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New York City’s Greatest Rooftop Farm

Imagine you’re in an airplane descending upon La Guardia Airport. Because the airplane sinks beneath the lowest layer of clouds, you peer out your window seat and see all of the roads and highways, the towering Manhattan skyscrapers, the outer-borough row homes and the tons of cement and steel below. But amid all that concrete chaos, the cars, smokestacks and the cell phone towers, you spot a flat rooftop — not black, but inexperienced — with rows of crops. And as your aircraft houses in on La Guardia and town grid comes into sharper focus, you’ll be able to see that the green roof is blanketed with plants and flowers and shrubbery. You can even make out purple specs among the many bushy plants – are these red peppers or heirloom tomatoes you wonder?
In the course of all of the self-serving commerce, the relentless pursuit of capitalism and all of the congestion that overwhelms the modern city, a rooftop farm represents a hopeful notion about ecology, nature and the simple life. Yet most inexperienced roofs and rooftop farms are hobbies – maybe a household plants some flowers on the roof of their house or a restaurant grows a few of its personal produce. How trendy. How green. How novel.

But this farm in the middle of urban Queens is not just about ecological idealism. Here, one metropolis gardener is making an attempt to do more. He’s making an attempt to take his natural rooftop farm and merge environmental sustainability with fiscal sustainability. He is making an attempt to operate the first worthwhile rooftop farm in New York City. Meet the contemporary city farmer, Ben Flanner.

Last summer, I woke up very early one morning to join Ben and his staff for a seven a.m. harvest. As I approached the usual Motor Merchandise constructing on Northern Boulevard, two of the farm’s companions, Anastasia Cole, 27, and Gwen Schantz, 29, pulled up in a white Toyota pickup truck. With few words of greeting, they went to work. They gathered a few buckets, about 15 collapsible white plastic crates, a pair of scissors and two mini-machetes and headed for the elevator. Once i launched myself as a reporter, I used to be given a third of the collapsible white crates and a nod. Because the elevator rose, I tried to begin a dialog, however Anastasia, sipping an iced coffee, told me that “it was too early for stories.” With the instruments in tow, we acquired off the elevator and climbed a flight of stairs to the farm, Brooklyn Grange.

Initially the farm was purported to be in Brooklyn — hence the identify — nevertheless it now sits throughout from Ok.G. Suzuki Luxury Cars Superstore and down the street from a Hess gasoline station in the heart of Long Island Metropolis. It is laborious to imagine it until you see it. As I walked onto the roof, seven stories up, I noticed rows and rows of green plants — some the peak of my ankles and a few as much as my waist. Except for narrow pathways between the crops, almost each nook of the one-acre roof was covered with soil. There were six-foot-tall corn stalks combating for sunlight with a DirecTV satellite tv for pc dish against one of the few partitions on the roof. To the west, I might see down Northern Boulevard all the way to the Chrysler Constructing in midtown Manhattan.

If there’s one surefire solution to determine a farmer, look underneath his fingernails. Ben’s are caked with soil. His clothes are perpetually stained too. He was sporting a green sweat-stained shirt and beige cutoff shorts marked with dirt. Ben’s pale white face was lined with a 5-day-previous beard, and to guard himself from the sun, he wore a large-brimmed hat. Surprisingly, he was sporting crushed-up brown dress shoes with some ratty maroon costume socks. His pockets contained a pair of scissors, a small knife and his BlackBerry.

Ben is considered one of 5 managing companions with a stake within the fledgling enterprise. He advised me that his funding is the biggest, and as the head farmer, he is additionally putting in probably the most time. His 4 enterprise companions — Anastasia, Gwen, Brandon Hoy and Chris Parachini — all of whom give off that younger, hip Brooklyn vibe, have other jobs in addition to Brooklyn Grange. However Ben’s sole focus — from seven a.m. harvests to late night time pesto-making classes ($5 for a four-ounce jar) — is the farm, its crops, and its monetary effectively-being. “We’re attempting to prove that the farm can stand by itself somewhat than be a community farm that has to look for donations every year,” Ben mentioned. “That would take a whole lot of the stress off of me.”

Before Brooklyn Grange launched final spring, Ben and his companions raised $200,000 by an amalgamation of personal equity funding, loans, grassroots fundraising occasions that included a barbeque, holiday party, T-shirt drive, Meatball Slapdown, dance occasion and no matter they could eke out of the fundraising web site Kickstarter.com. They even put out piggybanks on restaurant tables. Almost ninety percent of the $200,000 went in the direction of buying the soil and putting in a green roof system on the lofted area that they leased for 10 years. The remainder of the money went in direction of seeds, irrigation and prices related to forming the business. “We’ve got to be able to pay a small wage for myself and then pay back the prices of the installation,” Ben stated.

