Farm at the Top of the World

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You can’t see it from the ground below—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

High above the bustling metropolis lies a sprawling world of green, replete with veggies galore. It’s a lush oasis growing produce one might never imagine could thrive in this big, dirty city. This enclave is the Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm with a vision for sustainability and community engagement.

The farm is located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an expansive shipyard which saw its heyday producing warships for World War II, and became inactive back in 1996. Now it houses the Brooklyn Grange, which is the largest rooftop soil farm in the world.

Brooklyn Grange was built back in 2010 by a team armed with not much more than their determination. Okay… they also had a fair share of tools and about 3,000 pounds of soil.

“We wanted to create a fiscally sustainable, replicable model for rooftop farming that adheres to the triple bottom line framework,” explains Anastasia Cole Plakias, co-founder and vice president of Brooklyn Grange. “It takes into account not only the financial success of a business, but also its ecological and community impact.”

To the untrained eye, rooftop farms might seem like a somewhat en vogue trend, a fleeting fad spurred by the success of popular green narratives. However, the practice of urban agriculture has roots nearly as old as civilization itself.

Around 3,500 BC, Mesopotamian farmers started setting aside plots in their burgeoning cities to produce crops. Furthermore, back in the 19th century–on the heels of industrialization–allotment gardens were provided to grow provisions for impoverished families on the outskirts of European cities. Meanwhile, Zionist settlers in the 1920s deemed urban farms essential to the development of their newly realized society.

Over time, as urbanization drastically changed residential landscapes, so too did the way that humans produce, distribute, and consume food. Suburban sprawl limits the availability of conveniently close-by traditional farms. Rooftop farms are a partial answer to the finite amount of accessible land for agricultural development.

Plakias muses, “As of about eight years ago, we are, for the first time in human history, a predominantly urban species.” This inherently changes human beings’ access to and relationship with food. She continues, “While we’ll never feed entire cities from urban farms, we can certainly increase access to good food, and offer a whole host of ecological and community benefits beyond food production.”

These benefits range from decreased carbon footprints through lessening the distance food must travel in order to be consumed, to teaching skills of cultivation to community members and eager farmhands.

“With more people living more densely in cities than ever before, it’s more crucial than ever that we connect urban dwellers with their food, with farming, and the natural world,” adds Plakias.

For Brooklyn Grange, linking up New Yorkers with fresh food means selling their yield to farm-to-table restaurants, chefs, markets, and mom-and-pop grocers. They also have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, with 55 members who pick up a weekly share of the farm’s harvest.

Wondering what that entails?

“We grow most everything, from crunchy roots like carrots, radishes, turnips, and kohlrabi in spring and fall, to juicy zucchini and crisp cucumbers in summer,” says Plakias, “but our best crops are kale, chard, tomatoes, peppers, edible flowers, and the microgreens we cultivate in our greenhouse.”

Furthermore, the Brooklyn Grange makes hot sauce and honey that’s made by busy bees at apiaries scattered throughout three boroughs. Plakias explains that the rooftop farm contributes “green space that is essential habitat for native wildlife and migratory pollinators.”

Another pillar of the Brooklyn Grange is their educational programming, which over the course of its run has engaged with over 24,000 NYC youths through non-profit partnerships, as well as provided valuable support and job training for asylum-seekers through the Refugee Immigrant Fund.

Additional community programming includes workshops on natural dye, nutrition, cooking classes, and yoga. The gorgeous space is also available for private events. Plakias says that their events team programs the spaces to engage folks from all walks of life and comfort levels with farming and agriculture.

Evidently, delicious vegetables aren’t the only thing grown at the Brooklyn Grange. Inclusion, sustainability, learning, and passion sprout from the fecund earth as well. So much so that in order to capture it all, Plakias recently wrote a book, “The Farm On The Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us about Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business!” Her larger vision spans far further than the plot itself.

“We may only farm two and a half acres,” she shares, “but our goal is to create a positive impact that reaches well beyond our parapet walls.”