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Ben Flanner, founder and head-farmer at the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm. The Grange is expanding to a second one-acre roof in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and expects to harvest 30,000 pounds of produce this year.

Long Island City-based Brooklyn Grange, the planet’s first full-scale for-profit rooftop farm, doubled its size as it commenced its third season last year, expanding to a second one acre rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Grange harvested almost thirty thousand pounds of produce last year, and they have no intention of stopping there – they’re actively seeking more locations to farm.

We met up with Grange founder and head-farmer Ben Flanner for the rooftop backstory, and a look into the future of sky-scraping farms. The biggest surprise? When it comes to success in urban farming, spreadsheets and sales analysis are just as critical as soil and seeds.

So Ben, how did you end up doing this – setting up farms on rooftops in New York City?

I grew up in Wisconsin, outside of Milwaukee. I went to school in Madison to study industrial engineering, then moved to New York. You can do a lot of different things with industrial engineering – it focuses on mostly on processes and statistical stuff.

When I moved to New York, I worked doing some analytical-type jobs, looking at spreadsheets. I learned some financial analysis and some general business strategy-type things. I was working for a consulting company. At one point I was assigned to a project in Australia, working with a winery in the Barrosa Valley outside of Adelaide, trying to help them improve the efficiency of their growing operations. We were there to help them crunch some numbers, basically.

We were right out in the grape fields with the viticulturists, and I was watching how they worked, realizing how non-stop farming is, how you’re perpetually trying to solve problems, constantly tweaking things to be more productive, more efficient. I’ve always been attracted to that sort of thing. It looked really fun and challenging, and it was a real inspiration.

When I got back to New York, I started visiting a lot of farms.

So that experience in Australia really set the hook for you?

Definitely. I didn’t have a specific plan at that point to start farming, but I was really interested in learning more about it. Starting to visit all these farms back here was really the beginning of a change for me, if that makes sense.

Eventually I decided I wanted to try it. I thought my background in analysis would actually be a really good background to bring to it, and there were things about farming that really appealed to me that I didn’t get to do in my consulting job – interpersonal stuff like sales. Farmers wear a lot of hats. I liked the idea of spreadsheeting crops, growing food, and bringing it to market.

That all led to the development of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint.

What led to the rooftop farming idea? No one else had actually done that before, right?

It was a number of things. I had been doing some small-scale urban farming in my free time, and I realized that I had a lot of good friends here and I didn’t really want to leave the city. I’d been talking about farming with a lot of my friends and something that kept coming up was, “Look at all these roofs. There’s gotta be something we can do with all these roofs!”

I happened to read an article about Goode Green, a company run by Chris and Lisa Goode that installs green roofs. I emailed them to say I’d like to talk about doing a rooftop farm. Chris called me back the next day and said, “I’ve been thinking the same thing.”

Green roofs were really developed in Germany over twenty years ago. The idea was to grow plants on rooftops to make the buildings more efficient by insulating them from heat in the summer and cold in the winter. They had always been planted with low-maintenance perennials that didn’t need any irrigation – you’d just put it up there and forget about it. But no one ever made the leap to farming on roofs. We sort of  just wanted to evolve the thinking about green roofs a little bit by trying to do something more productive with it – growing food and farming.

So it was like a perfect storm of things coming together, and we worked with Goode Green to build Eagle Street, which was the first real rooftop farm. The path just kind of emerged and I had to take it. It ended up being a matter of some well-timed emails to the right people, and we did it and it was a great success.

Eagle Street was actually the first time anyone had set up a full-scale rooftop farm? Like, anywhere?

You hear things about people growing potatoes on a roof in Japan and things like that, but we were definitely the first to do a full-fledged farm on a roof.

Actually, at that same time there were ideas popping up about building hydroponic greenhouses on rooftops – exactly what Gotham Greens is doing now in Greenpoint. But that’s pretty different than what we’re doing.

How did the Brooklyn Grange project come together?

That summer, I met the guys from Roberta’s. They came by the farm one day and then I went there to eat. That was at the same time that they were putting in their greenhouses on top of their containers, so we had a lot in common. We just hit it off and we all liked the idea of starting an urban farm that could function as a sustainable business – that could pay its own bills and prosper and expand. And so we decided to put together the team to start Brooklyn Grange, with Chris and Brandon the owner of Roberta’s, and Gwen and Anastasia.

