A Journal exploring the value of plants and flowers
30-11-2017 Longread Public space

Brooklyn Grange Farm is the future of urban agriculture

Words by Georgie Sinclair

Photos by Valery Rizzo

These days, the term ‘urban farming’ is getting thrown around like a trolley in a gardening store. But given the amount of airtime it’s getting, it’s hard to call to mind many farming projects that really live up to the idealised image. Except, maybe, for Brooklyn Grange Farm, the world’s largest soil rooftop farm. It produces over 50,000 lbs of organically-cultivated produce per year and operates as a fully-sustainable commercial business. This is the kind of farming project that’s not just bringing freshly grown organic produce to New Yorkers, but has the ingenuity to modernise and transform the urban agricultural industry as we know it.  

Founders Ben Flanner, Anastasia Cole Plakias and Gwen Schantz were brought together in the wake of the 2008 financial crash by an urge to begin an honest and sustainable urban agricultural business. Wise enough to know that urban farming would never be able to replace the supermarket, they were convinced there had to be some kind of alternative. A way to create a profitable business without compromising community cooperation, and the production and distribution of organic produce.

They met by chance when Anastasia came across Ben’s pilot project Eagle Street Rooftop Farm whilst researching for an urban gardening project on which she and Gwen were collaborating. On hearing his story she and Gwen were inspired to join his journey. Just 9 months later, they were standing before an industrial site in Queens, watching as soil sacks weighing 1,300kg were craned to the roof of a building which was to be their home for next 10 years.

With their combined unique expertise, the team has developed a business model that can be replicated all over the world. Following another successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012 they were able to open a second location in Brooklyn, adding an extra 65,000 square feet to their worth, and a third site is set to open in 2018. This has enabled the business to expand its team and production, set up a large-scale bee-keeping system and explore new farming methods. Today they consult on green roofs to clients around the world and have partnered with nonprofit organisations across the city to activate discussions about healthy and sustainable living.

“We New Yorkers have come to realize that you don’t have to give up a connection with nature just because we live in one of the biggest cities in the world” says Gwen. “We’ve worked with homeowners, developers and even businesses that want to convert their open spaces into lush green landscapes, often for growing food but not always.”

“you don't have to give up a connection with nature just because we live in one of the biggest cities in the world"

Their success is partly owed to the fact that rooftop farming is becoming a logical, if not essential step forward in the agricultural sector. In cities like New York, open space is scarce, but rooftops are aplenty. They are centrally located which saves transportation costs and prevents produce from losing freshness, and they profit from uninterrupted attention from the sun. All in all, they’re a largely untapped resource.

Business talk aside, Brooklyn Grange’s final and most fundamental driving force is their commitment to reconnecting people back to their food and its production. “As today’s eaters – especially we urbanites – become increasingly alienated from their food production systems, we often feel powerless to change them,” says Anastasia. “Brooklyn Grange creates hope and engenders a sense of possibility in our visitors.”

You can read more about Brooklyn Grange’s road to success in Farm on the Roof, by co-founder Anastasia Cole Plakias.