Brooklyn Grange’s enterprise model is 2-pronged. The farm sells to various restaurants round the town that it has special relationships with — Roberta’s, Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar, 5 Leaves, Juliette, Bobo, Prime Meats, Marlow & Sons, Fatty ‘Cue, Northeast Kingdom, to call some — but the thought is to sell principally at their very own inexperienced markets. Ben likes the markets as a result of, “You get to fulfill and work together with the customers,” he says. “It is also efficient for us as a result of we will slightly consolidate our choosing plans and simply actually harvest so much on certain days and then take it to at least one single place. So there’s much less motoring involved. It reduces our carbon footprint, as a result of we do not should hop into a truck or a automotive and deliver to eating places throughout town.” But Ben admits he cannot afford to solely consider his environmental ideals. “The money has to fall into place as a result of we have debt and buyers,” Ben mentioned. “I don’t want this factor to go underneath, so I need to be sure that the e-book is balanced.”

Once we had been on the roof, I used to be unexpectedly handed scissors and a fast snap pea-choosing tutorial. (I discovered rapidly that helping out and pitching in are part of the urban farming ethos.) After the short lesson, Gwen, Anastasia and Ben have been gone to select crops for that day’s market. I set out with my white crate and scissors to the lengthy snap pea row. Harvesting alone gave me time to suppose. I observed the air was brisker than I was used to in the town. Bees flew in and out of the plants, pollinating as they went. There was one thing soothing in regards to the texture of the pods on my fingers. I realized that the largest, ripest pods have been often hidden in the midst of the bushes. Was this because there was more shade there? Or had the last harvester just missed these pods because they have been more durable to see? In any case, after just 10 minutes, I had taken ownership of the snap peas. I had not planted them, watered them, cared for them, but I still felt a connection to these snap peas. Clipping and then by accident dropping one felt like a mini-tragedy. After about half-hour, I had accumulated sufficient pods for 4 Chinese dishes of rooster with snow peas. This was not simple work.

In New York, and particularly in Queens, farming used to be extremely lucrative. Gary Mitchell of the Queens County Farm Museum mentioned that on the height of Queens farming — from the late 19th century by the 1920s — farmers may earn three or 4 thousand dollars a yr by selling their produce. “That was a king’s ransom in these days,” Mitchell mentioned. Farmers would deliver their produce by wagon to the East River, after which take a ferry to Manhattan before making their option to Gansevoort Market or markets up in Harlem. Farmers would usually sleep in a single day on their wagons and promote their vegetables within the morning. Initially, farms in Brooklyn competed with farms in Queens, however as Brooklyn prospered economically, the Brooklyn land grew to become more beneficial to sell and construct on than to farm. As soon as the farms in Brooklyn began to disappear, the farms in Queens prospered much more.

But Mitchell feared that the glory days for brand new York Metropolis farmers were lengthy gone and unlikely to return, so he was skeptical of Brooklyn Grange’s long-time period viability. “That’s the large query. Are you able to farm and make a profit?” Mitchell wondered. “The answer for a very long time has been no. God bless them and good luck, however I do not see the way you flip a revenue. I really do not.”

Later on, Anastasia took me below her wing as I harvested. She confirmed me how to inform if a tomato was ripe as she listened to Pandora on her iPhone. A new music came on, and she asked me if I had heard of a group referred to as Thin Lizzy. I hadn’t. “Nice harvesting music,” she said. Late last summer, Anastasia started giving tours of the farm to completely different New York Metropolis camps. “It is something that has been really vital to me — getting New York City children up to the farm,” she mentioned. “As a result of the farm shouldn’t be nearly rising and selling good, contemporary, native produce, but it’s also about connecting New Yorkers to the complete system of production and distribution and consumption, and encouraging individuals to consider the alternatives that they’re making inside that course of.”

This 12 months, Brooklyn Grange has plans to start out a non-revenue, educational branch of the farm. Gwen has taken the lead in starting a brand new group referred to as Metropolis Growers, which will educate teams about farming, nutrition, cooking and environmental points.

