn grange has already made a serious impact on the local food community, as well as won some awards for green business development.

The farm is already looking forward to next year, and hope in the future to expand to other nearby rooftops, which is an idea that becomes nearly obvious even on your first visit. Take a look around at the surrounding buildings and there is not one other green roof as far as the eye can see. The amount of "vacant" land in the city that is sitting up on rooftops is astounding, and to actually see what that looks like really hits home. Most rooftops in cities absorb heat from the sun, only to later release this stored heat onto city streets, contributing to the Urban Heat Island affect, by which any city may be up to 10 degrees warmer than its surrounding area. Rooftop farms absorb this wasted sunlight into their plants, produce food energy, minimize the heat island, and increase biodiversity of the region.

If you are at all interested in supporting Brooklyn Grange, please don't hesitate to contact them. They will need to fill their remaining CSA memberships and will be busy at farmers markets next season. Additionally, they still need help preparing the farm for the winter, which involves taking down plants that have ceased production, and planting cover crops, such as clover, legumes, and certain grasses, which will protect from soil erosion and help to maintain soil fertility and quality.

Thank you to Anastasia Cole and Brooklyn Grange for taking us in like family, and good luck next season!

Check out our previous article: DIY Utopias: Growing Against All Odds

* All photos and video by growingCities, unless otherwise credited.

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