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New York City’s Greatest Rooftop Farm

Imagine you’re in an airplane descending upon La Guardia Airport. Because the plane sinks beneath the bottom layer of clouds, you peer out your window seat and see all the roads and highways, the towering Manhattan skyscrapers, the outer-borough row houses and the tons of cement and steel under. But amid all that concrete chaos, the vehicles, smokestacks and the cellular phone towers, you spot a flat rooftop — not black, however inexperienced — with rows of crops. And as your aircraft properties in on La Guardia and the town grid comes into sharper focus, you can see that the inexperienced roof is blanketed with plants and flowers and shrubbery. You can even make out purple specs among the bushy plants – are those purple peppers or heirloom tomatoes you marvel?
In the course of all the self-serving commerce, the relentless pursuit of capitalism and all the congestion that overwhelms the trendy metropolis, a rooftop farm represents a hopeful notion about ecology, nature and the straightforward life. But most green roofs and rooftop farms are hobbies – perhaps a household plants some flowers on the roof of their apartment or a restaurant grows a few of its personal produce. How fashionable. How green. How novel.

But this farm in the middle of city Queens isn’t nearly ecological idealism. Here, one metropolis gardener is trying to do extra. He is attempting to take his natural rooftop farm and merge environmental sustainability with fiscal sustainability. He is trying to function the primary worthwhile rooftop farm in New York Metropolis. Meet the contemporary city farmer, Ben Flanner.

Last summer time, I woke up very early one morning to hitch Ben and his group for a seven a.m. harvest. As I approached the standard Motor Merchandise building 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 phrases of greeting, they went to work. They gathered a couple of buckets, about 15 collapsible white plastic crates, a pair of scissors and two mini-machetes and headed for the elevator. After i launched myself as a reporter, I was given a third of the collapsible white crates and a nod. As the elevator rose, I tried to start out a dialog, but Anastasia, sipping an iced coffee, instructed me that “it was too early for tales.” With the tools in tow, we bought off the elevator and climbed a flight of stairs to the farm, Brooklyn Grange.

Originally the farm was imagined to be in Brooklyn — hence the name — however it now sits throughout from Okay.G. Suzuki Luxurious Cars Superstore and down the road from a Hess fuel station in the guts of Long Island City. It’s laborious to think about it until you see it. As I walked onto the roof, seven tales up, I noticed rows and rows of inexperienced plants — some the peak of my ankles and a few up to my waist. Apart from slim pathways between the crops, nearly each nook of the one-acre roof was coated with soil. There were six-foot-tall corn stalks combating for sunlight with a DirecTV satellite dish in opposition to one of many few partitions on the roof. To the west, I may see down Northern Boulevard all the strategy to the Chrysler Constructing in midtown Manhattan.

If there’s one surefire option to identify a farmer, look beneath his fingernails. Ben’s are caked with soil. His clothes are perpetually stained too. He was carrying a green sweat-stained shirt and beige cutoff shorts marked with dirt. Ben’s pale white face was covered with a 5-day-old beard, and to protect himself from the solar, he wore a wide-brimmed hat. Surprisingly, he was wearing beaten-up brown gown footwear with some ratty maroon costume socks. His pockets contained a pair of scissors, a small knife and his BlackBerry.

Ben is one in every of 5 managing companions with a stake within the fledgling enterprise. He instructed me that his investment is the most important, and as the head farmer, he is also placing in the most time. His 4 business companions — Anastasia, Gwen, Brandon Hoy and Chris Parachini — all of whom give off that young, hip Brooklyn vibe, have other jobs along with Brooklyn Grange. However Ben’s sole focus — from seven a.m. harvests to late night time pesto-making classes ($5 for a 4-ounce jar) — is the farm, its crops, and its monetary effectively-being. “We’re trying to show that the farm can stand on its own rather than be a community farm that has to look for donations yearly,” Ben mentioned. “That might take a variety of the stress off of me.”

