The Brooklyn Grange is the leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US. They operate the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, located on two roofs in New York City, and grow over 50,000 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 they partner with numerous non-profit organizations throughout New York to promote healthy and strong local communities.
Today ANASTASIA COLE PLAKIAS author of The Farm on the Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us about Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business! shares her journey with us!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I love the context! It’s exciting to hear when folks have some connection to Brooklyn and NYC, because you have an idea of the space constraints we deal with as urban farmers. We really don’t have a lot of space. That’s really where the cofounders of this project were starting up a commercial scale rooftop farm. We were all practicing urban agriculture as a hobby in small spaces.
I had a friend who had a restaurant called Roberta’s in Bushwhack and they wanted to grow some food for the restaurant, for the kitchen. So they built raised beds on the top of some shipping containers in the backyard and they actually house Heritage Radio Network, so there’s some connection there on the internet airwaves… so we’er growing just a little bit of herbs, mostly garnishing things and when we did the math on how much time we spent to build them and cultivate and there’s not that much output.
We realized this might not make that much sense we needed to Scale Up! Of course that’s so difficult to do in cities. My partner Ben had opened a small farm, 6000 square feet in Brooklyn, Eagle Street Rooftop farm, I call it small because our second far here at the Brooklyn Navy yards is 65,000 sq. feet. So Eagle Street by comparison is a bit smaller, at the time we thought look at all that space!
6,000 feet for all of you ground level farms.We’re talking a fraction of an acre. An acre is 42000- or 43000 sq feet. (43,560) So size is truly in the eye of the beholder. At the scale we were producing was much more of a hobby. We wanted to proove that urban agriculture could be practiced as a business and is worthy of investment and could be replicated all over rooftops, all over cities, all over the world!
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
So, this is a funny one, I grew up in the west village in Manhattan. I obviously wasn’t exposed to much to gardening in my urban childhood. The limit of my experience of having my hands in the soil, where we grew lima beans in elementary my school and burying the family hamsters and parakeets in the tree pits outside our apartment building. That was pretty much how often I got my hands in the dirt.
But I was fortunate to have a mother who took the time and had the luxury between her part time schedule to shop and cook with my sister and myself. She would take us to the farmer’s market for our vegetables, and to the butchers’s shop for our meat. She took us to the fish monger for our fish.
So I really did have a very different experience with food when I was growing up then so many americans who do that one-stop shopping at the supermarket. And aren’t as connected because of that to the source of our products. Even so, if you were to ask me where did our food come from?
Our fish came from Sandra, Sandra came from Montauk, that was pretty much the extent of it. Where did our produce come from? Our produce came from Gary and Gary came from the Hudson Valley, butI didn’t have an concept what that meant.
It wasn’t til I went to school in Poughkeepsie in the Hudson Valley Vassar, I walked into the cafeteria and I expected to see what I saw at the Union Square Green Market in September, a bounty of fresh ripe Heirloom tomatoes, and crisp greens and the first cooler weather brassicas. Instead what I saw was iceberg lettuce that had been shipped from thousands of miles away on big contracts. That was the beginning of the wakeup call for me and the realitization of just what a previledged life I live. Just how broken our food system really was.
So I just have to ask are you millennial?
IDK, it seems like who you ask. I’m 32. I’m sliding in there if I’m in there at all, but we do work with a number of our team members who are in their mid twenties? I feel like I’m down with the millennials. I’m in with the abrevs. I feel like I have that connections now matter how tenuous!
My mom and my husband are like, we are learning to figure out your texts, but we’re getting it. I think there’s something special about the people who are between 30-40 right now. There’s something in that group of people. And in my podcasting group, John Lee Dumas is always talking about their avatar and who your perfect listener is? I said I’ve had my avatar on my show as my guest, and I can tell already and by reading your website! You’re definitely my type of avatar.
We think about too. When we we’re pitching it. If I am your avatar I’m guessing we’re trying to speak to the same crowd. Which is youngish folks, if I can still call myself young, yeah?
There’s this gap of knowledge between generations … Our grandparents kept gardens and I think a lot of parents didn’t… depending on how much time you got to spend on your grandparents garden, you may have not received that information. So there’s this renewed interest in growing and homesteading and home economics. but there’s this dearth of familial knowledge so its got to come from somewhere else.
