Brooklyn Grange is the leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US. We operate the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, located on two roofs in New York City, and grow over 40,000 lbs of organically-cultivated produce per year. In addition to growing and distributing fresh local vegetables and herbs, Brooklyn Grange also provides urban farming and green roof consulting and installation services to clients worldwide, and we partner with numerous non-profit organizations throughout New York to promote healthy and strong local communities.
One early morning in May of 2010, a ragtag crew appeared on Northern Blvd, emerging from the subway steps at 36th St and alighting from bicycles, assembling in the dim light outside a sprawling building. They donned hard hats and thick, plastic-coated work gloves, and armed with shovels and shears, they set out to build the largest soil rooftop farm in the world. The job took six days of craning 3,000lb soil sacks seven stories up to the roof. The hardworking bunch of some two-dozen of our friends and family members shoveled in the sun and wind amidst the roar of motorized buggies and the shouted communications of a team single-minded in its goal. As the West end of the urban farm was still being measured and fit with thick black plastic root-barrier, the East end was dug into tidy, perfectly-spaced rows and studded with tomato seedlings and chard plugs. And slowly, a farm took shape.
Two short years and about ten thousand transplanted tomato seedlings later, we barely recognize that farm. For one thing, it’s a lot more green than brown, even in the winter months, when it’s cover-cropped with clover, vetch and rye. And those tidy rows are often slightly less than perfect. But one thing has remained: the farm is always full of life and full of people. And while some of the faces we see up there every day have changed since the installation back in 2010, we recognize so many as old friends and farmily.
When we set out to grow food on the rooftops and unused spaces of New York City, our mission was to create a fiscally sustainable model for urban agriculture and to produce healthy, delicious vegetables for our local community while doing the ecosystem a few favors as well. Currently, with over two acres of rooftops under cultivation in Brooklyn and Queens, we’ve sold over 40,000lbs of vegetables to restaurants, CSA members and directly to the public via weekly farmstands. But we’ve expanded beyond our mission to grow vegetables: we now keep egg-laying hens and have launched a commercial apiary, cultivating bees for their honey and breeding regional hardiness into their DNA. Our educational non-profit arm, City Growers, hosts thousands of NYC’s youth each season for educational tours and workshops. Our rooftops are constantly abuzz with activity: during the day, we may be harvesting with the dozens of interns enrolled in our farm training program, or hosting a visiting office group for a corporate retreat; at night we transform into a romantic event space for dinner parties, wedding ceremonies and film screenings.
But at our core, we are a farm, and growing nutritious, tasty food is our passion. Doing so in New York is our dream. We believe that this city can be more sustainable; that our air can be cooler and waterways can be cleaner. We believe that the 14% of our landfills comprised of food scraps should be converted into organic energy for our plants, and plants around the city via active compost programs. We believe that food should be fresh, not sitting on the back of a flatbed for two weeks. We believe that food should taste fresh. Because at the end of the day, it’s about sitting down with our farmily, admiring that sunset over the city skyline, snacking on a perfectly ripe, sweet tomato and remembering: this is what real food is.
ABOUT THE BUSINESS
What kind of company is Brooklyn Grange?
Brooklyn Grange is a commercial urban farm, meaning we grow food and sell it. We want farming to become a thriving and viable industry in the urban setting, and we aim to promote city farmers by providing them with a living wage and reliable livelihood.
How is the farm financed?
The farm is financed through a combination of private equity, loans, grassroots fundraising events and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.com and ioby.com.
Does the farm lease the roof?
Yes; we have a 10 year lease from Acumen Capital Partners and a 20 year lease from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Is the farm profitable?
Yes. We broke even in our first year and showed 40% growth in our second year. Our expansion to an additional acre of cultivated rooftop in our third year promises even greater growth, and we plan to continue expanding in the coming years.
Where do you sell your produce?
We sell our produce directly to the community from several weekly farmstands, as well as to several local restaurants and retail stores. We have a forty-member CSA program through which we distribute shares from Mid-May through October.
ABOUT THE DESIGN
How big is the farm?
Our one-acre (43,000 square foot) farm in Queens is made up of roughly 1.2 million lbs of soil. Our Navy Yard farm covers a full 65,000 square foot building. Our total rooftop farming area is 2.5 acres, or about 108,000 square feet.
Can the building hold that much weight?
Our farms were designed and installed with the support of engineers and architects who assessed and approved the site. Both roofs are made of thick reinforced concrete slab, approved for loads far in excess of the loads that we have installed.
How are the farms built?
Both farms consist of green roof systems laid down before the soil. At our first farm on Northern Blvd, we laid down a series of drainage plates distributed by Conservation Technologies. The system is as follows: a layer of root-barrier, which prevents our plants’ roots from penetrating the surface of the roof; a thick layer of felt; drainage mats with small cups to hold excess water from heavy rainstorms (the soil and plants wick this stored water up in dry conditions to keep our water use down), and finally, a thin layer of felt to prevent the drainage mats from filling up with soil.
Our second farm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard has a green roof based which is comprised of a light weight drainage aggregate, with a layer of similar felt above that to filter the soild particles and keep the system together.
What kind of soil do you use?
We source our soil from Skyland in Pennsylvania, a green roof media supplier. The blend is called Rooflite, and is composed of compost for organic nutrients mixed with lightweight, porous stones. The stones make the material lighter in weight and also slowly break down to add trace minerals needed by the vegetables. Our beds are about 8-12″ deep with shallow walkways.
ABOUT OUR FARMING METHODS
What are you growing on the roof?
We grow hundreds of thousands of plants each season. Tomatoes are one of our biggest crops: we have 40 varietals planted. We are also growing salad greens, peppers, kale, chard, bac choi, herbs, carrots, radishes, beans, and many other exciting crops!
Is the farm organic?
We grow our vegetables according to organic principles, and we do not use any synthetic or chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides. We are not certified organic by the USDA nor do we plan to apply for organic certification.
How do you grow fresh produce in a polluted city?
Pollution is definitely a concern for city farmers, but luckily, the pollutants of greatest concern are heavy metals, such as lead, and automotive break pad particulates. Both are denser than air, so vegetables grown on a rooftop high above the roadways are protected from these contaminants. The limited lifespan of plants mean they absorb significantly less contamination than our lungs do. Not only are our vegetables fresh, but they help clean NYC air.
What do you do in the winter?
We farm the roof about nine months of the year. In the winter, we will use cover crops like clover, rye, buckwheat, and oats.
Why Urban Farming?
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. But having farms inside the city limits which take 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 and agricultural education to those of us who live in and love the city.