Before Brooklyn Grange launched final spring, Ben and his companions raised $200,000 by way of an amalgamation of personal equity funding, loans, grassroots fundraising occasions that included a barbeque, vacation party, T-shirt drive, Meatball Slapdown, dance get together and no matter they might eke out of the fundraising web site Kickstarter.com. They even put out piggybanks on restaurant tables. Practically ninety % of the $200,000 went in direction of buying the soil and putting in a inexperienced roof system on the lofted space that they leased for 10 years. The remainder of the money went in the direction of seeds, irrigation and prices associated with forming the business. “We now have to have the ability to pay a small salary for myself after which pay again the costs of the set up,” Ben stated.

Brooklyn Grange’s business model is two-pronged. The farm sells to a variety of restaurants around the town that it has particular relationships with — Roberta’s, Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar, Five Leaves, Juliette, Bobo, Prime Meats, Marlow & Sons, Fatty ‘Cue, Northeast Kingdom, to call some — but the idea is to sell principally at their very own inexperienced markets. Ben likes the markets because, “You get to fulfill and interact with the customers,” he says. “It is also efficient for us as a result of we are able to barely consolidate our selecting plans and simply actually harvest quite a bit on certain days and then take it to 1 single place. So there’s less motoring concerned. It reduces our carbon footprint, because we don’t need to hop into a truck or a automobile and deliver to restaurants all over town.” But Ben admits he cannot afford to solely consider his environmental ideals. “The money has to fall into place because we have debt and buyers,” Ben mentioned. “I don’t need this thing to go underneath, so I must be sure that the guide is balanced.”

As soon as we have been on the roof, I was unexpectedly handed scissors and a fast snap pea-choosing tutorial. (I discovered rapidly that serving to out and pitching in are a part of the city farming ethos.) After the short lesson, Gwen, Anastasia and Ben were gone to pick 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 assume. I observed the air was fresher than I used to be used to in the city. Bees flew in and out of the plants, pollinating as they went. There was something soothing in regards to the texture of the pods on my fingers. I discovered that the most important, ripest pods had been usually hidden in the middle of the bushes. Was this because there was extra shade there? Or had the final harvester just missed these pods because they have been tougher to see? In any case, after just 10 minutes, I had taken possession of the snap peas. I had not planted them, watered them, cared for them, however I still felt a connection to these snap peas. Clipping and then by chance dropping one felt like a mini-tragedy. After about 30 minutes, I had accumulated enough pods for four Chinese dishes of chicken with snow peas. This was not simple work.

In New York, and particularly in Queens, farming used to be extraordinarily profitable. Gary Mitchell of the Queens County Farm Museum mentioned that at the height of Queens farming — from the late 19th century by the 1920s — farmers might earn three or 4 thousand dollars a 12 months by promoting their produce. “That was a king’s ransom in those days,” Mitchell said. Farmers would carry their produce by wagon to the East River, after which take a ferry to Manhattan earlier than making their approach to Gansevoort Market or markets up in Harlem. Farmers would often sleep overnight on their wagons and sell their vegetables in the morning. Initially, farms in Brooklyn competed with farms in Queens, however as Brooklyn prospered economically, the Brooklyn land grew to become more worthwhile to sell and build on than to farm. Once the farms in Brooklyn started to disappear, the farms in Queens prospered much more.

However Mitchell feared that the glory days for brand new York City farmers were long gone and unlikely to return, so he was skeptical of Brooklyn Grange’s lengthy-term viability. “That is the massive query. Are you able to farm and make a revenue?” Mitchell wondered. “The answer for a very long time has been no. God bless them and good luck, but I don’t see the way you turn a profit. I really don’t.”

Later on, Anastasia took me beneath her wing as I harvested. She showed me how to tell if a tomato was ripe as she listened to Pandora on her iPhone. A new tune got here on, and she asked me if I had heard of a gaggle called Skinny Lizzy. I hadn’t. “Nice harvesting music,” she mentioned. Late last summer time, Anastasia started giving tours of the farm to completely different New York Metropolis camps. “It is one thing that has been really necessary to me — getting New York City kids as much as the farm,” she said. “Because the farm isn’t just about growing and promoting good, contemporary, native produce, however it is also about connecting New Yorkers to the complete system of production and distribution and consumption, and encouraging people to think about the alternatives that they are making inside that process.”

This year, Brooklyn Grange has plans to start a non-revenue, academic department of the farm. Gwen has taken the lead in beginning a brand new group known as City Growers, which will educate teams about farming, nutrition, workout shirts with funny sayings cooking and environmental points.