I actually talked to this guy, his name is Peter Vasilis, his daughter is Alethea and Erin, they have a little non-profit there called Orkestai Farm. And he does farmer’s market out in Orient Point. He said when his dad came home, they were all excited, look at this new thing! No more weeds. It was like this big new technology. I also think about my mom, she’s like, I don’t get this organic thing, it’s just a money thing… I don’t think she realizes the big difference in food grown in the 70s compared to today. And I just wanted to say something about we had this huge seed fair, and we were expecting like 300 people and 1600 people walked through the door.
We were talking about nutrient rich food. Andrew Malucelli, just a few weeks ago. I really thought my husband was gonna be teaching people doing the podcast, but my listeners want to hear from you. I think my listeners are wondering how to do things effectively and efficiently because I’m always working and how hard it is to garden some times and I think also about growing in the city, I love my house but whenever it feels small I think about my aunt in NYC raising two kids in a small apartment and how you have to be efficient.
The tiniest of tiny apartments in the West Village.
How did you learn how to garden organically?
It was not an obvious journey, I came to farming through a love of food. I followed my pallet and my appetite to farming. Part of it, was like what you said, people you want nutritious food. It wasn’t the easiest step fro me to take….
I was such a city kid, I mean I was afraid of bees, I was totally lost in the garden. I was really fortunate I was working as an assistant in the restaurant industry and I was working to a pretty big deal restauranteur winemaker. And I learned right way how to get things done very well.
So when my buddies said they’re gonna this, I was like where are you gonna get the soil how are you gonna get it up there? I thought it was inspiring. I loved this notion of just doing it! It was something I never thought of before
this liberal arts educated mindset
- contingency plan
So I was sort of stunned by their cavelier attitiude, so I set out to make systems to help the project more smoothly. It didn’t go super well …
When we met Ben Flanner, who was running Eagle Street, … we started having a lot of conversations and working on a project together, when we did launch Brooklyn Grange, it was really the three of us at first … we brought a couple of folks on board, really I worked really closely alongside Ben … I learned almost everything I know from him. That was where I learned an important tenant of farming any good farmer must also be a good educator!
I know not all farmers will not be delighted to hear that, because they would spend time with plants then with people…
And we need more podcasts, so if you’re thinking of it, I’ll talk to you after. Also There’s a woman who rote LENTIL Underground you should connect with Liz Carlisle. she went to UC Berkley…
I think there’s this big fear of the older generation, there’s a fear of social media, etc. But when you get there and you start to share your knowledge and see people aprreciate it.
One of the threads of my show is definitely soil health?! And how do you get your soil up there!
Yeah, soil health, the idea of swapping out all that soil, that’s not tenable…
Where do you get all this soil?
A company called Rooflite
They have a great story
it all started with Mushrooms … not because the soil particularly good for musroooms.
Italian queries… went to work for dutch tulip growers
the tulip growers started growing mushrooms under the shelves in the greenhouses and the Italians learned this trade, brought families over growing muchsrooms
scoop her on it…
intensive ag blend which has a higher proportion of organic matter then the blend they would recommend for just sedum or recommend for native grasses a lighter feeder, then your garden variety vegetables …
how can we improve the soil ecosystem, because with drainage comes a because ith that increased porosity, you awls find that your soil dries out more quickly, especially when it’s pounded by,s o we have to irrigate…
You know those little sprinklers … wobblers produce … historic droughts in Northern California and I’ll be out there during one of these historic droughts and you would have no idea that’s what’s happening because there’s water shooting up in the air on all these farms. It seems like water is going to be increasingly the conversation that you should be having in farming. And can we contribute tot the conversation so that we learn how to store water … how can we adjust this soil that it continues to drain….but it has a better capacity…
it’s very much a work in progress. . . working with Cornell Univeristy. right now we’re still very much in the data acquisition process. We tend to be transparent, we want folks to know we are a work in progress and then we share what we know and as soon as we have more to say on that, the world will figure it out. We’re still very much in the fact finding stage.. .
So let’s talk about the grange… What are you doing with all the food that you grow?
