Designed by New York pioneers convinced of the benefits of urban agriculture, the largest rooftop farm in the world is now a lucrative business.
It all started in 2010. New Yorkers Ben Flanner, Anastasia Cole Plakias and Gwen Schantz were looking at Google Earth satellite images to find somewhere they could fulfil their dream: a farm nestled on a Big Apple rooftop. "We visited countless roofs across New York City in search of a building large and structurally strong enough to support our commercial-scale farm" remembers Anastasia Cole Plakias, writer, photographer, and now vice president of Brooklyn Grange.
Six years later, the company has three urban rooftop farms - Long Island City, Queens and Brooklyn Navy Yard. The farms took shape with a lot of slow hard work. Brooklyn Grange now produces over 22 tons of herbs and organic vegetables flowers per year. It focuses on the most profitable crops because its produce is sold through wholesale markets, to restaurants and directly to the public via weekly farmstands.
Commercial activities have developed alongside the farming: the spaces can be rented as a venue for weddings, dinner parties or yoga classes. By day, tourists and locals come to enjoy these little green lungs with their amazing views over the city. The farm business also has about thirty hives, sells the honey and even has its own line of spicy sauce sold in delicatessens or to restaurants.
Six years on, Brooklyn Grange now employs a dozen people. But before they got there, these young ecologists had to face the realities of a business plan. "Initially we wanted to open seven rooftop farms,” says Anastasia Cole Plakias. “But we realized that we couldn’t grow that fast." It took time for the founding members - like former engineer Ben Flanner who is now president of Brooklyn Grange – to dare to give up their jobs to work full time on the farm.
Brooklyn Grange came into being with €180,000 collected via private investments, bank loans and an appeal on the crowdfunding platform KickStarter. Then came fundraisers that strengthened the young company’s economic model. Their concept has also been incorporated into New York’s city strategy (NYC Plan 2030), encouraging owners and builders to make "white roofs" (reflective) or "green roofs". The aim is to reduce the temperature in the city center, reduce energy costs and facilitate rainwater treatment.
This innovation was launched around the same time as the « vertical farming » movement made popular by Professor Dickson Despommier. Dense and urban, the future population will need this type of urban agriculture more than ever. "Today’s urban philosophy has changed and we are constantly getting calls from designers, owners or brokers who want to work with us," says Anastasia Cole Plakias.
Main picture: Brooklyn Grange