So how did you get started?

Throughout 2009 at Eagle Street I kept really careful records of all our sales. I recorded everything in spreadsheets. I divided sales up by crop, and looked at the square footage that had been allocated to each crop, so I was able to come up with a revenue model to forecast sales per square foot for each specific crop. Using that data, we put together a model, tweaked it a little bit, and said, “OK, what kind of scale are we going to need? How much square footage are we going to need to farm to generate enough revenue to cover our expenses and to pay the salaries of a few farmers living in New York City?”

We had to make a number of assumptions, but the biggest one was rent. At that point, no one had ever paid rent to use a rooftop for farming. There was no precedent. But we came up with some numbers, and after crunching it all, we said we’d need close to an acre to make it work.

An acre is big. There aren’t a ton of roofs that big, but they’re out there. So we started spending a lot of time looking at Google satellite maps, searching for rooftops with the right kind of size, exposure and access. We spent days and days doing that.

We also did a lot fundraising, to try to put together the money we’d need to sign a lease, get the equipment we’d need to set up the farm, to install it and get it up and running. We did a whole series of fundraisers at Roberta’s and one big one on Kickstarter.

And we spent a lot of time trying to track down landlords when we did find roofs that looked like they’d work. We were out in the streets, running around, knocking on doors, negotiating with landlords, trying to make deals. We had a hard time getting a deal done for the right kind of space in Brooklyn. A couple of things that were looking good fell through, and then we found a building on Northern Boulevard in Long Island City that had a perfect roof.

The building was owned by Acumen Capital Partners, a real estate investment company. They were renovating the building for office space, and they really understood our concept. They got it and they liked it, so we worked things out and that’s how we ended up in Long Island City.

What was the process of actually setting up a one acre farm on the top of a roof in the city? What were the logistics?

The first thing you have to do is find a rooftop of the right size, then you have to determine whether the building is strong enough to support the extra weight on the roof. It’s not that hard to do. You figure out how much square footage of the roof you’re going to cover with soil, you figure out how deep the soil will be and how much it’ll weigh when saturated with water. You buffer for snow load in the winter and live load when you’re growing in the summer, then you do a structural analysis on the building to determine whether or not it can handle the load.

Ben Flanner in the hoop house at Brooklyn Grange. Over 20,000 seedlings are getting their start in the hoop house. They'll be planted in the beds at the Grange's Long Island City and Brooklyn Navy Yard rooftop plots in the coming weeks.

Once you’re good to go, you start by laying down the green roof system, which is typically a few layers of material that allows the roof to drain, while absorbing some water and also protecting the roof – keeping roots from your plants from growing into it. You put your soil on top of the green roof system, and you grow your plants in the soil. They’ve engineered special lightweight soils for use on rooftops – it’s a mix of healthy compost and porous stones that’s about twenty five percent lighter than your typical topsoil.

How did you actually do the install? How did you get an acre’s worth of green roof materials and soil up and spread out across a giant roof?

We pretty much did it all by ourselves. We rented a crane for about six days. Cranes usually cost a lot of money to rent, which would have been a real problem, but there were these crane operators who were regulars at Roberta’s, and we were able to work out a deal with them. Let’s just say there was definitely some heavy pizza trading involved in the pricing of the crane. Like a lifetime of pizza. Ha ha. They were cool. We were always trying to work relationships like that as much as we could to keep costs down.

So we had the crane for six days. The location of the building on Northern Boulevard made for a tough install. We could only really position the crane properly in one place. It’s a long, thin building – the roof is five hundred feet long, which is like a football field and a half, with end zones. So we had to come up with a system to make sure we’d be able to keep the crane working. We had to find a way to be constantly unloading from the crane while also moving the soil to where it needed to go on the roof and spreading it out.

We split up into four teams with rolling buggies to move stuff around. While one team was unloading sacks of soil from the crane, another would be in the process of moving a load of soil over to the far end of the roof, where another would be actually unloading their buggy and spreading their soil, while the last team was moving back to start unloading from the crane again as soon as the team on the crane right then had loaded up their buggy. So we were constantly rotating around the roof, unloading from the crane, moving the soil, spreading it around, and moving back to the crane. By breaking up into teams we were able to choreograph it pretty efficiently so there were no bottlenecks.