3 main sales channels:
- totally standard
- vast majority crops are being sold wholesale to chefs and small mom and pop growers. That’s because its so much more efficient
- endless number of wholesale accounts within a 5 mile radius of our farm.
- the most profitable thing we can do is sell baby greens salad mixes, and arugula, to chefs and grocers.
- We also have a 45 member csa and 2 weekly markets – Saturday and Sunday market. We try to be thoughtful of what we grow.
2 months in the green house and then 2 months in the field for one head of cabbage is so much less then one beautiful tomato. So we are cautious about what we grow in our small space
- try to keep our prices reasonable by being mindful of how we sell that produce.
We make sure every square foot of that acreage is producing a certain value!
… If we bring it to the farmers market and they’ll say what is that smell?
It’s great in melon salads and spring roll! And the’ll say that’s amazing! And they buy the Italian basil because they don’t now what to do with it. You know who buys it? Pastry chefs and bartenders. They are willing to pay wholesale at a premium … because ours is super fresh because we’re able to grow it locally …
not just what we grow but considerate about what we grow how we sell that product…
I was an english major, I read a lot of books. I continue to read a lot. There are so many amazing authors out there writing about farming and gardening.
I think Richard Wiswall Organic Farmer’s Handbook as just a crucial piece of literature for anyone trying to make a book or 2.
I love everything Joel Salatin the ethos behind running my farm, and I quote him because nobody says it better …
and Eliot Coleman …
We’re really fortunate from to be just down the road from Annie Novak she was Ben’s Partner at Eagle street. She just wrote a book:
The Rooftop Growing Guide and that is the whole compendium on growing on Roofs….
Tell us about your book!
Yeah! Our we’re about to embark on our 7th season!
Our website is incredibly rich of so I do urge people to check it out if you’re interested in learning more: brooklyngrangefarm.com the about page and FAQ alone are super super informative!
The book is called:
When we spoke with Annie and she said she was writing her book, that is what made perfect sense for us to focus on how to make this business work … its an amazing thing, not to toot our own home, but it’s incredible that we’ve made this thing work!
2 1/2 acres is not a lot of land … anybody knows …if its a small plot of large farm
We really wanted to share with the wider world that, our experiences as small business operators, serving our local community, have been really really positive and we really want to encourage other folks out there to start a small bugs of their own, whether it’s a farm or garden project, or not even food related.
… a note from a CSA member cooked dinner and it was cooked with food form the Brooklyn Grange and it was the most beautiful year they’ve had in recent memory!
We’re experiencing urban heat island effect, it never cools down at night
disputes the cleaning capacity
cooling this vegetation up there on there roofs.
The surfaces of roofs are interesting thing. … if you have a brand new roof membrane, the membrane that prevents rain from coming through the roof you may not need to use a roof barrier. … roll out a roll of root barrier, it’s just a thick black plastic, roots can not get thru it roots…. access the surface of the roof … protects the from from uv rays, they say it will extend the life of a roof membrane up to 4 times. I don’t know anyone who’s had to tear of a roof that’s covered … no UV damage being done… and that’s the life time …
I know Bill Clinton was big about rooftops because it was gonna cut down the air conditioning.
… theres some research I think he’s at Columbia University, his name is Stuart Gaffin he’s a leading researcher on the benefits on the gardens … reduction of heating and cooling … giant comforter in winter…. in summer acts as a intermediary between the roof and the sun. …the sad fact of the matter is for most buildings, especially large buildings …. probably charging for tenants for the heating and cooling costs, really not concerned about those numbers. They are rounding errors for them.
Really it’s cities who need to be proactive and forward thinking and take action on incentivizing these green roofs. Taking forward action. They have been, NY especially. NYC, has a tax abatement … one time tax abatement, up to $100k the install year of a green roof. And the Department of Environmental Protection of NYC offers … green infrastructure storm water storage grants.
yeah, that’s great but you don’t have to be an non-profit … anyone to get … less people using toilets, flushing taking showers … most impervious surfaces like concrete and so when it rains, all of the is directly related to the drains … when it rains heavily … in order for that water to not back up in the streets we combine our systems … not a specify NYC, it’s a problem all over the world. … nobody wants to talk about the poop floating in the bay. It’s a real problem…. NYC has been particularly has been particularly smart and proactive and they looked at the positive effects of adding green space and realized that it would be far more efficient to increase the green space in cities … that’s a little bit of green infrastructure geek out.
