The Brooklyn Grange is the leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US. They operate the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, located on two roofs in New York City, and grow over 50,000 lbs of organically-cultivated produce per year. In addition to growing and distributing fresh local vegetables and herbs, Brooklyn Grange also provides urban farming and green roof consulting and installation services to clients worldwide, and they partner with numerous non-profit organizations throughout New York to promote healthy and strong local communities.
Today ANASTASIA COLE PLAKIAS author of The Farm on the Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us about Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business! shares her journey with us!
Anna Peach from episode 105 said she learned a lot of her techniques volunteering at the Brooklyn Grange.
I love the context! It’s exciting to hear when folks have some connection to Brooklyn and NYC, because you have an idea of the space constraints we deal with as urban farmers. We really don’t have a lot of space. That’s really where the cofounders of this project were starting up a commercial scale rooftop farm. We were all practicing urban agriculture as a hobby in small spaces.
I had a friend who had a restaurant called Roberta’s in Bushwhack and they wanted to grow some food for the restaurant, for the kitchen. So they built raised beds on the top of some shipping containers in the backyard and they actually house Heritage Radio Network, so there’s some connection there on the internet airwaves… so we’er growing just a little bit of herbs, mostly garnishing things and when we did the math on how much time we spent to build them and cultivate and there’s not that much output.
We realized this might not make that much sense we needed to Scale Up! Of course that’s so difficult to do in cities. My partner Ben had opened a small farm, 6000 square feet in Brooklyn, Eagle Street Rooftop farm, I call it small because our second far here at the Brooklyn Navy yards is 65,000 sq. feet. So Eagle Street by comparison is a bit smaller, at the time we thought look at all that space!
6,000 feet for all of you ground level farms.We’re talking a fraction of an acre. An acre is 42000- or 43000 sq feet. (43,560) So size is truly in the eye of the beholder. At the scale we were producing was much more of a hobby. We wanted to prove that urban agriculture could be practiced as a business and is worthy of investment and could be replicated all over rooftops, all over cities, all over the world!
So, this is a funny one, I grew up in the west village in Manhattan. I obviously wasn’t exposed to much to gardening in my urban childhood. The limit of my experience of having my hands in the soil, where we grew lima beans in elementary my school and burying the family hamsters and parakeets in the tree pits outside our apartment building. That was pretty much how often I got my hands in the dirt.
But I was fortunate to have a mother who took the time and had the luxury between her part time schedule to shop and cook with my sister and myself. She would take us to the farmer’s market for our vegetables, and to the butchers’s shop for our meat. She took us to the fish monger for our fish.
So I really did have a very different experience with food when I was growing up then so many americans who do that one-stop shopping at the supermarket. And aren’t as connected because of that to the source of our products. Even so, if you were to ask me where did our food come from?
Our fish came from Sandra, Sandra came from Montauk, that was pretty much the extent of it. Where did our produce come from? Our produce came from Gary and Gary came from the Hudson Valley, butI didn’t have an concept what that meant.
It wasn’t til I went to school in Poughkeepsie in the Hudson Valley Vassar, I walked into the cafeteria and I expected to see what I saw at the Union Square Green Market in September, a bounty of fresh ripe Heirloom tomatoes, and crisp greens and the first cooler weather brassicas. Instead what I saw was iceberg lettuce that had been shipped from thousands of miles away on big contracts. That was the beginning of the wakeup call for me and the realization of just what a privileged life I live. Just how broken our food system really was.
IDK, it seems like who you ask. I’m 32. I’m sliding in there if I’m in there at all, but we do work with a number of our team members who are in their mid twenties? I feel like I’m down with the millennials. I’m in with the abbrev.. I feel like I have that connections now matter how tenuous!
My mom and my husband are like, we are learning to figure out your texts, but we’re getting it. I think there’s something special about the people who are between 30-40 right now. There’s something in that group of people. And in my podcasting group, John Lee Dumas is always talking about their avatar and who your perfect listener is? I said I’ve had my avatar on my show as my guest, and I can tell already and by reading your website! You’re definitely my type of avatar.