It took six long days in April to get it all done. It was a pretty intense operation. Ha ha. But we had all our plants in by mid- May, and we were harvesting a month after that.

So it wasn’t too late in the year to have a productive season?

Not at all. We had started a lot of seedlings at Roberta’s. We got some more from farmers on Long Island, and a few farmers upstate sent us a gift of about four hundred tomato starts. We got about two thousand tomatoes in the ground that year, and lots of lettuces, peppers, kale, chard…we got it all in the ground really quickly, largely through just sheer will – planting for sixteen hours straight and that sort of thing.

We had to. It was important. We had invested money in the project, and we had a lot of expectations of ourselves and wanted to make sure we got off on the right track. We were working on tight finances and we had to take it really seriously. We were paying rent on every square foot of the roof and we had to make sure we were growing vegetables on every square foot as quickly as possible so we’d be able to cover our expenses and pay our bills.

How much did you harvest and sell that year?

We harvested about thirteen thousand pounds of vegetables that year. We kept track of all our sales at all the markets and to the restaurants. We worked hard the next year to really grow the restaurant sales, to develop standing orders and to set up consistent days to harvest and deliver. We’re always trying to figure out how to make the sales as efficient as possible.

Our CSA is really important. CSAs are huge for us and for all farmers, because they provide a kind of critical source of cash flow in the spring. In this climate, farmers don’t really have any cash flow during the winter. When spring comes, you have all these upfront costs to get things going again – you always have to fix your irrigation or your hoop houses, equipment, fields…

If you’re lucky you have the money you need in the bank. Otherwise you can look for a line of credit, but it can be pretty hard to get loans and the interest is often really high. Or you can do a CSA, and sell shares in the coming year’s harvest to people in your community who really enjoy eating what you’re growing, which is really how you want things to work anyway. So for a lot of farmers CSAs are invaluable.

Tell us more about sales. Are markets most important? Or restaurant sales?

We’re getting better and better at figuring it out. Restaurant and market sales and the CSA are really equally important to our model.

The positive thing in all cases for us is that we can pick things the very same day that we bring them to markets or our CSA pickup or deliver them to restaurants, so we’re able to have a really strong, high-quality product. Being able to deliver great produce picked at its peak and delivered to customers that day is the biggest thing for us. We get a lot of great compliments on our produce.

With restaurants, there are things we can grow in volume for them, like lettuce. If they have a salad on the menu they’re going to go through a lot of lettuce and we’ll grow it for them and get it to them really fresh. And because we’re right here in the city, we can do special orders on quick turnarounds on occasion. We can talk to chefs and get quick, direct feedback. We can grow specific things for them and test things out with them.

With markets, we’re getting better at analyzing and predicting market sales, but they are less predictable, and that’s part of the fun. There are always surprises. The weather affects sales. Trends in foods affect sales.

Like sorrel – last year someone wrote an article on sorrel somewhere, and all of a sudden we started selling out of it. So we tripled the amount of sorrel we were growing and we kept selling out. That’s great for us because sorrel is a perennial – we can plant it once and it grows back every year, so that’s one thing we don’t have to replant every year.

Ground cherries are another fun one. They’ve been getting more and more popular. They’re actually from the tomatillo family, but much smaller and sweeter. They’re usually a really nice surprise for people who haven’t had them before. And they’re a prolific crop, disease and pest resilient, so I really like growing those.

But when you’re farming, there are a lot of variables, a lot of things you can’t control. Everyone has to be a little flexible when you’re dealing with locally grown produce. If it rains too much the tomatoes might get messed up, but something else might take off. Every year we look hard at what sells where and when and why, so we’re getting better at predicting the future, essentially.

Farming on a rooftop in the middle of the city, how are environmental factors different for you here than they are for someone farming a field upstate? Do you have less of an issue with pests and disease?

I actually think it’s pretty parallel. The core concepts of growing crops are the same. We’re taking care of the soil, encouraging healthy microbial activity to grow healthy plants. On the rooftop it’s probably windier than at most farms, so we have to get really creative with staking and providing any extra support we can for the plants to help them deal with the wind, to reduce their stress.