NYC Dept of Environmental … seeing in practice in Paris with legislation, really requires green roofs on building of certain sizes. Chicago has a green roof in its city hall! NYC is not alone in valuing the green spaces . . .
What does the book talk about?
Intrinsically at it’s core is a triple bottom line business
3 ps: Profits, Planet, People (and Partnerships)
financial bottom line
how can we use less water
adapt our soil so we hold water better
… We talk a lot about people …
actually introduce 4th p
introduce partnerships … environmentally friendly process that will increase productivity but it puts a ton of people out of work. … ton of jobs, but it puts toxic waste into the waterways.
2 of the 3
… partner with organizations who excel at what you struggle with and who struggle with the things of which you excel.
So it’s tough enough to be profitable on 2.5 acres. WE are necessarily focused on that and of course we’re an urban farm
ecology and sustainable is at the core of what we do.
people is a little bit trickier, we wish we could donate 1/2 of our harvest with produce.
how do we give back to the community
a lot of it is education. And that’s certainly part of it.
a lot of workshops and classes of which we barely break even because we feel it’s important work
communities’ desire to bring youth up
food and farming
what I bought to the table was I grew up as a NYC kid
this green stuff coming out of the roof as food. We don’t associate food with something that grows. WE associate it with something that is in a package on super market shelves
budget for a field trip fee. I started doing pro bonno visits and it started to add up. But moreover
I was not equipped to answer these though questions like:
how did the chickens lay eggs without a rooster
Ellice Lee has made a is a woman who works as an illustrator in publishing. She has taken that organization made it a huge part of her life.
covered we got a small operating grant that was enough to hire a director for 6 months of one person.
is a primary example
don’t handle lease negations
irrigation system is malfunctioning
don’t build green houses that we grow our seedlings in.
we let them focus on what they are really good at which is educating young community farmers. It’s always been part of the goal, it was just something we could not do, we couldn’t make it happen on our own. So we forged a partnership to make it work.
How do you bring 22,000 kids to your farm and get any work done?
That’s the beauty is Citygrowers is taking care of all of that
leaving us to do
focus on the ps that we’re really good at
they take o n the third p
not the only partner that is using our farm to give back to the community.
the refugee to
asylum seekers to come up and to learn about gardening and farming and also basic power tool skills, and others farm related skills and english language skills. They join us for a couple of hours a day, once a week. What we don’t deal with writing the grant proposals to get that funded. That’s what RIF does. We are left to do the not so easy task of running a small farm sustainable and profitably! Our partnerships allow us to give back to our community.
Choosing the Right Rooftop
Where do you get your roofs from, do people donate them to you?
One would think No we lease our roofs, we pay rent up there. It’s not easy to find a roof.
do you do anything with flowers
we lease our roofs, we pay rent up there. We see a lot of stinkers out there
roofs right under a bridge, where you’re smelling the exhaust, and you don
‘t want to put a farm up there and brake pad particulate matter that builds up. and nobody wants to eat that food
what makes a great rooftop for a farm
for our purposes, we look for something big, strong. We look for landlords who are excited about the project. Who won’t mind 1000s of kids coming through. Who won’t mind our wedding clients bringing 150 people up to the roof for their wedding. WE have yoga classes
excited by that rather then be annoyed by it
nearish to a community
cultural aspect is so we an get CSA members
Not in some industrial area where nobody lives. Another tough part is roofs are so often interrupted every 20 feet by HVAC units and vents and fans and exhausts and that can be really challenging to farm around. It’s incredibly hard to find a large roof without these mechanical units.
when you think about a farm, if you have to stop
you think about pushing that seeder if you have to go around an havoc until
find a relatively un obstructed roof
we understand that every rood is going to have a certain amount of mechanicals.
we really do look for ones that
wI think that it depends
I think green roofs will pop up on buildings
in top building
cities all over the worlds
What’s your vision for the future. I have 3 relatives that live in NYC is it practical for them to have a rooftop garden?
Certainly green roofs will continue to pop up on buildings on top of the roofs around the world. I think a lot of them will be rooftop farms because if you are going to put the green roof materials up there why not get a return from them
first of all, I hate to burst any bubbles
urban farming is never going to feed entire cities we will always rely on rural arms.
