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New York City's Biggest Rooftop Farm

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Imagine you're in an airplane descending upon La Guardia Airport. As the plane sinks below the lowest layer of clouds, you peer out your window seat and see all the roads and highways, the towering Manhattan skyscrapers, the outer-borough row houses and the tons of cement and steel below. But amid all that concrete chaos, the cars, smokestacks and the cell phone towers, you spot a flat rooftop -- not black, but green -- with rows of crops. And as your plane homes in on La Guardia and the city grid comes into sharper focus, you can see that the green roof is blanketed with plants and flowers and shrubbery. You can even make out red specs among the bushy plants - are those red peppers or heirloom tomatoes you wonder?
In the middle of all the self-serving commerce, the relentless pursuit of capitalism and all the congestion that overwhelms the modern city, a rooftop farm represents a hopeful notion about ecology, nature and the simple life. Yet most green roofs and rooftop farms are hobbies - maybe a family plants some flowers on the roof of their apartment or a restaurant grows some of its own produce. How modern. How green. How novel.

But this farm in the middle of urban Queens isn't just about ecological idealism. Here, one city gardener is trying to do more. He's trying to take his organic rooftop farm and merge environmental sustainability with fiscal sustainability. He's trying to operate the first profitable rooftop farm in New York City. Meet the contemporary urban farmer, Ben Flanner.

***

Last summer, I woke up very early one morning to join Ben and his team for a seven a.m. harvest. As I approached the Standard Motor Products building on Northern Boulevard, two of the farm's partners, Anastasia Cole, 27, and Gwen Schantz, 29, pulled up in a white Toyota pickup truck. With few words of greeting, they went to work. They gathered a couple of buckets, about 15 collapsible white plastic crates, a pair of scissors and two mini-machetes and headed for the elevator. When I introduced myself as a reporter, I was given a third of the collapsible white crates and a nod. As the elevator rose, I tried to start a conversation, but Anastasia, sipping an iced coffee, told me that "it was too early for stories." With the tools in tow, we got off the elevator and climbed a flight of stairs to the farm, Brooklyn Grange.

Originally the farm was supposed to be in Brooklyn -- hence the name -- but it now sits across from K.G. Suzuki Luxury Cars Superstore and down the street from a Hess gas station in the heart of Long Island City. It's hard to imagine it until you see it. As I walked onto the roof, seven stories up, I saw rows and rows of green plants -- some the height of my ankles and some up to my waist. Except for narrow pathways between the crops, almost every nook of the one-acre roof was covered with soil. There were six-foot-tall corn stalks fighting for sunlight with a DirecTV satellite dish against one of the few walls on the roof. To the west, I could see down Northern Boulevard all the way to the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan.

If there's one surefire way to identify a farmer, look under his fingernails. Ben's are caked with soil. His clothes are perpetually stained too. He was wearing a green sweat-stained shirt and beige cutoff shorts marked with dirt. Ben's pale white face was covered with a five-day-old beard, and to protect himself from the sun, he wore a wide-brimmed hat. Surprisingly, he was wearing beaten-up brown dress shoes with some ratty maroon dress socks. His pockets contained a pair of scissors, a small knife and his BlackBerry.

***

Ben is one of five managing partners with a stake in the fledgling enterprise. He told me that his investment is the largest, and as the head farmer, he's also putting in the most time. His four business partners -- Anastasia, Gwen, Brandon Hoy and Chris Parachini -- all of whom give off that young, hip Brooklyn vibe, have other jobs in addition to Brooklyn Grange. But Ben's sole focus -- from seven a.m. harvests to late night pesto-making sessions ($5 for a four-ounce jar) -- is the farm, its crops, and its financial well-being. "We're trying to prove that the farm can stand on its own rather than be a community farm that has to look for donations every year," Ben said. "That would take a lot of the stress off of me."

Before Brooklyn Grange launched last spring, Ben and his partners raised $200,000 through an amalgamation of private equity investment, loans, grassroots fundraising events that included a barbeque, holiday party, T-shirt drive, Meatball Slapdown, dance party and whatever they could eke out of the fundraising website Kickstarter.com. They even put out piggybanks on restaurant tables. Nearly 90 percent of the $200,000 went towards purchasing the soil and installing a green roof system on the lofted space that they leased for 10 years. The rest of the money went towards seeds, irrigation and costs associated with forming the business. "We have to be able to pay a small salary for myself and then pay back the costs of the installation," Ben said.