Since federal natural meals standards had been established in 1990, the natural meals movement has grown exponentially — as you’ve probably seen. According to the Organic Commerce Affiliation’s 2010 Natural Business Survey, U.S. gross sales of organic food and drinks have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.Eight billion in 2009. And after the organic meals motion took off, the native meals motion adopted go well with. For the last 5 – 6 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 p.c of the world’s population lives in urban centers which comprise about two percent of the earth’s surface and eat 75 p.c of its sources,” Anastasia lectured. “And while urban farms can never change rural farms to feed complete cities, they are definitely a step in the direction of a more sustainable food system.”

In addition to the meals issues, advocates argue that rooftop farms and urban gardens are patches of inexperienced which have a significant optimistic environmental influence. Inexperienced roofs decrease heating costs in cold climates by stopping heat escape from buildings and lower air conditioning costs in heat climates, holding buildings cool via plant transpiration processes. Green roofs also improve the lifespan of roofs and reduce water runoff, which can prevent flooding. Even with the financial downturn, the inexperienced roof industry grew by sixteen % in 2009, in keeping with the nonprofit group Green Roofs for Wholesome Cities.

It was just a couple of minutes earlier than Ben had to leave to take his produce to market, and he was in a rush, bustling around the roof to ensure he had every little thing he may be able to promote. “Do you’ve thyme or cilantro?” Ben asked Gwen. No, she didn’t. So Ben hustled over to clip some off together with his scissors. I followed him over to the herbs with my bucket of assorted candy peppers, spicy peppers and some very small, scorching Thai chili peppers. As Ben clipped the cilantro plants, a guacamole scent wafted by means of the air. Then he gave me some freshly picked mint and rosemary to style. My hands by no means smelled so contemporary. As everyone carried the crops downstairs, Gwen questioned if that they had forgotten to pick something.

“Ought to we pick some salad greens?” she asked Ben.

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

Ben, 30, grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs where his father, John, owned an digital retail retailer and his mom, Cindy, a faculty occupational therapist, introduced him to gardening at a young age. Cindy was visiting Ben’s farm the day I was harvesting.

“We had a backyard out again,” she stated. “I feel that’s where he received it from.”

“She’s proud,” Ben mentioned. “She likes to tell people that.”

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

At dwelling in Milwaukee, Cindy grows cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and she even has planted strawberry and raspberry patches. Whereas her husband and other son weren’t gardeners, she said Ben took to it instantly. “I feel that gardening is nearly like a chromosome — either you could have it or you don’t,” Cindy mentioned. “And he cherished being out there right from the start. There’s a good feeling that you get when you work within the soil and feel that connectedness with all of creation.”

Ben took a circuitous route to Brooklyn Grange. After he graduated from the workout shirts with funny sayings University of Wisconsin in Madison with a major in industrial engineering, Ben landed a new York job at E*Commerce, where he labored in online advertising. He was promoted at E*Commerce, but never was completely invested in that life. “You tend to get promoted when you’re employed in a company job,” he stated. “You get promoted or fired.”

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And he had other interests. “I all the time had a love for meals. I knew in all probability three or 4 years ago that I used to be going to quit and do one thing meals-related.” When Ben told his mom that he was leaving E*Commerce to give attention to rooftop farming full-time, Ben mentioned that she was supportive, however skeptical. “Mother was like, ‘That is cool, however do you really have to give up 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 back,” he mentioned. “However you must look on the macro picture. The primary 12 months of any entrepreneurial begin-up business is not really about having a effectively-balanced life.”

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

After another Sunday morning harvest last summer time, I hopped in Ben’s automobile and we headed from the farm to Brooklyn Grange’s own market stand at Roberta’s restaurant in Bushwick. On the way, Ben shoved a number of fistfuls of granola into his mouth and lit up a Natural American Spirit cigarette earlier than offering me one. He dropped off a $70 shipment of radishes, peppers and tomatoes at 5 Leaves restaurant in Greenpoint. On the radio, one zero one.9 FM performed, and who else came on but the Crimson Hot Chili Peppers.