You know for people that want to grow a tomato, or I always talk about kitchen garden full of lettuce and things I eat ALL the time.
certain idealism totally self sufficient
a lot of people
more and more people are getting more excited about growing their own food and want to have a
sense of urgency
increased interest in both cities and rural areas
we have a design and installation arm of our business. Where we install gardens for private clients from homeless shelters to Vice Media’s headquarters
advances in agriculture were already seeing aeroponic and hydroponic
I think the future of urban farming is a bit of patchwork of different methods
all of the reasons it is around in the first place
desire to be closer to the process. Cities are gonna continue to spray farther and farther. As far as Brooklyn grange we will continue to grow our business. WE will expand to additional rooftops, we will help others get their own rooftop farms off the ground.
I hope in the future we can build greenest and most sustainable system food production and processing system
how to intigrate food production and food processing….
You’ve shared a ton of golden seeds. I’m pretty sure my biggest population are in California but then it’s Texas and NY so hopefully you’ll get some nearby listeners. So can they visit anytime?
We definitely open the farm every Saturday 11-4pm our queens farm in LI City queens
Those hours are seasonal. We’re open late May thru October
alongside our farm stand, they can check out the green space.
Does it cost anything?
Nope, it’s all open to the public
does not require any pre-registrations.
- amazing workshops classes
- all sense of events
- a natural dye
- working with smug time a mushroom
- Monday night at our Brooklyn
I know the view is incredible but I urge folks who want to give back to check out one of our non-profit colleagues.
Look for a farm in their own community, get involved and get after it.
If there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
I think that’s huge. The more connected we are to the planet, the the more invested we are to keep it healthy. I also really urge folks to keep politics out of the conversation about climate change. It’s so hard, obviously food and politics just don’t go together really well.
it’s just not the same conversation,we need to be talking about the environment about a way that is atypical
next time you are with someone who doesn’t share your common views, and see if you can’t come to an agreement that positive change needs to happen. It’s tough to do. It’s a hot button issue, but if we can find language to talk about it in a way that is non-partisan, we might make some progress and it’s essential that we do so. We can not keep putting it off, we need to make changes immediately! That’s my hope for this next reelection cycle. Taking the politics out of the climate change conversation.
Just get out there and vote and vote fro more then just president. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are. Everybody’s vote matters, it can be scewed by just the littlest amount.
Do you have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
I’ve got a copy my book right here, I will say,
How exciting! Who published it?
Avery, a small part of Penguin.
I’m an aspiring author/illustrator.
This is something we talk about towards the end of the book, that I urge, the listeners in your podcast are in interested in organics and organics is all about cultivating a healthy ecosystem of soil microbes.
This is so apropos with what we were talking about voting, and every day we vote with your fork, and the political power of the dollar … the money you spend that to give to support business is feeding into a business ecosystem and in the book we talk about the … towards the end of the book I write:
“an ecosystem is defined as a group of interconnected elements formed by the interaction of a community of organisms that community can exert change on it’s environment. That community of organisms can exert change on it’s environment. The stronger those interconnections are, the stronger an influence the community can exert.”
I would just ask to all the small businesses out there to try to partner with the other businesses and organizations in your community. To all the individuals try to think about the businesses you’re supporting. Let’s try to make these connections more often and create an even stronger network. If the business ecosystem can become a strong one we can make it a healthy one and feeds it community.
It seems like everyone is talking about is their launch? Is there a thing like you want them to buy it, and review it and buy it in the first week. So go and buy it, the quicker you can get it and review it. Go to your library and get them to order it. Get her book out there, its one of the things you can do. You can pre-order it now.
You can go to brooklyngrangefarm.com, the second to last tab on our website is the book.
The Farm on the Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us about Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business! by me, ANASTASIA COLE PLAKIAS!
I think amazon recommends very wisely that you should buy it along with Annie Novak’s The Rooftop Growing Guide.
I would be remiss to ask since you have the audio book, if you read it yourself? Yes, I did. It’s a little explicit, just a tiny bit and I felt like I needed to spare the professional readers… Oh no! It’s so much better if you read it yourself.
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