Brooklyn Grange's business model is two-pronged. The farm sells to a number of restaurants around the city that it has special relationships with -- Roberta's, Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar, Five Leaves, Juliette, Bobo, Prime Meats, Marlow & Sons, Fatty 'Cue, Northeast Kingdom, to name some -- but the idea is to sell mostly at their own green markets. Ben likes the markets because, "You get to meet and interact with the consumers," he says. "It's also efficient for us because we can slightly consolidate our picking plans and just really harvest a lot on certain days and then take it to one single place. So there's less motoring involved. It reduces our carbon footprint, because we don't have to hop into a truck or a car and deliver to restaurants all over the city." But Ben admits he can't afford to only consider his environmental ideals. "The money has to fall into place because we have debt and investors," Ben said. "I don't want this thing to go under, so I need to make sure that the book is balanced."

***

Once we were on the roof, I was unexpectedly handed scissors and a quick snap pea-picking tutorial. (I learned quickly that helping out and pitching in are part of the urban farming ethos.) After the quick lesson, Gwen, Anastasia and Ben were gone to pick crops for that day's market. I set out with my white crate and scissors to the long snap pea row. Harvesting alone gave me time to think. I noticed the air was fresher than I was used to in the city. Bees flew in and out of the plants, pollinating as they went. There was something soothing about the texture of the pods on my fingers. I learned that the biggest, ripest pods were usually hidden in the middle of the bushes. Was this because there was more shade there? Or had the last harvester just missed these pods because they were harder to see? In any case, after just 10 minutes, I had taken ownership of the snap peas. I had not planted them, watered them, cared for them, but I still felt a connection to those snap peas. Clipping and then accidentally dropping one felt like a mini-tragedy. After about 30 minutes, I had accumulated enough pods for four Chinese dishes of chicken with snow peas. This was not easy work.

In New York, and especially in Queens, farming used to be extremely lucrative. Gary Mitchell of the Queens County Farm Museum said that at the height of Queens farming -- from the late 19th century through the 1920s -- farmers could earn three or four thousand dollars a year by selling their produce. "That was a king's ransom in those days," Mitchell said. Farmers would bring their produce by wagon to the East River, and then take a ferry to Manhattan before making their way to Gansevoort Market or markets up in Harlem. Farmers would often sleep overnight on their wagons and sell their vegetables in the morning. Originally, farms in Brooklyn competed with farms in Queens, but as Brooklyn prospered economically, the Brooklyn land became more valuable to sell and build on than to farm. Once the farms in Brooklyn started to disappear, the farms in Queens prospered even more.

But Mitchell feared that the glory days for New York City farmers were long gone and unlikely to return, so he was skeptical of Brooklyn Grange's long-term viability. "That's the big question. Can you farm and make a profit?" Mitchell wondered. "The answer for a long time has been no. God bless them and good luck, but I don't see how you turn a profit. I really don't."

***

Later on, Anastasia took me under her wing as I harvested. She showed me how to tell if a tomato was ripe as she listened to Pandora on her iPhone. A new song came on, and she asked me if I had heard of a group called Thin Lizzy. I hadn't. "Great harvesting music," she said. Late last summer, Anastasia started giving tours of the farm to different New York City camps. "It's something that has been really important to me -- getting New York City kids up to the farm," she said. "Because the farm is not just about growing and selling good, fresh, local produce, but it's also about connecting New Yorkers to the entire system of production and distribution and consumption, and encouraging people to think about the choices that they're making within that process."

This year, Brooklyn Grange has plans to start a non-profit, educational branch of the farm. Gwen has taken the lead in starting a new group called City Growers, which will educate groups about farming, nutrition, cooking and environmental issues.

