Tell us a bit about yourself and Brooklyn Grange.
I'm Gwen, one of the founding partners here at BG. I grew up in Massachusetts and had a pretty idyllic small-town lifestyle. My parents had vegetable gardens, we composted, and I spent a lot of time playing in the dirt and in the forest. When I moved to New York, I started growing my own vegetables and composting my food waste on a small terrace that I accessed via my bedroom window. My thought was that being in New York was no reason to not grow plants, and it's a philosophy that I share with thousands of New Yorkers, including my business partners here at Brooklyn Grange. We came together years ago around the idea that we could start a business, make jobs for ourselves, grow food, and make New York greener and more livable, and lucky for us (and perhaps as the result of some hard work) the idea came to fruition.
What do you grow in your farms? At what quantity?
We grow a wide array of vegetables, but our big cash crop is salad greens. Our two rooftop farms produce about 50,000 lbs of vegetables per year, and we sell it all through our farmers markets, CSA program, and to restaurants. All of our food is consumed within about five miles of our farms, and we grow everything organically.
Where are your farms? How large are they?
We have two farms - one in Queens and one in Brooklyn. The Queens farm is are oldest (built in 2010), and it's about an acre in size. Our farm in Brooklyn was built in 2012, and it's an acre and a half.
What gave you the idea for rooftop farming? How did you pick the spaces?
I don't think we can take credit for inventing rooftop farming - people have been growing edible plants on rooftops since ancient times - but the idea to build a rooftop farm business came about in 2009, after my business partner and our company's President, Ben Flanner, pioneered a smaller green roof farm on a rooftop in Brooklyn. He collected data on his productivity, crops, and sales throughout a whole growing season, and then we took that data and turned it into the underpinnings of our business plan for Brooklyn Grange.
How does the farm impact the surrounding area?
We have a lot of impacts! New York City suffers from a few environmental challenges that our farm helps to ameliorate - mainly the urban heat island effect, air pollution (and lots of CO2 in the air), stormwater management, and lack of green space to support wildlife and biodiversity. We also collect compostable waste from local partners, including large quantities of burlap bags and coco husk that we use to mulch our farm beds, and we participate in research projects with a couple of local universities, namely Cornell, City Tech, and the New School. We work with a couple of non-profit organizations very closely: City Growers, a group that brings over 5,000 children up to our farms for educational visits every year, and the Refugee and Immigrant Fund, a local non-profit that uses our farms as a site for job training and horticultural therapy. It's a fundamental mandate of our business to be integrated with the local ecology and society of New York in a positive way, and we really see ourselves as a regenerative farm and a social enterprise, geared towards enhancing and improving our city rather than being a polluter or a drain in some way.
Does the polluted city air affect the produce?
It does in a couple of small ways. All of that CO2 in the air is actually good for our plants, which is an upside. We've also worked with Cornell to monitor the particulate matter in the air and see what effect it's having on the food we grow, eat, and sell. Their research has shown that residues in the air and the rain do not get on or into the plants to a degree where the health of the plants or people are effected. Over many decades, however, these particulates could accumulate, so if the air in NYC doesn't get cleaner over the coming decades, we will want to run another study and see how our soils might be effected. In the meantime, we are happy to know that our soil and plants are healthy and clean, even though our lungs may not as pink as we'd like.
Is it a year-round venture?
Yes - we operate our greenhouses year-round, and we spend the winter months assessing the farm season that's passed and planning for the one ahead. Our design, landscaping, and consulting work is also year-round, and our events team works hard in the winter months hosting indoor workshops and putting together the events calendar for the year to come.
Do you think it's possible to eat exclusively locally sourced food year-round?
Yes it is, but I wouldn't recommend it! I'm a big fan of citrus fruit and chocolate, and we simply can't grow those foods in the New York region. Similarly, people living in Florida and similarly hot climates probably don't want to go without salad greens and other cooler-weather crops that can't be growing in their hot summer months. My suggestion for everyone everywhere is to source local foods as much as possible, and no matter where your food is grown, always look for labels like "organic", "fair trade" and "GMO-Free". Don't be fooled by things labeled "natural" - anybody can put that label on any food, and it doesn't actually mean anything!
Who works on the project? Are you looking for volunteers?
We have 13 full-time staff year-round, and our team grows to about 30 full-timers in the summer. Everyone is paid and we don't take volunteers, but we do get a lot of interest from people who want to volunteer and intern for us. Generally we direct those people to other local urban farms, community gardens and non-profits, and we always welcome folks to come visit us on our public tour days and family days, which are listed on our website.
How many bees are you hosting? Are they producing honey?
We have two beehives on each of our farms, and about 20 more scattered on rooftops across Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Each hive can have as many as 50,000 bees in it, so we have as many as a million bees working for us during peak season!
Where can people find your goods?
We sell vegetables, honey and hot sauce at our weekly farm stands on Saturday and Sunday during the spring, summer and fall - all of our market info is on our website at www.brooklyngrangefarm.com/markets.
What do you see in the future for Brooklyn Grange? (More spaces? Different produce?)
Good question! We're planning our third farm right now (though we aren't quite ready to announce the location yet). We also have had some opportunities pop up in cities elsewhere in the US and abroad, so it's possible we'll be opening a Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm somewhere outside of New York (and maybe outside of the US) in the coming years. Wherever we go, we plan to stay true to our mission and work with the local community and ecology in a supportive and symbiotic way.
Why do you think there aren't more people farming on urban rooftops?
There's a high barrier to entry with these projects - it's difficult to find the right roof, to finance the construction, and to establish sales and distribution for your produce. We've seen a lot of startups that are trying to do the same thing as us fizzle out, but there are definitely newcomers to the industry who are following in our footsteps and putting together successful rooftop operations. The key is to be patient and persistent, and to put together a team of founders who are talented and hard-working.
Have you noticed any positive trends in environmentalism?
We're seeing buildings in New York and throughout the world getting greener and more efficient, and there is a lot of really inspiring work being done with urban landscaping, green walls, and green roofs. The cities of the future are going to be lush, green places, and it's going to be a huge boost for environmentalism, but most importantly it's going to make cities much more pleasant and healthy places to live and raise a family.
You can read more about Brooklyn Grange's journey in their book, The Farm on the Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us About Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business. For those who are local or visiting NYC, there are plenty of ways to visit their farm (in season), which you can check out on their website. And if people are eager for a green roof or urban garden of their own, BG offers consulting, design, and installation services!
City Growers is a valuable community organization that brings K-12 youth to our farms, goes into classrooms around the city, and runs an after school program connecting kids with food and farming. By harnessing the wonders of nature, they work to increase environmental and food literacy, cultivate curiosity, and provide transformative experiences for urban children and teens. There is no greater joy then hearing a group of young folks squeal with delight as they pull their first carrot out of the ground, or discover a red wriggler in the compost bin.