In New York City, usable rooftops are a luxury. They provide endless views of the city and are sought after destinations for Summer tanning, BBQ’s, and outdoor movie nights. Yet many of the roofs in the city are not open to the public and remain unused. When Ben Flanner, the founder of Brooklyn Grange, saw an empty rooftop, he did not envision tanning beds or movie projectors (although Brooklyn Grange does host outdoor movie screenings!). Instead, he saw an opportunity. An opportunity to grow fresh food and build a fiscally sustainable model for urban agriculture in a city where almost every square inch is occupied by high rises or apartment buildings.
Brooklyn Grange has become the leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the United States growing over 50,000 pounds of organically-cultivated produce each year.
Needless to say, it takes a village to raise a farm, and the team at Brooklyn Grange remain extremely dedicated to Ben’s original mission. Sitting down to family meal is a daily tradition that is held very near and dear to the founder who sees the meal as an opportunity for his staff to eat and enjoy the bounty they have helped to create.
URBAN FARMING & THE BENEFITS OF AGRICULTURE IN CITIES
I have a background in engineering and marketing, prior to endeavoring into urban agriculture. I became fascinated with small scale organic agriculture, and then the idea of urban agriculture and larger scale rooftop farming evolved from that, along with a desire to remain in the city.
In 2010 we created our team and we launched the business with a desire to farm vegetables in the city. In addition to the physical vegetables produced, there is huge social value for agriculture to have a presence in urban areas. As our cities become denser and larger, it is very important to provide a window of exposure to connect urban dwellers (especially youth) to their food system.
ONE FARM AT A TIME
Our core goals have remained remarkably consistent since starting Brooklyn Grange back in 2010, although of course there have been plenty of adaptations. We set out to grow high quality and nutritious produce on financially sustainable commercial rooftop farms. We necessarily put a large emphasis on our financials and margins from the beginning, in order to make the farm a success in a notably low margin industry. We originally envisioned opening nearly 7 farms in our first five years! However we’ve learned that it’s not just a simple of matter of plopping down a farm, getting it running, and then moving on. We want to really bring out the fullest potential of each farm location. We have events, weddings, workshops, classes, yoga classes, construction projects, etc. We also bring our families up, take meals there, and spend lots of time on our farms, so they also function as learning labs, dining halls, and community centers.
We’ve created one event series called Butcher Paper Dinners which is typically on Sunday afternoons, where we spread out butcher paper across a long table, and strangers sit down together, eat with their hands, and share a meal.
We also create green spaces across the city, train farmers, and encourage city dwellers to think about their food system, and also about what it will take to keep our cities productive and livable as our urban populations increase across the globe in the next few decades.
We currently have 11 full time employees. Our employees come from a mix of different backgrounds and skills, but we all share an appreciation for challenges and hard, meaningful, work. It’s important that we keep a positive work environment, even when things get challenging, as of course, they do. We also offer a farming training program which brings many people to the farm, and share the space with a nonprofit called City Growers which brings up thousands of children.
A DAY ON THE (ROOFTOP) FARM
Our employees do many things, and each day can be totally different. Our team harvests vegetables early in the morning at sunrise, books events and workshops over emails, installs greenroofs and vegetable gardens around the city, processes checks from our customers, sends late night messages to chefs, researches nutrient management techniques – everything.
Each farm might eat at a different time, but lunch is usually between 12-1, and the breakfast break on sunrise days is around 9. Nearly every meal is some sort of shared family meal. Family meal evolved from a genesis of sitting down together to eat and sharing and pooling each other’s food items together to make each meal a bit better. Meals could be composed of something specifically brought to share, leftovers, a large piece of bread with hummus, a quickly whipped up salad of farm goods, or something purchased around the corner.
Sitting down together and sharing a meal is not something that typically happens at lunch in offices, or in many other working environments in our culture. We do very much value sitting down together to enjoy and share food, even during the rush of the day’s work. We’ve also taken inspiration from other organic farms, which have set similar positive examples. We also work with a refugee Asylum called RIF, and through the years the asylum seekers have organized many potlucks and meals together, which is also an inspiration.
Lunch can feel frustratingly rushed in our fast paced work culture here in New York City
In addition, we have this beautiful bounty of food on our hands. It’s an opportunity to eat and enjoy it, plus a valuable part of the experience of working on an organic farm… learning and teaming up with others to develop our cooking skills, to fully appreciate the beautiful produce that we have on our hands. Even our bruised, unsellable tomatoes can be thrown into a pot and cooked into a sauce that would make any grocery store shopper jealous.
Family meals can be prepared by anyone. Depending on the day and season at the farm, the group eating might range from 3-12 people. Formally we take turns, however certain people tend to gravitate towards cooking more than others. We encourage everyone to describe what they’ve cooked in quick words, and to be creative. Especially with herbs. We have nearly every herb here somewhere on our farms, and it’s all still alive and fresh and potent on the vine.
The meals are all over the spectrum. We invested in a basic cooking setup at each farm in the past year, including induction burners for heat. Vegetables are the name of the game, but our meals include anything and everything. Just in the past month, we’ve had tacos, burgers, tempeh, salads (nearly every day), heirloom tomato platters, fritatas with our chickens’ eggs, ratatouille, carrot top salad, pastas, lentils, curries, Vietnamese, carrot cake with candied rainbow chard, ground cherry cake hinted with bronze fennel – you name it. Sometimes it’s just hummus and mozzarella with B-grade heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers on baguettes. A person in our training program works at a great cheese shop, and she often brings amazing sourdoughs and cheeses. We also deliver to a few specialty grocery stores, and on occasion we’ll grab some goods (bread, cheese, charcuterie) on a delivery and then hustle back to share them for lunch.
There’s a value in making a minute to relax
Of course some employees and trainees have food allergies, and meat/vegetable preferences. We have to be courteous and conscientious for all people, and offer alternatives, wait to blend certain ingredients, etc. A creative and conscientious cook can usually pretty efficiently provide appropriate options which include most types of dietary preferences.
We sit down at our typical table location which is different at each farm, and everyone sits down and eats together. Lunch can feel frustratingly rushed in our fast paced work culture here in New York City, especially compared with some examples from around the world, such as Spain where it’s common to sit down for well over an hour in the middle of a work day. There’s a value in making a minute to relax, and it helps with the rest of your day if you’ve slowed down for a minute at lunch. It’s also an opportunity to get to know co-workers and trainees better, take our minds off of work for a moment together, and have a laugh.
Everyone just sits around a large table, passes the dishes around, and digs in! At one farm we have a dinner bell which we used to ring. Otherwise we yell out that lunch is ready, and send text messages to those spread out a bit further, perhaps down in the building or in a greenhouse.
FAVORITE PART OF FAMILY MEAL
We really value sitting down together for a moment, and the opportunity to eat and cook the food that is grown on the farm.