By Sommer Saadi
Green Right Now

Five farmers in Brooklyn are out to set a record: to plant the largest commercial rooftop farm in New York City.

Last week, the Brooklyn Grange team, with the help of volunteers and a rented crane, hauled 1.2 million pounds of a soil and compost shale mix from Pennsylvania to the top of a six-story warehouse building in Long Island City, Queens. The nearly one-acre rooftop space is the first of its kind in the city, and the Brooklyn Grange team hopes it will be the first of many.

“The long term plan for the Brooklyn Grange is to put a farm on every structurally sound roof in New York City and beyond,” said Gwen Schantz, head farmer at Roberta’s pizzeria in Brooklyn and key player in the Brooklyn Grange project.

Finding a structurally sound roof, and a willing landlord, however proved to be fairly difficult tasks for a project that has been in the works for nearly a year. The team lost a major investor and a roof space in late March pushing back plans to plant seedlings.

“It’s been difficult for landlords to cope with the idea of putting more than a million pounds of soil on top of the roof,” Schantz explained. “You call a landlord and you say, ‘I want to put a farm on your roof.’ And they say, ‘What? You want to do what on my roof?’”

The team continued to search for over-engineered buildings that could hold the weight of the soil, and found one that the structural engineer approved of and the team was excited about. With a space confirmed last week and plans to get the seedlings in the ground by the end of the month, Schantz believes they’ll still be able to grow enough for the markets, local restaurants and supper clubs this season.

Being financially viable is a primary goal for the project, which is estimated to cost just under $200,000. Each of the partners invested in the start-up, and money also was raised through several equity investors, a bank loan and fundraising events, including a page on the fundraising website

“I think that if we can prove to capital investors that the farm can actually generate profits then we can get people with serious money interested in funding these kinds of projects,” said Chris Parachini, project manager for the Brooklyn Grange and co-owner of Roberta’s pizzeria.

“We really just want to make something that can stand on its own two feet.”

Brooklyn Grange head farmer Ben Flanner first ventured into urban farming last April in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when he and Annie Novak, Children’s Gardening Coordinator at The New York Botanical Garden, helped begin a 6,000 square foot rooftop farm. Flanner, 28, previously worked a desk job at E-Trader online.

Flanner teamed up with Chris Parichini and Brandon Hoy, co-owners of the pizza place Roberta’s in Bushwick, after selling them some locally grown tomatoes. Parichini and Hoy were already venturing into their own version of urban agriculture by starting several greenhouses in the back lot of the restaurant on top of old shipping containers. The three brought on Gwen Schantz who was working in the pizza kitchen of Roberta’s, and Anastasia Cole, an urban-agriculture enthusiast who helps with the public relations of the project.

“I think all of our skills work well together,” Schantz said. “This is something that we’re all invested in and we’re not going to give up on it. The idea is just too good.”

Schantz says the team is motivated by the advantages of growing food locally. Farming in the city will remind people where their food comes from and help them better understand how difficult it is to grow. Rooftop farms also absorb rainwater, which helps minimize the amount of water that must flow through the often-overwhelmed city sewage system. Rooftop farms reduce the amount of heat that is absorbed by roofs and released into the city, minimizing heating and cooling costs. The farm’s compost system will help reduce waste.

For the Brooklyn Grange, the farm in Queens is just the start. The goal is to expand and encourage farms on every rooftop that can carry one.

“We really are the dream team,” Schantz said. “Not because we’re the dreamiest people that should be doing this, but because we really do have a dream and we want to see it a reality.”

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