A Farm Grows in Brooklyn - Food Week


Written by Margaret Jacobi

A city seems like one of the least likely environments for mass food production, but a wide collection of Brooklyn-based hydroponic farming projects are proving that local farming is possible in even one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

One of the hydroponic systems at Boswyck Farms.

Real estate in New York never comes cheap, but with two commercial development projects on the horizon and several independent companies offering a variety of resources for small to large scale projects, the motion towards full use of water and roof space in the city has long begun.

“Here in New York, we don’t have acres and acres of unused land to grow fresh food, but Brooklyn’s got plenty of industrial buildings with unused roofs that are perfect for urban farming,” Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn Borough President, told The New York Times.

Last April, BrightFarms, a private company focused on developing greenhouses, announced plans to build a hydroponic commercial farm project on a Sunset Park rooftop. Scheduled to open in 2013, the greenhouse is expected to yield a million pounds of produce per year and span 100,000-square-feet, making it the largest rooftop farm in the country. With plans to connect with Brooklyn schools and the community, the company hopes that growing locally will provide the freshest vegetables possible and positively connect the producers and consumers.

Rendering of BrightFarms greenhouses in Sunset Park. Photo courtesy of BrightFarms.

Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil, in water or an inert base (such as ground coconut husks), with mineral nutrient solutions. The lack of soil allows for a physically lighter farm along with the ability to directly regulate the nutrients the plant is receiving to provide optimal growing conditions.

“We grow all of our plants in controlled environment greenhouses using the highest quality nutrients available,” says Kate Siskel, the Marketing and Press Associate at BrightFarms. “This means that we give our plants the ideal environment to thrive in, minimizing stress and disease.”

Brooklyn Grange, another rooftop farm developer, announced a similar project in March. Their 45,000-square-foot commercial operation will be located on a roof in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.

These two large-scale projects will join the ranks of a half-dozen other hydroponic rooftop farm operations along with 224 community gardens.

“Hydroponic systems run the gamut from making a little planter out of a two liter soda bottle to greenhouses that are tens to hundreds of square feet,” says Lee Mandell, founder of hydroponic farming company Boswyck Farms. “One of the things that makes hydroponics sustainable, especially as we go forward, is that it’s a very efficient use of water. You use anywhere from 70 to 90 percent less water. As water becomes a more important issue in our world, hydroponics becomes more and more attractive in that way. In a city, you also get roughly two to three times the production per square foot. In a place like New York City where square footage is so expensive, everything you can tweak out is really important.”

Boswyck Farms, which began as a project in Mandell’s loft apartment in Bushwick, has now grown to be a multi-faceted company focused on advisory hydroponic programs, workshops, and research. Representing the accessible hands-on side of hydroponics, Boswyck farms seeks to use hydroponics not only as an avenue for food production, but as a resource that promotes community building, creates educational platforms for local high schools, and develops food pantry and restaurant rooftop farms.

“So we’re teaching science to high school students,” says Mandell of Boswyck Farms’ Bushwick Campus project. “We look at hydroponics as a great starting point to teach science. We’re developing a curriculum that encompasses math, physics, chemistry, botany, and biology all together as opposed to separate classes. It’s all completely hands on.”

On the complete opposite spectrum of commercial greenhouses, is the Brooklyn-based, community funded Windowfarms project. Exceeding its Kickstarter goal four times over, the company seeks to provide the tools for home-growing as well as develop research through collaboration and crowdsourcing in order to find the best way to grow food in an urban apartment.

Photo courtesy of Windowfarms.

“The Windowfarm Project connects, assists, and recruits urban dwellers,” says the company’s informational lookbook. “We give away free instructions that help individuals build their own vertical hydroponic systems. Using these systems they may grow some of their own food inside their inner-city apartments. Then, these new windowfarmers contribute back to the project through testing, proposing, and sharing local innovations which improve the designs over time.”

This fellowship-oriented attitude is not isolated. The Brooklyn-based hydroponic companies of varying degrees seek to involve residents directly in their projects to positively impact not only the environment, but the community as well.

“Brooklyn is the perfect location for urban agriculture because of the strong political support and consumer demand for local food,” says Siskel. “Urban agriculture is more than a trend—it’s a meaningful component of our future food system. The [BrightFarms] Brooklyn greenhouse will be delivering produce in Spring 2013. As the world’s largest rooftop farm, it sends the message that urban agriculture is going to be a significant part of our future produce supply chains.”

Whether small or large scale, it seems the future of Brooklyn will be green.