At the market at Roberta’s, I helped arrange by rubber-banding mini-packets of thyme, rosemary and mint. Along with the herbs, Brooklyn Grange was selling a variety of tomatoes, eggplant, hot and candy peppers, radishes, basil, Thai basil, cucumbers and beets. Sales have been sluggish within the morning, but picked up within the early afternoon. Some clients only bought a number of tomatoes; others bought as much as $25 price of vegetables, and most spent between $5 and $15. Ben was additionally speaking on the cellphone to a restaurant owner about promoting most of that day’s tomato harvest in bulk.

But not all the markets were successful final summer season. Brooklyn Grange’s weekly Saturday market at Vesta in workout shirts with funny sayings Astoria wasn’t doing as effectively because the market at Roberta’s. After just some months, Ben began to marvel if the Vesta market wasn’t worthwhile enough on a weekly foundation. Ben normally made between $one hundred and $400 dollars every Saturday, which — contemplating the time that goes into the harvest, the setup and promoting – was not passable, he mentioned. Ben puzzled if Brooklyn Grange may end its Saturday market at Vesta without 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 stated, sounding conflicted.

However Ben has even greater questions he has to answer. Can Brooklyn Grange maintain itself on a bunch of $10 purchases? The pea pods that took me about 40 minutes to harvest would in all probability promote for a combined $10 by weight. How many peas, peppers and tomatoes is the farm going to need to grow and decide to come out on high?

***

If the primary yr was any indication, Brooklyn Grange is discovering its way. Lately, Ben informed me that the farm turned a slight profit in 2010, which he was comfortable about. He stated the farm pulled in sufficient cash to pay him his targeted wage and sufficient to remain on observe to pay off their $25,000 in debt over five years. If 2010 was about getting the farm up and running, 2011 shall be all about effectivity. “I’m nonetheless totally expended making an attempt to good the operation at the current farm,” Ben stated. “As soon as we have now another yr underneath our belt, reinforcing all of our methods and getting all the pieces as environment friendly as potential, then I feel we’ll really feel more able to broaden.”

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

But surely, Brooklyn Grange will solely succeed if the produce is recent and tasty. After harvesting, going to the market, and seeing all of the exhausting work that goes into the farm, I was ready to sit down down, relax and simply eat. To style the produce, I went to eat at chef Kevin Adey’s Bushwick restaurant, Northeast Kingdom, at the tip of the summer time. I used to be curious what knowledgeable chef might put together with Brooklyn Grange produce. Adey grew to become involved with Brooklyn Grange after Gwen visited the restaurant a number of instances and recommended that his native meals restaurant purchase hyper-local from the farm. “They got here in with a pattern of their mustard greens and I’ve been hooked ever since,” Adey said. “I am unable to cross up something from them.” Adey pays about $100 per shipment of vegetables from the farm and says that the prices are well value it. “You’re going to pay a bit of more than you would for different products, but it is really apples and oranges,” Adey stated. (No pun meant. Brooklyn Grange would not truly develop apples or oranges.) “The standard is so excessive for the lettuces and the tomatoes that you simply can’t really compare it with produce from someplace else. When the shipment comes, it’s nonetheless heat from the sun.”

I had taken nibbles and tastes of the produce here and there, however I was trying ahead to the Brooklyn Grange appetizer specials on the restaurant’s chalkboard menu. The primary, for $eight, was a Caprese salad with tomatoes, basil, homemade Northeast Kingdom mozzarella, cucumber and banana peppers in a light dressing. The components have been fresh and the tomatoes have been juicy. The second appetizer was Brooklyn Grange kale served with a fried egg, corn, garlic, red pepper and croutons for $6. The kale was not bitter like kale you normally encounter in restaurants. It might have been on a long Island City rooftop that morning. From younger couples to huge teams drinking bottles of wine, almost all of the 30 seats in the upstairs dining room were occupied for most of the night. If enterprise was that good every night time at Northeast Kingdom, Kevin Adey could surely afford to buy and cook all the Brooklyn Grange produce he happy.

As I sat right down to eat at seven p.m., I considered what Ben might have been doing at that second. Was he at another nighttime pesto-making session? Was he updating his books? Was he bodily worn out from another seven a.m. harvest? And then I thought of something Ben instructed me the week before.

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

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