We think about too. When we we’re pitching it. If I am your avatar I’m guessing we’re trying to speak to the same crowd. Which is youngish folks, if I can still call myself young, yeah?
There’s this gap of knowledge between generations … Our grandparents kept gardens and I think a lot of parents didn’t… depending on how much time you got to spend on your grandparents garden, you may have not received that information. So there’s this renewed interest in growing and homesteading and home economics. but there’s this dearth of familial knowledge so its got to come from somewhere else.
I actually talked to this guy, his name is Peter Vasilis, his daughter is Alethea and Erin, they have a little non-profit there called Orkestai Farm. And he does farmer’s market out in Orient Point. He said when his dad came home, they were all excited, look at this new thing! No more weeds. It was like this big new technology.
I also think about my mom, she’s like, I don’t get this organic thing, it’s just a money thing… I don’t think she realizes the big difference in food grown in the 70s compared to today. And I just wanted to say something about we had this huge seed fair, and we were expecting like 300 people and 1600 people walked through the door.
We were talking about nutrient rich food. Andrew Malucelli, just a few weeks ago. I really thought my husband was gonna be teaching people doing the podcast, but my listeners want to hear from you.
I think my listeners are wondering how to do things effectively and efficiently because I’m always working and how hard it is to garden some times and I think also about growing in the city, I love my house but whenever it feels small I think about my aunt in NYC raising two kids in a small apartment and how you have to be efficient.
The tiniest of tiny apartments in the West Village.
It was not an obvious journey, I came to farming through a love of food. I followed my pallet and my appetite to farming. Part of it, was like what you said, people you want nutritious food. It wasn’t the easiest step fro me to take….
I was such a city kid, I mean I was afraid of bees, I was totally lost in the garden. I was really fortunate I was working as an assistant in the restaurant industry and I was working to a pretty big deal restauranteur winemaker. And I learned right way how to get things done very well.
So when my buddies said they’re gonna this, I was like where are you gonna get the soil how are you gonna get it up there? I thought it was inspiring. I loved this notion of just doing it! It was something I never thought of before
this liberal arts educated mindset
So I was sort of stunned by their cavalier attitude, so I set out to make systems to help the project more smoothly. It didn’t go super well, I need to
ran into my now business partner
not more then an acquaintance. 2 years ahead of me
been buy her place in
I’d have this detailed
When we met Ben Flanner, who was running Eagle Street,
we started having a lot of conversations and working on a project together, when we did launch Brooklyn Grange, it was really the three of us at first
we brought a couple of folks on board, really I worked really closely alongside Ben
I learned almost everything I know from him. That was where I learned an important tenant of farming any good farmer must also be a good educator
I know not all farmers will not be delighted to hear that, because they would spend time with plants then with people. In some way shape or from
taking on novices as staff
writing a book, or maybe having a podcast you really have to help spread your knowledge at this point.
And we need more podcasts, so if you’re thinking of it, I’ll talk to you after. Also There’s a woman who rote LENTIL Underground you should connect with Liz Carlisle. she went to UC Berkley…
I think there’s this big fear of the older generation, there’s a fear of social media, etc. But when you get there and you start to share your knowledge and see people appreciate it.
One of the threads of my show is definitely soil health?! And how do you get your soil up there!
