Multimedia reporter

Creating Urban Agriculture, One Roof At A Time

THE HUFFINGTON POST, published January 18, 2011

Traditionally, farmers take it easy in the winter. But urban farmer Ben Flanner has never been so busy. He is trying to get more New York rooftops ready to grow new shingles of Sun Gold tomatoes, salad greens, and carrots before the next season begins.

“We want to see a lot more roofs across the city covered with farms and growing healthy vegetables,” said Flanner, head farmer at Brooklyn Grange, New York’s biggest rooftop farm located (despite its name) in Long Island City, Queens.

Started last May, in its first season the 40,000 square-foot organic rooftop farm covered with 1.2 million pounds of soil provided New Yorkers with 15,000 pounds of fresh produce that was traditionally shipped into the city from far away, creating pollution and waste.

Almost a year into the project, Flanner has now learned some lessons which he willingly shares.

“In terms of crops, plants in the nightshade family including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants worked very well,” he said. “Salad greens, carrots, and radishes also worked. Big cabbage plants don’t work quite as well ’cause they are deep, heavy feeders.”

Flanner’s project was not without its bugs–the animal, not the electronic kind. Insects are a problem of organic farming everywhere. However, reconstructed natural eco-systems like a roof don’t harbor natural predators, so the pests can turn out to be even more obnoxious than usual.

“We had some harlequin bugs,” Flanner said. “In the next season we’ll focus on introducing natural predators to those bugs as well as staying on top of them and literally killing them with our fingers.”

How to tackle the wind was another lesson learned.

“You want to minimize the stress on the plant to as low level as possible, ’cause then they grow faster and more healthy,” Flanner said. “You have to get creative with bamboo sticks to set up tripods and supports and protect the plants.”

Brooklyn Grange products are sold directly to restaurants including Fatty Cue, Vesta and also Roberta’s, whose owners, Brandon Hoy and Chris Parachini, are Brooklyn Grange partners.

The rooftop farm products can also be found at markets like the one at the first floor of the Queens building where the farm is located (3718 Northern Boulevard) and at the one in front of Roberta’s in Bushwick.

Brooklyn Grange also has a selling system called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where members pay a lump sum for a weekly supply of fresh vegetables. For $20 a week, CSA members receive a bag of mixed produce each week of the growing season.

The reaction of the community has been overwhelmingly positive, from the volunteers who helped install the farm to the ones who showed up to donate plants and seeds for the roof.

“We were given strawberry plants, raspberries, peppers, bamboo,” Flanner said with a laugh. “It’s great that people get involved, it creates a better sense of partnership with everyone in the community.”

The Brooklyn Grange has many goals: to create and prove that rooftop farms are a sustainable business, to get the community involved in the project, and to encourage people to eat more healthily.

“There is a lot of interest and a lot of enthusiasm towards the Grange, we’ve been speaking with a lot of people,” Flanner said. “We’d really like to see more rooftop farms around.”