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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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To Improve Quality of Life and Access to Fresh Food Urban Farming Co. Blankets NYC with Edible Green Rooftops

February 28, 2012 |

Photo: Anastasia Cole Plakias - http://brooklyngrangefarm.com

While ‘city farming’ may seem more like an oxymoron than a practical career goal, Brooklyn Grange aims to make it a stable profession – and bring tasty, sustainable produce to New York at the same time.

Brooklyn Grange is a 40,000 square-foot rooftop farm in Queens, New York. Though the company’s name might lead one to believe that it’s located in Brooklyn, the company actually built its flagship farm on Northern Blvd in Queens after the original farm site in Brooklyn fell through. It’s currently in the process of adding a second farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, doubling its acreage – and bringing it that much closer to achieving its goal of blanketing New York City with edible green rooftops.

“The city will always rely on rural farmers for the bulk of our food, and the relationship between urban and rural communities must be celebrated,” explains the company’s website. “But having farms inside the city limits by taking advantage of unused roof space is an opportunity not to be missed. Roof farms have the potential to improve urban quality of life, create jobs, increase access to healthy fresh foods, and provide environmental education to those of us who live in and love the city.”

While the first farm was financed through a mix of private equity, loans, grassroots fundraising and the website Kickstarter.com, the second was predominantly funded by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Infrastructure Grant Program, which made up to $4 million in grants available for projects that would detain or retain stormwater runoff – such as bioswales, blue or green roofs, porous pavement, etc.

“One of the key elements of the grant is that we would absorb a minimum amount of water,” explains Brooklyn Grange cofounder and head farmer Ben Flanner. “The Department of Environmental Protection, it’s a high priority for them to improve the way that stormwater is managed. They’re interested in projects that can creatively, and with an environmentally positive component, absorb water rather than just send it into the storm drain.”

The farms were constructed with that in mind. To create the farms, the Grange installs Conservation Technologies’ green roof system, which consists of the following components: a layer of root-barrier; a thick layer of felt; drainage mats with small cups to hold excess water; and a thin layer of felt to prevent the drainage mats from filling up with soil.

Economic Viability

“A core focus for us is to figure out how to make this a sustainable business. It’s an LLC, so it’s commercial,” explains Flanner. “We’re also very creative and we’re constantly experimenting with additional revenue streams, so we’re jumping on any opportunity that comes our way [such as] scaling up our honey operation, because honey is something that we’ve identified that can be profitable. We’re just constantly trying stuff…We’re very entrepreneurial; we wear a lot of hats.”

The Grange currently sells its produce through three main outlets: a CSA, farm stands and to local restaurants, with restaurants making up the bulk of sales. Flanner says they’re interested in further developing the farm stands, but that that takes time, in terms of developing relationships with consumers so that they’ll actually go out to the farm stand in significant numbers.

The goal isn’t to be rich, but to make urban farming a stable career. For many, working for an urban farm is an ideal balance of both worlds – being outside and getting your hands dirty without having to leave the things you enjoy about a city environment – the arts, dining, culture, friends – behind.

“I moved to New York and was working at a desk and became really interested in farming for many different reasons,” says Flanner. “It’s a really good practical application of some of the skills that I’d gone to school for in industrial engineering: processes and optimization and trying to utilize a minimum amount of space as much as possible… And I was interested in starting to move around more and get my hands dirty and get away from the desk.”

Brooklyn Grange Farm. Photo: Anastasia Cole Plakias - http://brooklyngrangefarm.com

Since the first farm became operational in 2010, the short term goal, says Flanner, was to break even. And they did. “We’ve paid our rent, covered our costs…We’ve met that goal.”

Flanner says that he thinks the operation’s biggest challenge is working with limited space, and having to maximize that space’s productivity in order to be a viable business.

“Different farms have different constraints. Space is our constraint, very much as you’d expect in New York, where land is a premium and you’re always bursting at the seams…Same thing with us. We’re trying to grow as many pounds as possible on a square foot basis, but also focusing on what generates the most dollars per pound.”

He says that they quickly discovered that salad mixes and heirloom tomatoes are the big money makers, but that they also needed to grow a large variety of crops. “You can’t just grow only salad greens because that’s going to reduce your power as organic farmers,” says Flanner. They’ve also found a market for local honey, and will be expanding their apiary this year.

Going forward, Flanner says that the Grange’s goal will be to “keep on staying smart and get wise with locating crops at each of the farms. And selling everything. In parallel with that, we’re starting the 25 bee hives. We are a city that has a high demand for local honey. It will be really exciting raising bees and filling that demand.”

The bottom line is to continue to find ways to maximize the efficiency of both farm sites.

“We’re still continuing to keep on tracking our records and figuring out which crops are the smartest. We’ll have growing pains. Good growing pains. Maybe we should have planted one last tomato there… even after two years, there’s a lot of learning still,” he says.

Sustainable Strategies

The Grange is starting to get the hang of what people want and need, and so far has had no problem selling everything it has produced. That will be a challenge going forward – continuing to create just the right amount of demand to support the additional acreage of the new farm. But having the new farm will give them huge advantages, beyond just additional production.

Flanner explains that if, for instance, the tomatoes at one site got a bad tomato blight, the only solution previously would have been to put them at the other end of the farm. Now, with two sites, they could stop growing tomatoes at one site altogether and double their tomato production at the other farm. The new site gives them a lot of freedom, and “opens us up to a little healthier growing environment,” as Flanner puts it.

In addition to crop rotation, the Grange employs a number of sustainable growing and efficiency-maximizing strategies. Flanner shares some of their tips.

“We do a lot of intercropping. Almost any time we put in a plant that has large spacing, we try to sneak in some rows of radishes and salad greens…We have to be very creative with staking because we don’t have a lot of depth. We use a lot of bamboo – thousands of bamboo sticks…We cover crop pretty heavily in the winter.”

He adds, “We do a lot of composting. We’re right next to tons and tons of waste that’s getting trucked out of the city, involving fossil fuels. So we’re obviously a drop in the bucket of that waste system, but we do as much as we can with composting and encourage people to save their vegetable waste and bring it to the farm stand and the farm and we’ll take it. We do have the ability to divert a waste stream…8 million people, imagine how much garbage they’re throwing out.”

He laments the lack of manure available to them in the city, and says the small amount of manure generated by the Grange’s chickens is a precious commodity on the farm. But they are looking to experiment with new manure sources in the city. “Central Park has horses…” says Flanner.

Looking Ahead

Flanner says that a number of people interested in starting similar projects have approached the Grange. In addition to becoming a financially stable urban farm, the Grange’s goal is to create a system that can be replicated in other cities. He says that the farm attracts people from across the country, and that’s part of what makes it so exciting.

On Wednesdays, the Grange has a market that’s in parallel with an open farm day; consumers can come shop at the market and then go on up to the farm. The Grange also puts on events, such as film screenings and dinners prepared by locally known chefs, created from the farm’s produce. It also does guided tours and hosts school groups, providing city kids with a rare opportunity to not only learn about plants and how they grow, but to see them in action.

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