In a city that’s often called a “concrete jungle,” one company is doing its part to add some greenery into the mix. Brooklyn Grange, founded in 2010, operates the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, with three different locations across New York City. Combined, they’re cultivating 5.5 acres and harvesting over 80,000 pounds of organically grown produce each year.
These are no quaint rooftop gardens – these are deep soil farms that have the capacity to grow root vegetables, herbs and much more. To set up the first roof, which spans 45,000 feet atop a seven-story building in Long Island, the Brooklyn Grange team used a crane to get hundreds of 2,000-pound sacks of soil all the way to the top. That was no small feat, but it was only the beginning. Nine years and two additional rooftop farms later, the company has sold a cumulative total of 400,000 pounds of vegetables to restaurants, CSA members and the general public – and all of it grown locally and delivered fresh.
For CEO and co-founder Ben Flanner, staying local to New York was a driving factor in starting the business. Dissatisfied with his office job, Flanner craved a different type of profession, one that would involve working with his hands and getting more exercise. With an industrial engineering background and a love of food, Flanner found himself drawn to farming. The only problem? He didn’t want to leave the city and the life he had built for himself there. So, he started learning about the green roof industry and an idea began to form.
At the time, typical green roofs were quite shallow, and there was no precedent for what he wanted to try. Finding a building with enough structure to support the weight, navigating the logistical challenges of soil and irrigation and the other million little things that had never been done on a rooftop before were all part of the challenge.
As Flanner and his team discovered, rooftop farming is significantly different than traditional farming and thus requires creative solutions. Take irrigation, for example. Most rural farms employ a drip irrigation system that runs for a long time and then turns off for a while. But on a roof, with no subsoil and evaporation a very real concern, Brooklyn Grange deploys their irrigation drips in more frequent, quick cycles to keep from wasting water that would simply pass through the porous soil.
Over the years, Flanner and his team have learned a lot. From studying the moisture levels to creating customized soil blends, the one constant has been a willingness to learn, adapt and innovate.
“We’re constantly evolving, learning from the years before. We’re always questioning, ‘Can we do it better? Can we reengineer it somehow?’ We’ve developed this mindset of continuous improvement,” Flanner says.
Brooklyn Grange is also a mission-driven company, with a few key priorities that drive everything they do:
- Produce healthy, delicious vegetables for the community while helping the ecosystem.
- Factor in the triple bottom line – namely, making choices that take into account social, environmental and financial consequences.
- Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability.
“Sustainability is deeply important; it ties into so many things we do,” Flanner says. “We want to incorporate practices with the goal that at the end of the day, we can feel like we’re doing a good thing and that we’re having a positive impact on our city and the people around us. We want to set an example and inspire people to do things in a way so our city, our world and our country can keep on operating.”
More Than a Farm
Today, Brooklyn Grange operates three rooftop farms across Brooklyn and Queens, and they haven’t stopped at just farming:
CSA and farmers markets
Brooklyn Grange manages about 20 beehives on rooftops and in nooks dispersed throughout NYC. They sell the honey at their weekly farm stands.
The rooftop farms are available for private events, including weddings, parties and more.
The farm offers a plethora of workshops across the different farm locations. Subjects include natural fabric dyes, floral arrangements, pie-making, honey and mead tasting, gardening, and beekeeping, among others.
The farm offers weekly rooftop yoga next to all the growing plants.
Working with talented local chefs, themed farm dinners take place throughout the year.
Brooklyn Grange works with City Growers, a nonprofit that uses agriculture to teach city kids about food and farms. To date, over 50,000 New York youth have visited the farm for educational field trips, after school programs and summer camps.
Visitors can explore the rooftop farms through tours at all three locations.
Flanner’s personal passion project, Brooklyn Grange Hot Sauce comes in two different flavors and is made from peppers and herbs grown on the rooftop farms.
Focus on Sustainability
To call Brooklyn Grange a well-rounded company would be an understatement. But at the end of the day, it all circles back to sustainability, both environmentally and financially as well as socially within the community.
“It’s very much within our philosophy and ethos that we want to use the space to the maximum amount possible. We really try to do things through the season the majority days of the week,” Flanner says.
The food, the classes, the events – all are supporting the regional economy and benefitting the community at large. Flanner says that they’ve received a lot of positive feedback for what Brooklyn Grange is doing as a company.
“Response has always been really strong, and that’s largely why we’re still doing it. Especially at the beginning, it was really motivating to have enthusiasm from our neighbors and know they were on our side and rooting for us to figure it out,” Flanner says. “That has been very encouraging and very invigorating, to see and feel the support of the community.”
Visit Brooklyn Grange
Plan your visit to Brooklyn Grange for tours, farm dinners, markets, yoga, private events and much more. You can find the three rooftop farms at the following locations:
Long Island City Farm
37-18 Northern Blvd., Roof, Long Island City
Queens, NY 11101
Open Saturdays, May through October
Sunset Park Farm
850 Third Ave, Roof
Brooklyn, NY 11232
Open to the public on Sundays
Brooklyn Navy Yard Farm
63 Flushing Ave., Building 3, Roof
Brooklyn, NY 11205
Open for events, tours and yoga