It’s true, you know. It’s not a dream. There is a secret world of verdant green fields spreading high above the city’s steamy gray streets. This world is growing, and a thing of jarring beauty to behold – particularly so under the blush of the rising sun, while snacking on golden cherry tomatoes as they drop, plump and perfectly ripe, off the vine, into your hand.
Photographer Valery Rizzo spent the summer high atop the Brooklyn Navy Yard, at Brooklyn Grange’s latest acre-in-the-sky, and among the buzzing hives of Brooklyn Grange Bees – the city’s first commercial apiary. Join her for a taste of life on the borough’s biggest rooftop farm.
Brooklyn Grange's new 45,000 square-foot rooftop farm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard is the largest rooftop farm in New York City. The farm offers sweeping views of the Navy Yard; the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges; the East River; and the Manhattan skyline.
A foot of soil covers the entire roof. The farm grows fruits and vegetables, and sells them directly to the public at several weekly markets and through their CSA. They also supply produce to several restaurants and retail shops in Brooklyn.
Grange Co-Founder, President, and Head Farmer Ben Flanner harvests greens. Salad mixes are one of the farm’s specialties, offering blends of flavors and color that change with the seasons.
Farm Apprentice Emily Vaughn harvests red and green lettuce above the East River.
Emily and Ben harvest Tatsoi and other baby mustard greens early in the morning, to fill the day’s market, restaurant and retail orders.
As the sun rises over the Navy Yard, work begins.
Ben Flanner grew up in Wisconsin and studied industrial engineering before moving to New York. While working for a consulting company on a job at a winery in Australia, he was inspired by the viticulturists and how they worked. When he returned to New York, he began to study farming. He's now widely recognized as a leader in rooftop urban agriculture.
Ben Flanner and Farm Manager Michael Meier host a French researcher visiting the Grange to learn more about their rooftop farming methods. He has his own rooftop farm in the center of Paris.
Teepee frames are a prolific feature of the rooftop landscape. They're used to support tomato and other plants, reducing stress under the windy conditions aloft.
Rows of tomatoes offer the illusion of wandering the vineyards of California. Bunches of Sungold tomatoes ripen on the vine.
Farmer Matt Jefferson harvests Rainbow Chard, which is heading directly to the farm's Wednesday market in the lobby of the Long Island City building that's home to their original one-acre rooftop farm location.
The expansion to a second rooftop in the Navy Yard doubles the amount of produce the Grange can grow. This year they'll harvest about thirty thousand pounds of fruit and vegetables. At the Yard they're growing tomatoes, salad greens, cucumbers, kale, rainbow chard, herbs, peppers, eggplant and okra.
The Empire State Building and the Manhattan skyline hover above tomato teepees on the rooftop. Ben rinses the colorful chard as it awaits transportation to the market.
Lush green Genovese Basil. Emily harvests spicy Mustard Greens.
Restaurants that use the farm's produce include Egg and Parish Hall in Williamsburg, Roberta's and Northeast Kingdom in Bushwick and Vinegar Hill House in Vinegar Hill. Green Grape Provisions in Fort Greene, Marlow and Daughters in Williamsburg, and The Greene Hill Food Co-op in Clinton Hill all carry the farm's harvest as well.
Harvesting mustard and other greens and lettuces. The Grange blends a wide variety of leaves into their green mixes.
Farm Manager Michael Meier harvests three crates of greens in less than five minutes, barefoot.
Michael's even got some farm animal ink.
Sunflowers ring the rooftop, serving double duty – they attract pollinators and are sold at the farm’s markets. They’re pretty too.
Beautiful Sungold tomatoes are picked at the perfect stage of ripeness and taken that day, in a matter of hours, to markets and local restaurants.
The farm also has egg producing Sussex hens. These beauties were found in late winter, abandoned at Belmont racetrack when they were only a few days old. A friend of the Grange rescued them and donated them to the farm. Ben raised the chicks in his apartment until it was warm enough for them to move to the rooftop.
