Yell It from the Roof-Top Farm! Brooklyn Grange Farm is Planting the Way

Reader Contribution by Crystal Stevens
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© Anastasia Cole Plakias, Brooklyn Grange Farm 

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ben Flanner, at the Missouri Organic Association Conference held in Springfield, Missouri, a while back. Ben Flanner is the Head Farmer and President of Brooklyn Grange Farm, a for-profit roof-top farm in New York City, New York. The Brooklyn Grange has sites in both Brooklyn and Queens.  Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Flanner is a transplant to NYC. Flanner has always had an affinity for gardening. Some of his most vivid childhood memories include gardening with his mother in Wisconsin. He would help her plant, weed, water, and harvest. She taught him how to cook, how to make pickles and how to preserve the bounty.  These life lessons he learned early on have made their way full circle back into his life time and time again. The time spent with his mother in the garden sculpted his life and he holds her in reverence for giving him those experiences.

An engineer by trade, Flanner had a fascination for the rhythms of big cities. After college, he spent five years at a desk job, however he was interested in a more physically active profession. . The yearning subsided when he was again embraced by the fresh air and sunshine he longed for on those tiring 9-5 work weeks stuck between four walls and fluorescent lights.

He became more and more intrigued by agriculture and desired to combine his formal training with his reclaimed passion for growing food. Upon his return to New York in 2009, Flanner co-founded the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, the very first roof top farm in New York at the time. Flanner is truly a pioneer in the roof top farm culture and continues to make new advances in energy efficient systems associated with roof top agriculture. His goal was to tackle some of the problems faced by the green roof industry for several decades including maximum efficiency for weight and water capacity. Traditionally, green roofs were planted with sedum, grasses and wildflowers. Flanner had a strong desire to grow a diverse array of edible crops. In 2010, Flanner helped to launch a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. Between Kickstarter, private investment, and loans, the farm raised $200,000 to fund their initial green roof farm installation. With backers and ongoing support, Brooklyn Grange now employs eleven motivated and talented individuals to manage their farms, events onsite, and installations and maintenance contracts offsite. 

Brooklyn Grange Farm now umbrellas two functioning rooftop farms which encompass 2.5 acres. The farms combined harvest above 50,000 lbs of organically-grown vegetables, herbs and flowers per year. They grow a myriad produce including tomatoes, peppers, chard, kale, mixed herbs, cucumbers, turnips, radishes, and many other items.

In addition, they operate an apiary, home to upwards of 30 honey bee hives that are managed naturally. These hives are located on various rooftops throughout New York City. Brooklyn Grange also has a line of hot sauce. They sell thousands of bottles of their signature hot sauce at their farmers markets, to local chefs, and online.

© Anastasia Cole Plakias, Brooklyn Grange Farm

Brooklyn Grange Farm is a farm which uses only hand methods to create permanent raised beds. They aim for as little soil disturbance as possible to prevent erosion and for the benefit of the microorganisms in the soil. They use a high nutrient compost with a light weight stone. Their seeds are purchased through FedCo seeds, Johnny’s, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Kitazawa seeds. Their success has relied in part by a consistent analysis of what works best- the crops that are the most drought tolerant, crops with the best yields, best economics. For example, their gourmet salad mix and arugula are easy to grow and maintain, they offer a high yield and an excellent economic return. The success of the farm has also been determined by using the best possible equipment.

They use tried and true small hand tools and seeders that have been endorsed by experts in the field such as the Johnny’s 4 way seeder, the stirrup hoe, a metal rake, and hand held weeding tools. They also do a great deal of hand weeding to maintain beds.

© Anastasia Cole Plakias, Brooklyn Grange Farm

Brooklyn Grange has an amazing community outreach program geared toward budding farmers, foodies, and children intrigued by the thought of being on a roof top farm in the heart of the city. They offer regular community days. Yoga session are schedule weekly on the rooftop farm. They host a weekly roof top farmers market. They host a plethora of workshops which range in topics from Beekeeping, to Cheese Making, to Fermenting.

Flanner also teaches off-site workshops and consults on topics including farm planning, finances, and crop planning.

Brooklyn Grange is a field-trip destination for over 10,000 urban youth since 2010. One of Flanner’s greatest joys is witnessing their eyes light up when they first step foot on the rooftop farm. Once they have a look around, they seem to be in sheer awe of the seed to table connection.

Future projects include more roof top farms on more roofs throughout the city. Flanner wants to gaze out at a sea of green when he’s standing on the roof top at Brooklyn Grange Farm, whether the green be vegetables or other types of green roofs. His goal is to continue to grow great produce, while training and inspiring more farmers and good eaters, ranging from high school kids, to young and inspired adults, to college students, to middle aged professionals who wish to transition to into farming, to retirees. Anyone can grow. Doing what you can with the space you have to make it as great as possible is the mantra Flanner refers back to in his daily life. “Rooftop farming has been a great opportunity to create two and a half acres of green space in densely populated New York City. It allows us to grow beautiful vegetables, flowers and herbs while engaging our community into the local foods movement. People have become so far removed from their connection to food. Brooklyn Grange Farms inspire healthier and ecologically sound food choices to those in our community.”  

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