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Up on the Farm

Two models for rooftop agriculture vie to feed the Big Apple

Text by David Ferris | Photography by JJ Sulin

Watch author David Ferris discuss urban farming with Sierra senior editor Paul Rauber at our G+ hangout.

To visit Ben Flanner's farm, take the R train to 36th Street in Queens. Climb to the street, escaping the subway breeze that smells like hot iron, and walk two blocks east on Northern Boulevard. Enter a nondescript six-story office building. In the elevator, push the R button for "roof." After the bald guy with a briefcase steps off on floor three, wait for the doors to slide open again. You will be met by a disorienting burst of sunshine and a view of the Triborough Bridge, and your best New York don't-mess-with-me scowl will be directed at a lovely row of eggplants.

The Brooklyn Grange has neither desk nor receptionist—just a sign saying that no dogs are allowed and that it is unwise to approach the bees. Three interns, browned by the summer sun, pick chamomile flowers for tea. Sunflowers strain to peek over a low border wall. To the west, the Manhattan skyline shimmers in the heat.

I'm looking for Flanner, the Grange's head farmer and president, but the interns say he isn't in yet, so I admire the neat raised rows of peas and peppers. The farm is 40,000 square feet, one of the largest rooftop farms in the United States. It's part of a rapidly growing movement of people who believe that urban agriculture can help absolve New York and cities everywhere of their environmental sins.

Urban agriculture can help absolve New York and cities everywhere of their environmental sins.

Everyone knows that New York is full of foodies, but few realize that it is also full of farmers. City farmsteads are cropping up all over, and New York has more of them—and more on rooftops—than anywhere else. In addition to at least 7 rooftop enterprises, there are 17 ground-based farms in the Big Apple and 1,000-plus community gardens, far more than in any other American city.

Growing food in a city's dense core, urban farmers say, can turn back the diesel-chugging trucks hauling salad mix across the country, lower energy bills by replacing hot black-tar roofs with cool greenery, slim waistlines by supplying bodegas with fresh-picked tomatoes, and let children reared on concrete learn the joy of yanking a carrot from the soil.

Flanner jogs toward me. "Sorry I'm late," he says with a grin. Rangy and wearing running shoes, he sports a four-day beard, shorts, and a T-shirt that, while clean, will never be white again. "Let me give you the tour." He's barely started explaining the irrigation system when we're interrupted by a visiting delegation of women from Bangladesh, Thailand, and China. Next, a colleague approaches with some emergency involving the produce stand in the lobby downstairs. Crisis resolved, at last he's able to tell me where the farm sends its dozens of varieties of herbs and vegetables: a third goes to farmers' markets (where it quickly sells out), a third to customers who subscribe to its community-supported agriculture program, and the rest to high-end restaurants.

In case things aren't busy enough, the Grange is laying the soil for a second, 45,000-square-foot rooftop farm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Other endeavors include New York's biggest apiary, also at the Navy Yard, with about 30 hives, and an indoor experiment cultivating shiitake mushrooms. Groups from all over the world request training seminars, and a new nonprofit foundation handles the squads of schoolchildren who visit each week. Flanner points out a table built to seat 60, the centerpiece of yet another of the Grange's sideline businesses: hosting dinners, photo shoots, and weddings.

"We all wear many different hats, and we're involved in many different things," Flanner says as he adjusts a sprinkler that's irrigating a row of arugula.

An engine of the farm's success—and one reason it turns a modest profit—is its dozens of interns and small army of volunteers, mostly apartment dwellers who yearn to plunge their hands into dirt. "It's critical to our business that the community is as involved as possible," Flanner asserts. With their help, the Grange was able to spread 1.2 million pounds of soil without an earthmover. Building a farm in the middle of the densest city in the country gives these unpaid laborers an eclectic list of skills for their resumes: real estate developer, regulation wrangler, structural engineer, and entrepreneurial problem-solver.

While we talk, Flanner pulls out a tube of sunscreen and slathers some on his neck. Today is the longest day of the year and the beginning of a wicked heat wave that will see the heat index reach 105 degrees. From up here, it's clear why: the black-tar roofs in every direction that soak up the sun and raise temperatures in New York by as much as 7 degrees higher than in the surrounding countryside.

I point out a head of winterbor kale bobbing in the breeze next to an HVAC unit. "It's a reminder that this green roof is reducing the time that those run," Flanner says, bending down to pull a weed from a row of habaneros.

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