At the Brooklyn Grange, New York City’s Largest Rooftop Farm

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On one hand, New York City is kind of an efficient place. We pack more than 8 million people into not so many square miles; it’s not always glamorous, but most manage to live here moderately comfortably given considerable constraints. And yet, on the other, we’re very inefficient. A significant portion of what we throw away is shipped to landfills in other states (Ohio, Indiana, and South Carolina) and, though one third of our waste is compostable, most of us don’t do it. Our infrastructure (sewage and sanitation) can’t support our output at its height. And though it might seem like we take advantage of nearly all available square footage to live and work, given how confined we all feel, that of course is not true—and perhaps there is no place where this is more true than on our city’s rooftops.

This is just part of why Brooklyn Grange is so special. Begun in 2010 on 45,000 square feet of rooftop space in Long Island City, and then expanding in 2012 to 65,000 more square feet at Building 3 in the Navy Yard, it is the second-largest commercial rooftop anywhere (Gotham Greens just opened a 75,000 square foot rooftop greenhouse in Chicago). Combined, the Grange produces 50 thousand pounds of organic produce per year—and it does so efficiently, using, in large part, its own compost and rain water, and providing important relief to our overburdened sewage and sanitation systems. While there are other green rooftops across the city, in its scale—here and across the world—Brooklyn Grange is a singularity.

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On Monday morning, on an early-season harvest day, we took a tour of the Navy Yard location to see how the Grange works its magic. The growing season is May through October, and ticketed tours are offered throughout its duration. The Grange’s Mollie Kinsman met us in the lobby at Building 92, along with about a dozen other visitors: a couple from Los Angeles, a handful from New York City, and six more, the majority, from across the ocean, specifically France and Germany. Kinsman said her first tour of the day included guests from 11 different countries.

While I know close to nothing about growing anything in soil, our group clearly knew a good deal about it—one of them had just installed a new garden for his wife, he told Kinsman proudly—and the shared anticipation to get to the Grange was palpable. Most had traveled thousand of miles to see what, until just recently, been the planet’s largest rooftop farm.

After an elevator ride to the top floor, we walked down a large hallway and up a short staircase to the roof. Outside, the scene was almost surreal—the sun was out, the breeze was gentle—and, before us, 65,000 square feet of planted soil, divided into neat, long rows, was framed by soaring smoke stacks and sky scrapers across the East River. It looked like a future representation of Earth as depicted by Star Trek—where nature, and agriculture, and technology and urban centers commingle—but it really was Brooklyn in the year 2016.

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Kinsman gave us some basic data: Two thirds of the 50 thousand pounds of the farm’s produce is given to restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan; the remaining crops are doled out to a CSA with 43 members who pick up their veggies every Wednesday, to a market in Greenpoint, and at a market at the Grange’s Long Island City location on Saturdays.

The farm is the world’s largest second-largest commercially-viable rooftop operation for a couple of reasons: yes, due to the vision and determination and ingenuity of its co-founders Ben Flanner, Anastasia Cole Plankias (who just authored a book—The Farm on The Roof—on the incredible process of figuring out how to build and turn the Grange into a sustainable business), and Gwen Schantz; but, beyond that, none of it would have been possible without the physically solid structure the farm sits on top of.

“If you’re asking can you do this on any building,” Kinsman said in response to a question on the tour, “the answer is definitely not—you can’t.” Most anybody could install a garden and grow a minimal amount of things on their own roof using containers; but a financially viable business (which they found can only be achieved with an acre or more of growing space)—requires a structural beast of a building. Only then can the total weight of the growing soil, i.e., 1.5 million pounds of it, be tolerated. At Building 3, the roof can handle 100 pounds per square foot; the Grange currently uses half of that. A freight elevator for transporting goods up and down is also incredibly valuable and—geographically speaking—it should be close to the city center it services to ease distribution. To be sure, the Grange founders are visionaries, but they also found two unicorns of buildings to make their vision come to life.

city view

We walked around the perimeters of soil and plants as Kinsman described the current crops, things like turnips, radishes, and salad greens, the last of which, at any given point, cover fifty percent of the farm. Their root system is shallow (a consideration that determines most of what is grown there) and they take only 30 days to harvest. Salad greens can also be cut tow to three times per cycle, which helps make it their highest-margin crop. “If we were just after profits, we’d grow only salad greens,” said Kinsman, “but we have markets, and a CSA, and we like the variety and mix of different seasonal veggies.”

