Urban Farming is a crazy endeavor—to figure out logistically and, pragmatically, to find the right infrastructure to do it on. But when those pieces fall into place, beautiful things happen. Rooftop farming brings the community closer to its food, provides it with a greater number of fresh produce options, uses fewer overall resources, and creates a more intimate ecosystem and community around those who make and eat its produce. Rooftop farming has blossomed in Brooklyn over the last decade, but Keely Gerhold, at Tinyfield Roofhop Farm, is the first to introduce hops to the practice—a crucial ingredient in beer-brewing, and important in New York where micro breweries are more numerous and popular than ever. Gerald is growing this vital and delicious ingredient on the rooftop of the Pfizer building, bringing the proximity of locally-brewed beers that much closer to the pints you drink them in.
Urban rooftop farming has been around for a while in Brooklyn, but you are the first to enter the field with hops. Are there limits to what can be done on rooftops? What do you feel is valuable and important about rooftop farming, beyond the fact that it is a maximizing and efficient use of space and resources?
There are definitely limits to what can be done based on the particular rooftop. Tinyfield is lucky because we grow on a former pharmaceutical building, so there is a lot of existing infrastructure on the roof that allows the hop ropes to be tied to so that their bines can grow up the ropes efficiently. When we were scouting locations, the rooftop was a great fit for us because of this. Other limits to consider are if there is or is not an elevator that goes directly onto the roof. Our building doesn’t have that, so you definitely have to be willing to haul all of your supplies and put in the labor to make it all come together with that added step. There are other structural things to consider, such as access to water, so it takes some planning and some rooftop spaces can limit a grower based on those challenges.
There are so many valuable things about rooftop farming, and the farms doing it on a large scale are really adding value to the community in regards to access to fresh food in our foodshed and limited food miles. There are lots of ways to do it, and the creative aspect it gives a farmer is definitely different than in traditional forms of farming. It also allows the community to be involved a bit more if you choose that, because the proximity and access it allows people is valuable. Not only does Tinyfield and other farms exist here within the city, but we are able to connect people to new industries, such as connecting beer drinkers to a vital ingredient in making it, up close and personal—the hops!
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
This is a tough question to answer because it depends on the day, and it can drastically change over the course of a day or a week! I love being involved in the food community in New York, I find it very supportive and people are so entrepreneurial and creative. I love showing people the hops and seeing them connect this part of the agricultural process to what they consume, and I love seeing what my founding partner and I built be realized each day.
My family always instilled in me the importance of working hard, so I think having the ability to physically use my body and use my brain at the same time is really rewarding. But, I think making my dad proud is really the most rewarding thing about what i’m doing with Tinyfield.
What do you find to be your greatest challenge with your work?
Being a small business owner! I never thought I would be one, but I guess it’s in my blood to own my own farm. It’s a lot of pressure, but in general I’m someone who likes a challenge. The daily things that come with managing a business, being a problem solver both internally and externally for the business, and having to rely heavily on my friends and family for support/sanity are continual challenges. I’m incredibly privileged in my support system and I never fail to be grateful for everything I have.
I love talking about farming to people who think it’s crazy to do it in the city, because it is. The logistics are so different, and having to think through everything that has to happen to get from point A to B is unique. Building the farm and the business was the most challenging, but we had a great support system and with the brunt of the infrastructure behind me, focusing on the day to day and furthering the vision we had are their own sets of rewarding challenges. It keeps me on my toes and I’m never bored, which suits me well.
Last season, you sourced to one local brewery, Strong Rope, and your capacity to expand your hops on top of the Pfizer building is limited; still, do you foresee that you will be able to source more wet hops to more local breweries next season?
I love the idea of doing one specialty brew with one brewery. It helps to showcase what they can do with the hops and uses their expertise in crafting a brew, and since the amount of hops I’m growing is so small, it allows the brewery to highlight the flavor profile of rooftop grown organic Brooklyn hops really well. I think that’s really special.
Trump is in office. AH! And, he seems to like the environment so much. You had mentioned things like the New York Farm Brewery Bill, which incentivizes New York State farmers to make hops, and breweries to acquire their beer-making ingredients in-state. With this administration, do you worry that legislation that incentivizes local production or buying will be in danger?
