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Even on a Frozen Rooftop, This Brooklyn Farm Is Growing

Even on a Frozen Rooftop, This Brooklyn Farm Is Growing

Jed Oelbaum

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

It’s off-season at Brooklyn Grange, with no carrots or lettuces lining the frozen rows. Only a few bundled-up workers brave the cold March afternoon at this New York City rooftop farm, tending to greenhouse crops and shoveling, their voices rising into shouts against the wind coming off the East River.

“We've got an insane view,” Anastasia Cole Plakias, vice president of the farm and one of its founding partners, says, gesturing out towards the Williamsburg Bridge, centered in a postcard-perfect panorama. Despite the thick blanket of snow, she leads me on a tour of the icy 65,000-square foot spread, one of two roofs (the other is in Queens) that comprise one of the world’s biggest rooftop farms.

The facility I’m visiting is located high atop blocky Building no. 3 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an antique knot of brick structures and narrow alleys where warships were built and launched for more than 150 years. Now the Navy Yard is turned over to commercial use, the raised industrial ceilings and massive windows of its buildings home to hip design studios, prop warehouses, and a whisky tasting room, in addition to Brooklyn Grange.

Plakias had warned me there wouldn’t be too much growing or harvesting going on during my visit, but you can’t farm in a city that’s frozen a third of the year without having a few winter plans. Insulated from the winter outside, microgreens destined for upscale restaurants grow in greenhouses along the roof’s edge, cut down in their vegetal infancy for maximum nutritional value and flavor—beets, borage, cilantro, chrysanthemum, arugula, and kohlrabi.

We stop at a chicken coop, not a profit-generating part of the business, but rather maintained by elementary school students as part of a program with City Growers, an educational nonprofit partnered with the farm. When city kids first visit the roof, it probably “strikes them as a nice park,” muses Plakias, who grew up in the West Village. “But maybe doesn't hit home for them that it's a ‘farm’ until they see the chickens,” she says. “And so we feel they’re a very important part of the kids’ experience.”

The chickens are just one of the creative ways Brooklyn Grange tailors their operations around their community. “We really adamantly wanted to create a business, an urban farming business, rather than a nonprofit organization,” says Plakias. “But we also knew that to be an urban farm meant a lot of things to a lot of people.”

As we trudge through the snow, a couple more people drift upstairs toward the greenhouses, and a floor below us, the farm’s office staff manages Brooklyn Grange’s wider business—they’ve just signed the lease for a third rooftop farm location, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “If all we wanted to do was grow vegetables and be left alone,” Plakias tells me, “we felt we would do better in the country…But we were farming on rooftops in New York. We needed to do a lot more than grow vegetables, we needed to find access points for all different community members to engage with this farm.”

If you include home gardens and other small-scale projects, 800 million people around the world practice some kind of urban agriculture according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Over the course of history, people have always grown food in densely populated areas. But there are reasons why most farms tend to be in rural zones: namely, land there is cheap and abundant. Urban farming to provide anything more than sustenance for a handful of individuals requires innovation, experimentation, and a high tolerance for risk.

Chances are, if you’re cultivating food on any kind of significant scale in a U.S. city these days, it’s because you believe in something strongly—whether that be an environmental mission, a more equitable way of distributing food, or a new kind of agricultural technology. Thus, urban farms range from nonprofit community gardens to a high-tech, glowing pink warehouse full of vertically grown tomatoes. More often than not, it’s a farm plus, a promise to help address one or more of the many problems facing a troubled food system.

Industrialized agriculture—our current farming paradigm, dominated by massive farms and heavy pesticide use—prioritizes quantity and low cost, reducing the quality and variety of foods available to consumers. Along with long-distance global distribution (which puts tropical fruits on the grocery shelves of wintry cities), much of our current food production system requires obscene amounts of land, harmful chemicals, fossil fuels, and water, damaging the planet and failing to nourish the world’s hungry and poor.

“Sustainability and health are two sides of the same food system coin,” wrote the Natural Resources Defense Council’s David Wallinga in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. Cities around the world are growing quickly, likely to put strain on our already tenuous approach to getting nutritious food to urban residents. According to the FAO, “By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities.” In the United States, where 16 percent of households already experience some kind of food insecurity per the USDA, urban living can further exacerbate poor access to affordable, fresh produce and other healthy foods. And while no comprehensive solution exists yet, finding a way to grow more food closer to more people, and raising awareness about the detriments of the current food production system, is a good start.

