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Brooklyn farmers claim the high ground

 Posted by on December 28, 2009
Dec 282009
 

By Sommer Saadi
Green Right Now

Ben Flanner’s farm grows lush in summer with rows of squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce. And during all seasons, it provides a visual feast: a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline.

Rooftop Gardens in Brooklyn

Rooftop Gardens in Brooklyn (Photo: Sommer Saadi)

That’s because Flanner’s farm is on top of a vacant three-story warehouse building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

A 6,000 square foot slab of concrete covered in more than 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables (not to mention the herbs) is unusual, but it’s no longer rare. Communities are pushing for greater access to locally grown food, but with land in the city so expensive, non-profits, restaurants, residents and entrepreneurial farmers like Flanner and his partner Annie Novak are turning to the city’s most under-used and readily available spaces: its rooftops.

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a 145-corporate-member green roof and walls industry association, reported a 35 percent increase from last year in the number of constructed green roof projects nationally, which totaled more than 3.1 million square feet. That number is likely to increase as more city farmers discover, as Flanner and Novak did, that rooftop farms can be profitable ventures.

“This started as an attempt to create a viable commercial farm, an urban farm that really can pay for itself. And we did it,” Flanner said of his and Novak’s venture, which they named “Rooftop Farms”.

The plans first began to form in November of last year, when Flanner, who worked three years in the online marketing department of E*TRADE, decided to call Goode Green, a green roof installation company he’d read about. At that point, he’d already been fantasizing about a job without a dress code or a set time to clock in, but he wasn’t ready to leave the city. Flanner thought working on a rooftop farm would be perfect.

Ben Flanner

Ben Flanner (Photo: Sommer Saadi)

He took his idea to construct a farm in New York City to Chris and Lisa Goode. After considering the marketing potential of installing the nation’s first commercial working farm on a green roof, Goode Green agreed to do it free of charge. The company found a warehouse in Greenpoint, owned by Broadway Stages, a film set and stage production company that gave up the unused space to also be part of the experiment.

They put up the 200,000 pounds of soil—a custom mix of 35 to 40 percent compost and the rest expanded shale. The soil was hauled up over two days in late April after a structural engineer signed off on the plan. The average depth of the soil is 6 inches, and ranges from 4 to 7 inches between rows.

Goode Green paid for the initial set-up cost: $10 per square foot for a total of $60,000. Flanner and Novak agreed to maintain the plot in exchange for whatever profits it earns. Flanner worked at the farm full-time, harvesting, marketing, delivering orders and running the sale stands. Novak, who has farmed in nine countries and completed an apprenticeship on an organic farm in upstate New York, offers hands-on expertise several days a week when she’s not busy running the two-acre children’s garden at the New York Botanical Gardens. Plus, every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. a small army of loyal volunteers — initially made up of Flanner and Novak’s friends and later community members who wanted to lend support– arrive to plant, pick and prune the farm.

“Our volunteers found us all along,” Flanner said. “I can say that there is nothing more special than all of your friends showing up to help you without even being solicited.”

Within days of laying down the soil, sugar snap peas were planted and growing.