The chickens are fed organic layer feed and the farm's compost scraps.
Brooklyn Grange has also launched Brooklyn Grange Bees, the city's first commercial apiary, at the Navy Yard. The apiary runs a beekeeping apprenticeship program, and a queen bee breeding program which will ultimately supply the NYC beekeeping community with local bees.
Apprentices fire up a smoker used during inspection of the hives. The smoke calms the bees and masks alarm pheromones released by guard bees which helps minimize stings during hive inspections.
Each year a group of apprentices are chosen for the free beekeeping apprentice program. Apprentices work in the apiary for an entire season and all equipment and tools are provided free of charge. In return, apprentices agree to return the following season to take on their own apprentice, breeding new beekeepers.
Beekeeper Tim O'Neal and an apprentice beekeeper Allison Stewart inspect a hive to ensure the colony is healthy.
Brooklyn Grange Bees is selectively breeding queens to create a genetic strain of bees that thrive in the urban environment of New York City. These bees are disease-resistant, hardy enough to survive cold winters, and mild in temperament.
Assistant Beekeeper Emily Vaughn inspects a hive with an apprentice. Grange Bees came up with the idea of having artists decorate each hive. The white one in the background is by Kate Neckel, the one in front is a mix from Brandon Hoy of Roberta's, who did the top box and lid, and Jeffrey Burch of Visionaire Magazine who did the bottom two boxes.
A row of defunct hives awaits restoration. Their frames and bees have been transferred to the swanky new artist-decorated digs.
Hives painted by artist Taliah Lempert. Apprentices observe as Timothy O'Neal prepares to inspect a hive.
Apprentices open a hive. When inspecting a hive, they look for eggs and brood of all stages in a tight laying pattern - the signs of a healthy queen. They then check for signs of pests and disease, and also get a glimpse into the endlessly complex activities inside the working hive.
Apprenticeship Director Timothy O'Neal (pictured) runs the apprentice program together with Chief Beekeeper and Director of Special Projects Chase Emmons.
Featuring over 30 hives, the apiary is projected to yield over 1000 pounds of honey each year. Comb honey, wax, propolis, pollen...Grange Bees has at all. Grange Bees uses natural beekeeping methods - all their products are chemical-free.
To extract the honey, the top layer of wax is scraped from the honeycomb suspended within each frame. Six frames at a time are then placed into a manual extractor. The frames are then spun around in the extractor, emptying the honey into the holding tank.
The honey is then run through a fine screen to strain out the large wax bits, before it's poured into jars. The Grange's honey is raw and unfiltered, so all the pollen and micro particles of propolis and wax are still in the honey. Most store bought honey is hyper-filtered and pasteurized, effectively removing all that good stuff from the final product.
From farm to table: Brooklyn Grange has four markets where you can purchase their produce each week. Pictured is the stand at Smorgasburg in Williamsburg. They also host their own market in the Long Island City farm building's lobby, attend the McGolrick Park farmers market in Greenpoint and another special market for Navy Yard Tenants.
Ben prepares the farm stand at Smorgasburg. Jars of Brooklyn Grange Organic Rooftop Honey and Clover await the masses.
Also on hand today? Mixed Asian eggplants, chili peppers, salad mix, arugula, lemon sorrel, swiss chard, heirloom tomatoes and ...
... cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini and ground cherries. Ground cherries are indigenous to Peru. They're part of the tomatillo family and when ripe fall off the plant and are harvested from the ground.
The Grange's beautiful large Okra. Sela Brown from the Grange prepares the chalkboard at Smorgasburg. Today's specials? Homemade iced tea and fresh, ready-to-eat salads.
Egg, a restaurant in Williamsburg, is also a vendor at the market and serves a special fingerling hash made with Brooklyn Grange greens, squash, and tomatoes.
The Grange has signed a twenty year lease with the Navy Yard and is actively looking to expand to other rooftops across the city. They hope their model will be replicated by others in cities across the planet.
Photography by Valery Rizzo. All rights reserved.