They also grow lots of sunflowers: that day the wind was light, but on top of the 11th floor of an industrial building off the East River, gusts can be stiff. Sunflowers are an effective, not to mention good-looking wind barrier against soil erosion—good because the soil, to ease the burden of the roof—is shallow (8 to 12 inches), light weight, and porous. This of course minimizes water retention but they have two aids to help that: both the compost that helps feed the plants, and coco husks. Mast Brothers—also located at Navy Yard—give the grange their chocolate making byproduct; when added into the soil, the husks help the soil keep its water and, happily, says Kinsman, also make the farm smell like a giant chocolate bar for a few days.

In the distance, two farmers were on hands and knees, harvesting. They wore shorts and boots and let the soil get all over them; their faces were sun kissed, though it was just mid May. They looked almost meditative but focused as they used trowels to dig into the ground. In that moment I wondered why I made the poor choice not to be a farmer. While my fingers get a great workout using a computer, their entire person was actively partaking in the production of 50 thousand pounds of organic produce that the rest of New York City will soon be enjoying.

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And speaking of the rest of New York City, this is where the Grange is not just a provider of food, but an ecological friend to it, and example for the rest of us. As we stood by a section of salad greens, Kinsman explained that after only 20 minutes of rainfall—or a half-time’s worth of toilet flushes at the Super Bowl, which, true and sad story, happened here once before, Kinsman said—the city’s combined output of sewage and rain water can’t be fully processed. At that point, excess sewage enters our waterways directly. All of which is to say, any amount of rainwater that is caught before it enters that system is a blessing to us all. The Grange’s 1.5 acres of soil is not an insignificant aid to this project. It might only be one building, but imagine an entire city of buildings with soil and planted rooftops. Same goes for the one third of city garbage that is compostable but mostly not composted, and then shipped to other states, to whom we pay millions of dollars, to add to their landfills. If, like the grange, we all kept compost, yes, we’d be asked to deal with some bad-smelling things in our homes, but we might also be able to stop the ridiculous practice of exporting our trash across the country.

Maybe better than either of these practices—at least, better in a different kind of way—is the pure, eye-opening experience that is standing on top of a large rooftop in the midst of one of the planet’s most congested, populated, built-up metropolises and taking in more than an acre of actively growing farm; and of being reminded that, in the midst of this chaos, the food you eat on a daily basis doesn’t materialize out of nowhere and stock itself in stores. It’s grown and tended to by people. Usually, that happens far away from where we sit. Brooklyn Grange reintroduces that process to our urban existences, and will continue to do so more and more. Using Google Earth to “fly” over the city’s rooftops, the Grange is actively looking for additional suitable rooftops to which they can continue to expand.

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Toward the end of the tour, Kinsman took us to a chicken coup, and asked us to guess the purpose of their eight-week-old “teenage” chickens. The smart group had some good answers: Yes, to add their waste to the compost pile, and, yes, to eat weeds or pests that end up around the crops. But another purpose was more primal than that: to really make the many kids who tour the farm understand that they are in the presence of a real farm, not just a big garden. The presence of chickens, traditional farm animals, achieves this. And one of those groups of kids, around pre-school age, had just arrived on the roof as we finished.

Their eyes darted around with unfocused energy, and each clutched the hand of another field trip partner. To them, at about the age of four, this massive rooftop farm in the middle of New York City was normal. Their eyes did not grow wide as all of ours had when we first stepped on to the roof. To their nascent thinking, Brooklyn Grange exists here as a matter of course. Hopefully, as they become adults and the Grange continues its work, and to expand, and to convince and show others how to do the same, those little people will only be proved right.

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All photos by Sasha Turrentine

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