Yeah, he hates the environment, but that’s because he’s a capitalist and not a public servant and that’s not going to change. I just don’t think he’s a big picture guy, and doesn’t seem to connect how our actions today will affect the future—or maybe he just doesn’t care because it’s not a money maker. Either way, those of us who do care won’t stop doing so and it won’t change the effort we’ve been putting into making a positive change all these years, which I find hopeful because there are a lot of people out there fighting for what’s right, and we’ve seen a lot of that lately.
I think the NY State Farm Brewery Bill is a great piece of legislation because it brings attention to an industry that was once really important to the state and incentivizes farmers to put some of their land into hop production to meet the demand for locally grown hops. New Yorkers have a lot of pride, so this bill works well for us because people love the idea of drinking something that is all New York state grown, especially me, and I’m an adopted New Yorker.
I think because we’ve been able to accomplish something like this legislation on the state level, we can continue to build the idea of local buying and production from field to pint in other states, because I think it’s been fairly successful here, at least from what I’ve heard from a few farmers upstate and from brewers and beer drinkers. Our country has to start looking to local and state governments to make positive changes anyway, and agriculture is a huge part of the country’s industry and budget. State governments and hop farmers likely won’t be getting federal support for this in the 2018 Farm Bill, but as this legislation has shown, our actions can trickle down. We’ve got to start bringing more young people to farming in general, and we can start making a difference on the local level, and perhaps start putting some power back in the hands of small farmers and small farms.
Personally, I’m less fearful about what I could lose with this administration because I am privileged in many ways and lucky to live in this New York City bubble where, largely, we feel the support of local government, and see that in other farm funding, though there is still a ways to go. I think that with Kirsten Gillibrand (I am a fangirl for her) being on the Agriculture Committee, New York State already has a strong ally. There’s a lot that we can be positive about, but it is tough coming off of an Administration that I knew had the backs of many of the underserved to this new one that is so unpredictable. Therefore, I think there’s going to be some shifts re: agriculture that we don’t even see coming, and to me that is scary.
I’m especially concerned about the Administration’s fear of immigrants, because immigrants feed America. I’m fearful of losing immigrants, because not only is immigration the heart of this country, but our agricultural system is so dependent on them. This anti-immigrant agenda is complete insanity on several levels but certainly in regards to our agriculture industry. Our innovation partly comes from bringing skilled workers to this country as well, and we have an increasing number of people to feed on this planet and an ever present burden of solving global and domestic food insecurity. People and government policy have an impact on this, and I’m worried about the direction we’re going in nationally. Next year’s Farm Bill will likely start circulating in Congress soon, and hopefully with some tougher spines to stand up to the strong arm of the Executive Branch.
For those who are less-connected to the world of growing and farming, what potential bills or legislation should we look out for or fight, both nationally and locally?
As mentioned above, next year the Farm Bill is up for renewal as it goes in five year increments. It’s complicated because it’s tied with nutrition spending, such as SNAP and other food assistance programs and not just agriculture related spending. This makes up the chunk of the nearly $500 billion that is spread out over the course of five years. Food Policy and Agriculture was not really a topic discussed during the election, especially at debates between the candidates, which I think always surprises food policy people because agriculture is such a big industry.
With a fiscally conservative Congress, I think the nutrition programs are in for a bit of a fight, since it’s been indicated that the new Administration will keep the nutrition and ag programs together in the new bill. The Farm Bill is important to farmers because of the subsidies, important to environmentalists because of the land conservation/preservation funding, and to local/regional food systems because of funding for farmer’s markets, schools, and anti-hunger initiatives. This past Farm Bill had some new funding and programs for small farmers and for organic farmers, but historically has left out many services and resources for underserved or minority farmers. There’s word that the next Bill may include some funding/services for urban agriculture which would be new, but the real fight is to get money for the historically underserved, minority, and women farmers. I think that will be tough based on the Republican House and Senate coupled with an Administration that obviously doesn’t give credit to these groups on a day to day basis anyway, much less would they when it comes to giving certain groups money for agriculture. I see under the pick for Secretary of Agriculture much more money going toward factory farming (which is a trend in Georgia under Sonny Perdue) and less money going toward small farms, organic farming, minorities, and women, and food security/nutrition programming.