Since federal organic meals requirements had been established in 1990, the organic meals motion has grown exponentially — as you’ve most likely observed. In line with the Organic Commerce Association’s 2010 Organic Trade Survey, U.S. sales of organic meals and drinks have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009. And after the organic food motion took off, the native meals movement adopted swimsuit. For the final five or six years, local meals eaters — dubbed locavores — have been asking if the produce they’re eating is grown domestically or trucked into cities by vehicles that burn fossil fuels. “We have reached the purpose the place 50 % of the world’s population lives in urban centers which comprise about two % of the earth’s surface and consume 75 percent of its resources,” Anastasia lectured. “And while urban farms can never replace rural farms to feed complete cities, they’re certainly a step towards a more sustainable food system.”

Along with the food issues, advocates argue that rooftop farms and urban gardens are patches of green which have a major positive environmental impact. Inexperienced roofs decrease heating costs in cold climates by preventing heat escape from buildings and lower air conditioning prices in warm climates, preserving buildings cool through plant transpiration processes. Green roofs also improve the lifespan of roofs and cut back water runoff, which may forestall flooding. Even with the economic downturn, the green roof trade grew by 16 p.c in 2009, based on the nonprofit group Green Roofs for Wholesome Cities.

It was simply a few minutes earlier than Ben had to depart to take his produce to market, and he was in a rush, bustling across the roof to make sure he had everything he would possibly be capable of sell. “Do you’ve thyme or cilantro?” Ben requested Gwen. No, she did not. So Ben hustled over to clip some off along with his scissors. I adopted him over to the herbs with my bucket of assorted sweet peppers, spicy peppers and a few very small, sizzling Thai chili peppers. As Ben clipped the cilantro plants, a guacamole scent wafted by the air. Then he gave me some freshly picked mint and rosemary to taste. My arms by no means smelled so recent. As everybody carried the crops downstairs, Gwen questioned if that they had forgotten to select something.

“Should we choose some salad greens?” she requested Ben.

“No, I feel we should always attempt to maneuver the fennel and chard,” Ben answered.

Ben, 30, grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs the place his father, John, owned an digital retail retailer and his mother, Cindy, a faculty occupational therapist, launched him to gardening at a younger age. Cindy was visiting Ben’s farm the day I used to be harvesting.

“We had a backyard out back,” she said. “I believe that is where he bought it from.”

“She’s proud,” Ben said. “She likes to inform people that.”

Cindy, like her son, wore a wide-brimmed hat, however hers wasn’t raggedy. She had been on the ground selecting purple beans for not less than an hour. This was her first go to to New York for the reason that farm bought up and operating final Could and she was amazed by a few of the crops. She paused from picking the purple beans to eat one. “They style just like inexperienced beans,” she informed Ben.

At house in Milwaukee, Cindy grows cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and she even has planted strawberry and raspberry patches. While her husband and different son weren’t gardeners, she said Ben took to it instantly. “I believe that gardening is almost like a chromosome — either you will have it or you do not,” Cindy said. “And he beloved being out there proper from the start. There’s a great feeling that you get when you’re employed in the soil and really feel that connectedness with all of creation.”

Ben took a circuitous route to Brooklyn Grange. After he graduated from the College of Wisconsin in Madison with a major in industrial engineering, Ben landed a brand new York job at E*Commerce, where he labored in on-line advertising and marketing. He was promoted at E*Commerce, however never was completely invested in that life. “You tend to get promoted when you work in a company job,” he stated. “You get promoted or fired.”

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And he had other pursuits. “I at all times had a love for food. I knew most likely three or 4 years ago that I was going to quit and do something meals-associated.” When Ben told his mother that he was leaving E*Commerce to concentrate on rooftop farming full-time, Ben mentioned that she was supportive, but skeptical. “Mother was like, ‘That is cool, however do you really have to quit your job?'”

Since Ben left E*Commerce, his life has completely changed. There was no time last summer time for a leisurely dinner or an after-work drink. “I undoubtedly had to push my social life again,” he stated. “But you have to look at the macro image. The first year of any entrepreneurial start-up business is not really about having a nicely-balanced life.”

In the meantime, farming has become his proxy social life. He is always speaking to market-goers or potential restaurant consumers or strategizing with considered one of his companions. He even met his girlfriend at — where else? — a greenmarket in Brooklyn. She owns a jam business referred to as Anarchy in a Jar.

After another Sunday morning harvest final summer time, I hopped in Ben’s automobile and we headed from the farm to Brooklyn Grange’s personal market stand at Roberta’s restaurant in Bushwick. On the way, Ben shoved a couple of fistfuls of granola into his mouth and lit up a Pure American Spirit cigarette before providing me one. He dropped off a $70 shipment of radishes, peppers and tomatoes at 5 Leaves restaurant in Greenpoint. On the radio, 101.9 FM played, and who else got here on however the Crimson Scorching Chili Peppers.