For example, normally you’d try to avoid staking a pepper plant. But if you have a windy day, or lots of windy days, you see them stressing and starting to bend. That leads the plant to adapt by developing a tough woody stem. That’s a good thing in nature, but it causes the plant to put energy into thickening the stem that could otherwise be going into growing the leaves to increase photosynthesis to create more energy to grow great fruit. So when you’re farming to grow food, you want to reduce stress on your plants whenever you can.

We have to get pretty creative with that. If you come up to the farm during the growing season, you’ll see things like look like teepee frames set up over lots of plants across the whole roof, to support the plants and reduce stress under windy conditions.

For pests, we do the standard things. We grow marigolds. We plant very diversely. We intercrop to avoid having big patches of just one plant, to minimize the risk of losing all of something. Last year we watched the lacewings. They’re good to have for tomatoes, and it’s in the books that they like little white flowers. Cilantro has little white flowers and we noticed them hanging around the cilantro, so this year we’re going to throw a bunch of cilantro plants in with the tomatoes to attract them.

We had late blight on our tomatoes last year. It didn’t dramatically impact our yields, but we definitely had a lot more castaways – tomatoes we had to send to the sauce. Ha ha. We made a lot of sauce. We didn’t sell much – we kept it in the family and enjoyed it all winter.

But the tomatillos were fine. The black cherries were fine. So we’ll double the percentage of those this year. You’re always looking at what’s going on, to find ways to grow more things that taste great and are resistant to pests and disease, to offset the risk with more vulnerable crops like the tomatoes. Tomatoes are really important for us. We’re able to pick them at perfect ripeness and take them that day, in a matter of hours, to market or to restaurants. We’re able to deliver the highest possible quality tomatoes and that’s huge for us.

We’ve only been farming on rooftops for three years now. I think we’ll need ten years or more to start to really understand the pest and disease risks and to find the best ways to mitigate them. There will always be some kind of disease or pest problem, and it will always change from year to year, so we’re always looking for ways to balance what we plant, where we plant, and how we plant to minimize those risks. It’s really a never-ending process with farming. You have to always be observing, learning and adjusting.

So the Navy Yard – you’re expanding to a second rooftop in the Navy Yard this season, doubling the size of the farm. Are you ready for it?

We’re really excited about it. We love just constantly figuring out what has to happen next, how we’re going to solve this problem or that problem, how we’re going to grow, to get the next thing going.

The expansion will double the amount of produce we harvest. Last year we harvested about fifteen thousand pounds, and this year it should be about thirty thousand pounds. That’ll allow us to take our market presence to the next level, expand our CSA and we supply a lot more restaurants.

We’re also launching an apiary there. We’re going to substantially scale up our honey production. One thing we found last summer was that there’s a ton of interest in local honey – it tastes great and it’s healthy. All our honey was sold out by fall and people have kept asking for it all winter. So we’ll be producing much more honey.

Having a second field is also a great thing for us in terms of managing the farm. It’ll allow us to diversify and to practice more mature crop rotation, and it’ll give us the ability to do more effective pest and disease control by moving things from one roof to the other.

It’ll be a lot of work doubling our growing capacity, but we want to grow and expand, because we know the demand is out there for pretty much anything we can produce.

We’re here to stay. We signed a twenty year lease. And we’re actively looking to expand. We’re planning to open up more roofs, and we’re excited to be setting an example, creating a model that can be replicated by other people who want to do this, and to be helping people get their own rooftop farming projects up and running.

We’ve figured out a way to make this work. We’re a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the mass-produced food that’s getting shipped around the country and the world, but that doesn’t matter to us because there doesn’t seem to be any end to the demand here in the city for really great fresh produce that’s grown right here. So we want to keep expanding and we want to help other people start doing what we’re doing.

For more information on Brooklyn Grange’s CSA, markets, and visiting hours, check out their website. For more on the Grange’s campaign to raise seed money for their apiary project (to vastly increase the amount of local honey) see their Kickstarter page.


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One Response to Soil and Spreadsheets: A Look At The Past And Future Of Rooftop Farming With Brooklyn Grange’s Ben Flanner

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