Yeah, soil health, the idea of swapping out all that soil, that’s not tenable. We bring
1.2 million to our
even more to our
It is averrable they have a couple
A company called Rooflite
an acre in Long Island
it is available
they have a great story
it all started with Mushrooms
not because the soil particularly good for mushrooms.
went to work for dutch tulip growers
the tulip growers started growing mushrooms under the shelves in the greenhouses and the Italians learned this trade, brought families over growing mushrooms
started mushroom growing
Tess Burzynski maybe it will be her project. Graduating form Detroit Michigan, gonna graduate and go to the peace corps. Has a mushroom business.
scoop her on it…
these guys are a wealth of knowledge, and they’re also farmers
farmers are naturally very resourceful people, naturally, want to use thing
don’t like to waste
always thinking about tour bottom line
when you grow mushrooms in compost you get one flush and then the compost is not useful for you anymore for
not useful for growing mushrooms anymore
however it’s good compost if it’s managed correctly but managing compost
you have to put some thorough into it, and you have to throw some resources
ending up with this tremendous about of
not having an luck selling it as potting mix
really just dumping it,
you could drive around this area of Pennsylvania, you could drive around and these huge mountains of compost sitting around
Girder out we need to use this waste and make some more on it.
formed a cooperative of mushroom growing business,
composting properly, really managing ti
take this spent product and turn it into great landscaping product
a green roofer was approached about putting together a soil blend
on green roofs
was not quite sure what it was gonna look like, but he was sure it was going to need to rain well,
don’t want your roof filling up like a
our roof top growing mix
intensive ag blend which has a higher proportion of organic matter then the blend they would recommend for just sedum or recommend for native grasses a lighter feeder, then your garden variety vegetables
how can we improve the soil ecosystem, because with drainage comes a because with that increased porosity, you awls find that your soil dries out more quickly, especially when it’s pounded by,s o we have to irrigate.
we found that drip is not the most efficient
not that capillary action, so it spreads the water through
if it was less porous
articles were smaller, when the sun is low in the sky
especially on our greens beds and other spots where we’re not putting our plants onto of your direct line.
You know those little sprinklers
and distribute them in a gentle rain like pattern
they don’t shoot water up as high
you’re not losing as much
folks moved out to San Francisco
in the middle of
historic droughts in Northern California and I’ll be out there during one of these historic droughts and you would have no idea that’s what’s happening because there’s water shooting up in the air on all these farms. It seems like water is going to be increasingly the conversation that you should be having in farming. And can we contribute tot the conversation so that we learn how to store water
in soil that doesn’t want to store water
it’s very much a work in progress
working with Cornell University. right now we’re still very much in the data acquisition process. We tend to be transparent, we want folks to know we are a work in progress and then we share what we know and as soon as we have more to say on that, the world will figure it out.
still very much in the fact finding stage.
So let’s talk about the grange… What are you doing with all the food that you grow?
3 main sales channels,
vast majority crops are being sold wholesale to chefs and small mom and pop growers. That’s because its so much more efficient
endless number of wholesale accounts within a 5 mile radius of our farm.
the most profitable thing we can do is sell baby greens salad mixes, and arugula, to chefs and grocers. WE also have a 45 member csa and 2 weekly markets – Saturday and Sunday market. WE try to be thoughtful of what we grow.
lean heavenly towards
things don’t keep the lights on
2 months in the green house and then 2 months in the field is so much less then one beautiful tomato. So we are cautious about what we grow in our small space
try to keep our prices reasonable by being mindful of how we sell that produce.
So I use the example of basil
sweet basil, our Italian basil, that’s really our retail basil. If we bring it to a farmer’s market, people are gonna buy bunches of it. When you buy a $2 bunch of basil.
If we were gonna wholesale that basil for $6/lb
time to take to see the per square foot, to plant, to harvest and pack the crop
if you charge chefs that much for basil, they’re gonna think of you as that expensive farm, because they are getting pallets of basil
most often from the middle east grown hydroponically or from the amish
we don’t wholesaled our basil
if we bring it to the farmers market and they’ll say what is that smell?
It’s great in melon salads and spring roll! And the;lll say that’s amazing! And they buy the Italian basil because they don’t now what to do with it. You know who buys it? Pastry chefs and bartenders
they are willing to pay wholesale at a premium
ours is super fresh because we’re able to
I was an english major, I read a lot of books. I continue to read a lot. There are so many amazing authors out there writing about farming and gardening.