At the market at Roberta’s, I helped arrange by rubber-banding mini-packets of thyme, rosemary and mint. In addition to the herbs, Brooklyn Grange was selling quite a lot of tomatoes, eggplant, scorching and sweet peppers, radishes, basil, Thai basil, cucumbers and beets. Gross sales have been gradual in the morning, but picked up within the early afternoon. Some clients only purchased a couple of tomatoes; others purchased as much as $25 worth of vegetables, and most spent between $5 and $15. Ben was additionally speaking on the telephone to a restaurant owner about promoting most of that day’s tomato harvest in bulk.

But not all of the markets have been profitable final summer season. Brooklyn Grange’s weekly Saturday market at Vesta in Astoria wasn’t doing as nicely as the market at Roberta’s. After only a few months, Ben started to wonder if the Vesta market wasn’t worthwhile sufficient on a weekly basis. Ben usually made between $100 and $four hundred dollars each Saturday, which — considering the time that goes into the harvest, the setup and selling – was not passable, he stated. Ben puzzled if Brooklyn Grange may end its Saturday market at Vesta with out damaging his relationship with Giuseppe Falco, an proprietor of the restaurant and early supporter of Brooklyn Grange. “Giuseppe’s been such a very good pal,” Ben mentioned, sounding conflicted.

But Ben has even bigger questions he has to answer. Can Brooklyn Grange maintain itself on pretty pretty pretty good shirt a bunch of $10 purchases? The pea pods that took me about 40 minutes to harvest would most likely sell for a combined $10 by weight. What number of peas, peppers and tomatoes is the farm going to must develop and decide to come out on high?

***

If the primary yr was any indication, Brooklyn Grange is discovering its approach. Just lately, Ben informed me that the farm turned a slight profit in 2010, which he was comfortable about. He said the farm pulled in enough cash to pay him his targeted salary and sufficient to remain on observe to pay off their $25,000 in debt over 5 years. If 2010 was about getting the farm up and working, 2011 shall be all about effectivity. “I’m nonetheless fully expended attempting to excellent the operation at the present farm,” Ben stated. “As soon as we now have another yr below our belt, reinforcing all of our techniques and getting every thing as environment friendly as possible, then I believe we’ll feel more ready to broaden.”

Growth to a second roof — that’s what Ben is hoping for within the summer of 2012.

But absolutely, Brooklyn Grange will solely succeed if the produce is recent and tasty. After harvesting, going to the market, and seeing all the arduous work that goes into the farm, I was prepared to sit down down, loosen up and simply eat. To taste the produce, I went to eat at chef Kevin Adey’s Bushwick restaurant, Northeast Kingdom, at the end of the summer. I was curious what knowledgeable chef could prepare with Brooklyn Grange produce. Adey grew to become involved with Brooklyn Grange after Gwen visited the restaurant various instances and recommended that his local meals restaurant buy hyper-local from the farm. “They got here in with a pattern of their mustard greens and I’ve been hooked ever since,” Adey mentioned. “I can’t cross up something from them.” Adey pays about $100 per shipment of vegetables from the farm and says that the costs are properly value it. “You’re going to pay just a little more than you would for different merchandise, but it’s actually apples and oranges,” Adey said. (No pun meant. Brooklyn Grange would not actually develop apples or oranges.) “The standard is so excessive for the lettuces and the tomatoes that you cannot really compare it with produce from someplace else. When the shipment comes, it is nonetheless warm from the sun.”

I had taken nibbles and tastes of the produce here and there, however I used to be trying ahead to the Brooklyn Grange appetizer specials on the restaurant’s chalkboard menu. The first, for $8, was a Caprese salad with tomatoes, basil, homemade Northeast Kingdom mozzarella, cucumber and banana peppers in a gentle dressing. The components have been recent and the tomatoes were juicy. The second appetizer was Brooklyn Grange kale served with a fried egg, corn, garlic, pink pepper and croutons for $6. The kale was not bitter like kale you usually encounter in eating places. It may need been on an extended Island City rooftop that morning. From younger couples to massive groups drinking bottles of wine, almost all the 30 seats in the upstairs dining room were occupied for a lot of the night time. If business was that good each evening at Northeast Kingdom, Kevin Adey might absolutely afford to buy and cook all the Brooklyn Grange produce he pleased.

As I sat right down to eat at seven p.m., I considered what Ben may need been doing at that second. Was he at another nighttime pesto-making session? Was he updating his books? Was he physically worn out from one other seven a.m. harvest? And then I considered something Ben informed me the week before.

“I really like doing this, but it is a tough summer. That is why farmers take a break within the winter.

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