That being said, Plakias bristles at the suggestion that urban farming is the sole silver bullet. “People want to hear that urban farms can feed entire cities—they can't. We'll never replace our rural farmland and farmers. We desperately need them” she says. “Look, we’re a drop in the bucket, in terms of improvements that need to be made to the food production system and consumer education that needs to happen before those changes can be made.” Brooklyn Grange’s goals, she says, are to “leverage every advantage that these rooftops have for the ecosystem and for the community—as heavily as possible.”

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Grange Farms

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Grange Farms

Aside from selling 50,000 pounds of vegetables annually—mostly wholesale, to chefs and restaurants—Brooklyn Grange holds classes, workshops, and can be rented out for private events, like weddings. They run tours, host farmers’ markets, and at their Queens location, maintain open access hours, when the public can visit and wander the grounds. The business constructs rooftop farms, gardens, and green spaces for clients, and participates in a range of educational programs for K-12 students with City Growers. And those are just the biggest branches in the thicket of interests Plakias calls Brooklyn Grange’s “super-diversified revenue stream.”

“It is a circus,” she laughs. “We wanted create something that's scalable and replicable and proves the capacity for food production as a business in cities,” Plakias tells me. She explains how when she founded the business eight years ago with Gwen Schantz, her cofounder and chief operating officer, and Ben Flanner, Brooklyn Grange’s president and director of agriculture, they planned to expand to seven rooftop locations. Instead, they diversified and leveraged the first two spaces they occupied so thoroughly that they hit their revenue targets with only the Navy Yard and Queens facilities.

Schantz, who meets us out on the roof later, heads up the farm’s consulting and contracting business, an expanding piece of Brooklyn Grange’s revenue puzzle. She tells me that aside from rooftop farms, they’ve developed a particular expertise in building growing landscapes for the city’s “more unusual” urban spaces.

“So like a private residence in the West Village that might want a green roof,” she offers. (A “green” or “growing” roof helps insulate a structure, provide a wildlife habitat, and reduce ambient air temperature in urban environments.) Or the rooftop of Vice’s offices in Williamsburg, which Brooklyn Grange developed to both relax employees and produce vegetables for Munchies, the publication’s food vertical. “Under the tutelage of Brooklyn Grange, [we] are growing some deliciously strange vegetables—Chinese red noodle beans, West Indian gherkins that look like some kind of Medieval ball-torture device—along with your standard farmer's market fare,” wrote Munchies in 2015, when the garden was installed.

Schantz points out that even their private or corporate contracts have wider environmental benefits. The Vice project, for instance, is “also a green roof, so it serves some ecological functions as well,” Schantz tell me. Rooftop farms, urban agriculture, and green city spaces generally, have the potential to mitigate air pollution problems, aid in managing stormwater runoff, and activate unused space in cities. (The Brooklyn Grange location I’m visiting received a Green Infrastructure grant from the city’s Environmental Protection department, acknowledging its utility in managing runoff.)

When a municipality faces the scourge of empty lots and low demand for its properties, urban farming can fill the gaps with productive, green creations. In Detroit, urban farms and garden generated 400,000 pounds of produce in 2014. In the opposite scenario in places like New York, where space is extremely limited and expensive, farming rooftops unlocks hidden value.

The practice can also give locals access to fresh food that didn’t travel thousands of miles to get to them. Even just putting urbanites with no connection to what they eat in touch with the cycles and systems that produce our food has its benefits. “Involving city kids in urban farming provides context that enables them to see the food system for the first time, and to critically examine it,” wrote Cara Chard, executive director of City Growers, the nonprofit that brings students to Brooklyn Grange and other urban farms, in an email. (Yes, she assures me, that is her real name.)

According to Chard, who describes herself as “a mother of two city kids, a beekeeper, and an educator at heart,” more than 30,000 kids have participated in one of their programs since 2011. By “giving urban youth a point of reference to investigate the intersections of environment and health and economy,” she wrote, “the food system, and all of its injustices, comes alive. In this way, urban farm education enlists new soldiers in the food movement.”

It’s a movement that still has a long way to go, acknowledges Plakias. “People want a really tidy solution to the problems of our food production system, and there is none,” says Plakias later, back indoors, a floor below the farm in Brooklyn Grange’s offices. But she also believes that all urban farms are “furthering the technology that will, in the future, be crucial to food production.”

For Brooklyn Grange’s part, Plakias and her partners are growing, experimenting, and listening to the needs of their community, partners, and customers. Because for now, “There is no tidy solution to our food production system. There is no tidy farm.”

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