I wholeheartedly believe this Administration and this president do not care about the average small farmer, so policies can get enacted that could really hurt and some regulations could get repealed that would be detrimental to some but could really help others (I think we’re in for a bit of regulatory change). I grew up on a small dairy farm in South Dakota where family is really at the heart of it all, and I’m naturally inclined to worry about what these policies could be doing to my dad and my uncles. I’m proud to say that I’m a sixth generation farmer in this country and there is really a lot at stake for the small farmer and what the future holds for the farms all around the country that are trying to hold on to the family farm and the ideals it represents. Policy has the ability to affect a lot of change in people’s lives, good and bad, so we’ve definitely got to be ready to pick up the phone to call our Congress people when this starts getting hammered out.
What do you love about wet-hopped beer versus dry hops, for those who don’t know? How many breweries are working with wet hops in Brooklyn?
I love the earthiness and grassiness of wet hopped beer. It’s just fresher, and something out of the ordinary, which I love. We wouldn’t be able to have year round beer without dry hops, so they are crucial, but there’s something about having a harvest beer that commemorates all the work you put into keeping the hops healthy throughout the growing season that is special.
I can’t say how many breweries are working with wet hops, but I think it’s become much more common. Sixpoint does a killer wet hop beer every year and I love that it’s different based on the season. Each year is different in regards to the elements that get put into the hop plants, so the beer will never really be the same from year to year. After we got the hops out of the boil part of the process, they smelled like juicy fruit and it was just an exciting thing to see them serve their purpose, aside from the education tool I use them for up on the roof. It’s a lot of work for one day’s brewing, but the beer at the end is totally worth it.
In addition to hops, you also grow micro greens: To how many restaurants do you hope to sell next season? How do you hope to make it more appealing to more restaurants? Are they better for us, the land, or our tastebuds, than standard greens?
Yes I grow a few varieties of microgreens on the farm for restaurants and some salad greens for a catering team. I hope to continue my relationships with my existing clients, and based on their standing order, I’ll determine if I can grow more. I run the farm solo at the moment so it depends on growing space capacity and the time it takes. I think Brooklyn is special in that it already is interested in supporting local growers, so if I try to get them in a few more places, I’ll just show them this article! Just kidding, I hope the greens will speak for themselves because though I am biased, they’re tasty and they are fun to grow because the quick life cycle always reminds you how spectacular seeds are. They grow quickly, pack a nutritional punch (they can contain up to 40 times more nutrients than their fully grown counterparts), and can be grown vertically so they take up less space and can make farming a bit more efficient. They’re easy to grow organically, and I once heard them referred to as vegetable confetti, which is perfect.
What does the future of Tinyfield hold? What’s your dream for it?
I honestly am not sure I can answer that question. It is incredibly difficult to make a small farm become sustainable financially, so I’m working on doing that. I hope this year the ecosystem of the rooftop expands a bit more in regards to flowers and bees, and that my growing methods become more steady since I worked out a lot of kinks last year in all things rooftop farming on our particular space growing the particular things we grow.
I’ve grown so much as a farmer, and I want to continue to offer that to other people who are looking for a place to learn and grow as farmers, especially young women because as we were told this year, we should never doubt that we are “valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve” our own dreams. Tinyfield was an idea that two women brought to life, which is magical. I’ve learned a lot about business and about how important it is to have strong women farmers in my life. I’ve also learned so much more about farm operations since we started this project, which was definitely a goal of mine, and with that knowledge I think Tinyfield will continue to grow in its ability to educate people about the agriculture behind their beer, as well as the challenges and rewards of rooftop growing and urban farming. The mission of Tinyfield has always been to grow young farmers on a tiny field, and if I am that young farmer, Tinyfield has already achieved its dream.
Who would you nominate for this list?
I would say all the women farmers and chefs in Brooklyn changing the food system for the better, ranging from home cookers to community gardeners to school garden and rooftop growers, but luckily that encompasses many more than the 100 slots on this list. This would include porch growers, like my mentor Jenny Best, whom I worked with at Slow Food USA and beyond. She works in her professional life to make the food system better around the world at One Acre Fund and as a Trustee at MOFAD, and in her personal life to grow an amazing home garden in Brooklyn to share food, her friendship, and support with so many in her life. She’s always taken the time to give me advice and honesty and encouragement in between raising a baby boy, starting a business, and cooking up interesting things with her homegrown produce, which luckily for me she shares with her friends on social media. I’m lucky to have been her intern, as her influence in my life since I moved to Brooklyn is immeasurable. Basically, I want to be Jenny Best when I grow up!
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.
Photo by Jane Bruce