Since federal organic food standards were established in 1990, the organic food movement has grown exponentially -- as you've probably noticed. According to the Organic Trade Association's 2010 Organic Industry Survey, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009. And after the organic food movement took off, the local food movement followed suit. For the last five or six years, local food eaters -- dubbed locavores -- have been asking if the produce they are eating is grown locally or trucked into cities by vehicles that burn fossil fuels. "We've reached the point where 50 percent of the world's population lives in urban centers which comprise about two percent of the earth's surface and consume 75 percent of its resources," Anastasia lectured. "And while urban farms can never replace rural farms to feed entire cities, they are certainly a step towards a more sustainable food system."

In addition to the food issues, advocates argue that rooftop farms and urban gardens are patches of green that have a significant positive environmental impact. Green roofs lower heating costs in cold climates by preventing heat escape from buildings and lower air conditioning costs in warm climates, keeping buildings cool via plant transpiration processes. Green roofs also increase the lifespan of roofs and reduce water runoff, which can prevent flooding. Even with the economic downturn, the green roof industry grew by 16 percent in 2009, according to the nonprofit group Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.

***

It was just a few minutes before Ben had to leave to take his produce to market, and he was in a hurry, bustling around the roof to make sure he had everything he might be able to sell. "Do you have thyme or cilantro?" Ben asked Gwen. No, she didn't. So Ben hustled over to clip some off with his scissors. I followed him over to the herbs with my bucket of assorted sweet peppers, spicy peppers and some very small, hot Thai chili peppers. As Ben clipped the cilantro plants, a guacamole scent wafted through the air. Then he gave me some freshly picked mint and rosemary to taste. My hands never smelled so fresh. As everyone carried the crops downstairs, Gwen wondered if they had forgotten to pick anything.

"Should we pick some salad greens?" she asked Ben.

"No, I think we should try to move the fennel and chard," Ben answered.

Ben, 30, grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs where his father, John, owned an electronic retail store and his mother, Cindy, a school occupational therapist, introduced him to gardening at a young age. Cindy was visiting Ben's farm the day I was harvesting.

"We had a garden out back," she said. "I think that's where he got it from."

"She's proud," Ben said. "She likes to tell people that."

Cindy, like her son, wore a wide-brimmed hat, but hers wasn't raggedy. She had been on the ground picking purple beans for at least an hour. This was her first visit to New York since the farm got up and running last May and she was amazed by some of the crops. She paused from picking the purple beans to eat one. "They taste just like green beans," she told Ben.

At home in Milwaukee, Cindy grows cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and she even has planted strawberry and raspberry patches. While her husband and other son were not gardeners, she said Ben took to it right away. "I think that gardening is almost like a chromosome -- either you have it or you don't," Cindy said. "And he loved being out there right from the start. There's a good feeling that you get when you work in the soil and feel that connectedness with all of creation."

Ben took a circuitous route to Brooklyn Grange. After he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison with a major in industrial engineering, Ben landed a New York job at E*TRADE, where he worked in online marketing. He was promoted at E*TRADE, but never was totally invested in that life. "You tend to get promoted when you work in a corporate job," he said. "You get promoted or fired."

And he had other interests. "I always had a love for food. I knew probably three or four years ago that I was going to quit and do something food-related." When Ben told his mom that he was leaving E*TRADE to focus on rooftop farming full-time, Ben said that she was supportive, but skeptical. "Mom was like, 'That's cool, but do you really have to quit your job?'"

Since Ben left E*TRADE, his life has completely changed. There was no time last summer for a leisurely dinner or an after-work drink. "I definitely had to push my social life back," he said. "But you have to look at the macro picture. The first year of any entrepreneurial start-up business is not really about having a well-balanced life."

In the meantime, farming has become his proxy social life. He's always talking to market-goers or potential restaurant buyers or strategizing with one of his partners. He even met his girlfriend at -- where else? -- a greenmarket in Brooklyn. She owns a jam business called Anarchy in a Jar.

***

After another Sunday morning harvest last summer, I hopped in Ben's car and we headed from the farm to Brooklyn Grange's own market stand at Roberta's restaurant in Bushwick. On the way, Ben shoved a few fistfuls of granola into his mouth and lit up a Natural American Spirit cigarette before offering me one. He dropped off a $70 shipment of radishes, peppers and tomatoes at Five Leaves restaurant in Greenpoint. On the radio, 101.9 FM played, and who else came on but the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

At the market at Roberta's, I helped set up by rubber-banding mini-packets of thyme, rosemary and mint. In addition to the herbs, Brooklyn Grange was selling a variety of tomatoes, eggplant, hot and sweet peppers, radishes, basil, Thai basil, cucumbers and beets. Sales were slow in the morning, but picked up in the early afternoon. Some customers only bought a few tomatoes; others bought as much as $25 worth of vegetables, and most spent between $5 and $15. Ben was also talking on the phone to a restaurant owner about selling most of that day's tomato harvest in bulk.

