The skyline of Long Island City is a dreary one — a gunmetal-gray expanse of factory smokestacks and construction sites perforating the view of the concrete jungle behind it. But in this seemingly unforgiving place, Ben Flanner has created valuable space for local, organic produce in one of the communities that needs it most. Measuring a whopping one acre, Brooklyn Grange is the largest rooftop farm project ever undertaken in New York City. Everything here, from tomatoes and tomatillos to radishes and radicchio, flourishes under Ben’s nurturing hand. And with a successful (and exhausting) first year behind him, Ben looks ever forward to continuing to serve New York to the greatest extent that he can — even looking to expand to additional rooftops. Armed with a great idea and the devoted support of the food community, this BR!NKer aims to reteach city dwellers just what “local produce” means.
How would you describe Brooklyn Grange in your own words?
Brooklyn Grange is a forty-thousand square foot rooftop farm. What we’ve done is cover the entire roof of a six story building with over a million pounds of soil, and we grow vegetables on it. We’re located in Queens so it’s an urban farm as well.
Why not Queens Grange, then? Did Brooklyn sound better?
We named it early, while all of us were living and working in Brooklyn. It just happens that the right landlord and space were found in Queens.
Did organic farming play an important role during your childhood?
As a child, I grew up with gardens. I always liked them. I studied engineering but later realized that I had a great passion for agriculture. I love growing food, selling food, tasting, cooking, getting dirty… that all works for me. [laughs]
How does the process of large-scale farming differ from ordinary gardening?
That’s a great question. Gardening can mean anything in terms of growing vegetables. However, at the far end of the spectrum, large industrial farming is computerized. They have machines with sensors that essentially act like robots and cover thousands of acres. At Brooklyn Grange, we’re doing one acre of organic mixed-variety farm. It’s very important for us to take care of the soil by growing a variety of plants with a solid rotation.
Did you have to adjust any of the regular “ways of doing things” because of your unusual location?
Yeah. I think there are a couple of things that we’re playing with up here. We have a shallower depth – seven to ten inches – that causes the vegetables to deplete the nutrients a little bit quicker. At some point for larger plants, the root system becomes constricted. In a natural setting, they’ll go two feet into the ground. We obviously can’t just drive deep stakes because we’d be penetrating the roof! We also have a windier environment than most farms. That’s why you’ll see bamboo all over the roof: to give plants support and reduce the amount of stress on them. We have to be creative. [laughs]
How did you learn that stuff?
I’ve been devouring books for the past couple of years, going to workshops, visiting farms, networking… and Googling.
How has the New York food community been involved in the success of Brooklyn Grange?
They’ve been pretty heavily involved. We partner with the owners of Roberta’s in Brooklyn, and their resources have been crucial to our success. Restaurants all over New York came strong and have been buying our vegetables for a little while now. They like to sell products to their customers based on the idea that everything is locally grown.
Do you feel like this is one of the main factors that differentiates Brooklyn Grange from its competitors?
We sell to customers who get to know their farmers, get to know where their food comes from, and who are guaranteed a low transportation distance as well as environmental benefits. We consume less energy because of the insulation effects. We also catch a lot of the rainwater that arrives on the roof of our building, which doesn’t get into the sewers. All of those benefits have allowed us to reach a broad spectrum of people who have supported us.
How did you find the space?
We found it through a lot of effort. It’s hard to convince landlords to let us put all this dirt on the roof. We eventually found our current building in Queens and signed the contract within a week. We were nervous at that time because we really needed to get to our season: we had four thousand seedlings that we’d started based on the hope that we’d find a deal.
What kind of vegetables does Brooklyn Grange grow?
Peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, salad greens, beets, herbs, spinach, carrots, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, spicy mustards…
And most importantly, in which restaurants can we eat your vegetables?
As Brooklyn Grange keeps on getting more and more attention, do you have any big plans for the future?
You know, we’ve had a lot of interest in the project. Landlords have come and spoken to us. I’m looking forward to a full season of farming right now, and that’s my short-term priority. However, one acre only produces enough sales to let you pay rent and one person. We’re producing thousands of vegetables , but it’s a drop in the bucket around the city. We’d like to be able to grow our vegetables on five acres; so in the long term, being on four to five roofs would be ideal.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
If they live in NYC, they can spread the word, support us, purchase our products, taste them, go to restaurants that use them. They can volunteer and come up. We’ll also be posting a wish list on our website with various items, from a stainless steel wash tub to tools, so they can help with that. Anything positive. We’re working hard and trying to do a good thing, and we’re just glad to have readers of Daily BR!NK aware of that.