But not all the markets were successful last summer. Brooklyn Grange's weekly Saturday market at Vesta in Astoria wasn't doing as well as the market at Roberta's. After just a few months, Ben began to wonder if the Vesta market wasn't profitable enough on a weekly basis. Ben usually made between $100 and $400 dollars each Saturday, which --- considering the time that goes into the harvest, the setup and selling - was not satisfactory, he said. Ben wondered if Brooklyn Grange could end its Saturday market at Vesta without damaging his relationship with Giuseppe Falco, an owner of the restaurant and early supporter of Brooklyn Grange. "Giuseppe's been such a good friend," Ben said, sounding conflicted.

But Ben has even bigger questions he has to answer. Can Brooklyn Grange sustain itself on a bunch of $10 purchases? The pea pods that took me about 40 minutes to harvest would probably sell for a combined $10 by weight. How many peas, peppers and tomatoes is the farm going to have to grow and pick to come out on top?

***

If the first year was any indication, Brooklyn Grange is finding its way. Recently, Ben told me that the farm turned a slight profit in 2010, which he was happy about. He said the farm pulled in enough money to pay him his targeted salary and enough to stay on track to pay off their $25,000 in debt over five years. If 2010 was about getting the farm up and running, 2011 will be all about efficiency. "I'm still fully expended trying to perfect the operation at the current farm," Ben said. "Once we have another year under our belt, reinforcing all of our systems and getting everything as efficient as possible, then I think we'll feel more ready to expand."

Expansion to a second roof -- that's what Ben is hoping for in the summer of 2012.

But surely, Brooklyn Grange will only succeed if the produce is fresh and tasty. After harvesting, going to the market, and seeing all the hard work that goes into the farm, I was ready to sit down, relax and just eat. To taste the produce, I went to eat at chef Kevin Adey's Bushwick restaurant, Northeast Kingdom, at the end of the summer. I was curious what a professional chef could prepare with Brooklyn Grange produce. Adey became involved with Brooklyn Grange after Gwen visited the restaurant a number of times and suggested that his local food restaurant buy hyper-local from the farm. "They came in with a sample of their mustard greens and I've been hooked ever since," Adey said. "I can't pass up anything from them." Adey pays about $100 per shipment of vegetables from the farm and says that the prices are well worth it. "You're going to pay a little more than you would for different products, but it's really apples and oranges," Adey said. (No pun intended. Brooklyn Grange doesn't actually grow apples or oranges.) "The quality is so high for the lettuces and the tomatoes that you can't really compare it with produce from someplace else. When the shipment comes, it's still warm from the sun."

I had taken nibbles and tastes of the produce here and there, but I was looking forward to the Brooklyn Grange appetizer specials on the restaurant's chalkboard menu. The first, for $8, was a Caprese salad with tomatoes, basil, homemade Northeast Kingdom mozzarella, cucumber and banana peppers in a light dressing. The ingredients were fresh and the tomatoes were juicy. The second appetizer was Brooklyn Grange kale served with a fried egg, corn, garlic, red pepper and croutons for $6. The kale was not bitter like kale you usually encounter in restaurants. It might have been on a Long Island City rooftop that morning. From young couples to big groups drinking bottles of wine, almost all the 30 seats in the upstairs dining room were occupied for most of the night. If business was that good every night at Northeast Kingdom, Kevin Adey could surely afford to buy and cook all the Brooklyn Grange produce he pleased.

As I sat down to eat at seven p.m., I thought of what Ben might have been doing at that moment. Was he at another nighttime pesto-making session? Was he updating his books? Was he physically worn out from another seven a.m. harvest? And then I thought of something Ben told me the week before.

"I love doing this, but it's a rough summer. That's why farmers take a break in the winter. The summer's long."