New Yorkers forge ahead with rooftop farming

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When Jane Garmey intro­duced urban farm­ing pio­neer Annie Novak before her lec­ture at the School of Inte­rior Design last month, she pro­posed that the urban farm move­ment encom­passes macro–not micro–level farm­ing. The idea is sim­ple and far from new: bring food closer to the core of its con­sumers, and with it, a bet­ter under­stand­ing of just how impor­tant our food sys­tems are. If we can uti­lize oth­er­wise wasted rooftop space in the process, all the bet­ter. It is small in scale, but sym­bol­izes a wide­spread, new-found con­scious­ness of sus­tain­able urbanism.

A new gen­er­a­tion of city-hip green thumbs have taken root in cities across Amer­ica, their metro-farming ini­tia­tives thriv­ing off urban­ites’ hunger for fresh and local pro­duce and will­ing­ness to commit–at least with their lunches–to a more respon­si­ble city-life.

In the New York urban farm­ing sphere, atten­tion is now focused on the city’s expan­sive roof­s­capes. As land trust and pub­licly owned land is limited–already hous­ing a sub­stan­tial five hun­dred com­mu­nity farms and gardens–and empty lots are at a pre­mium, the rooftop is fer­tile ground.

Novak’s Williamsburg-based acreage, the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, raises a vari­ety of leaf veg­eta­bles, cucum­bers, car­rots, radishes, and egg­plants, and is cur­rently grow­ing hot pep­pers for pro­duc­tion of their new hot-sauce line, aptly dubbed ‘Awe­some Sauce’. The farm oper­ates an on-site mar­ket, and deliv­ers, usu­ally by bike, pro­duce to area restaurants.

Her farm works much like a ground level farm does, only con­fined to the envi­ron­ment and lim­its of a Brook­lyn ware­house roof. Green roof­ing firm Goode Green and build­ing owner and alter­na­tive roof­ing and stage pro­duc­tion spe­cial­ists Broad­way Stages helped unload truck­loads of an ultra-light but nutri­ent rich soil sub­sti­tute. Spread atop a com­pli­cated layer of drainage and sup­port mate­r­ial, the post-production mush­room prod­uct ter­raformed the for­merly unused space into plow­able, fer­tile rows.

Not all roofs can sup­port a farm, unfor­tu­nately. It is unknown how many build­ings suit­able for hold­ing the increased weight there are cur­rently, but some farm­ers are begin­ning to say find­ing a suit­able roof top is becom­ing a chal­lenge. An effort to quan­tify avail­able space has yet to surface.

In proper ratios, Novak employs rab­bits to fer­til­ize her crops. She says the rab­bits, whose fer­til­iz­ing poten­tial is unri­valed at that size, are per­fect for the rooftop envi­ron­ment and pro­vide an attrac­tion for farm tourists. She also keeps chick­ens and bees. One of the city’s, or even the country’s biggest agri­cul­tural quan­daries is what to do with the severe lack of pollinators.

Because there aren’t a lot of green spaces here, we don’t get a lot of pol­li­na­tors. That’s a big­ger issue than most peo­ple think” says Novak, who began keep­ing bees ille­gally under the Giu­liani admin­is­tra­tion. The bees, which are now legal inhab­i­tants, have the dou­ble ben­e­fit of pro­vid­ing honey, which the farm sells as well.

Unlike some sci-fi writ­ers and urban vision­ar­ies’ claims made 60 years ago, urban farm­ing is not replac­ing the sprawl­ing fields of the Mid­west and Impe­r­ial Val­ley in Cal­i­for­nia. No mat­ter how many ambi­tious peo­ple throw soil on their roofs, the city’s size remains its biggest chal­lenge: Novak and the city’s hun­dreds of other urban farms and com­mu­nity gar­dens are not try­ing to feed the entire metrop­o­lis. Instead, Novak just wants to “raise as many green thumbs as veg­eta­bles.” If these farms can at least help peo­ple under­stand where their food comes from, that’s a novel first step.

Addi­tion­ally, many of the farms see them­selves as com­mu­nity builders, bring­ing together friends and neigh­bors through vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties and events for chil­dren. Inject­ing some fresher food into the city is an obvi­ous ben­e­fit, but to many, the farms remain more sym­bolic of New York’s height­ened envi­ron­men­tal con­scious than of seri­ous, sus­tained ben­e­fit to the city.

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Not every­one sees it this way, though. New York has never set­tled for sec­ond place, and the city already has the largest rooftop farms in the world. Sev­eral com­pa­nies are vying for usable rooftops that could add much needed jobs as well as fresh produce.

A  city-owned food dis­tri­b­u­tion hub in Hunt’s Point, Bronx is seek­ing to develop its 200,000-square-foot rooftop. Although some remain con­cerned over the build­ings need to bol­ster its sup­port struc­tures, a farm here would likely be the most pro­duc­tive rooftop farm in the world, with the added value of being only an ele­va­tor shaft away from access­ing city-wide food dis­tri­b­u­tion networks.

Com­pa­nies like Bright­farms and Gotham Greens are cre­at­ing inten­sive hydro­ponic land­scapes on rooftops and sell­ing direct to super­mar­kets. This arrange­ment both decreases the cost to con­sumers and raises prof­its for the farmer. Tak­ing out the mid­dle­man is a trend right now in north east­ern farm­ing, with many farm­ers truck­ing pro­duce to mar­kets and restau­rants them­selves, some­times trav­el­ing over 100 miles for a sin­gle farm­ers market.

Bright­farms, which oper­ates the world’s biggest rooftop farm, seeks shelf space con­tracts with super­mar­kets in the city. In the long run, the com­pany sees itself con­struct­ing green­houses on the roofs of hun­dreds of gro­cery stores around the coun­try, prac­ti­cally zero­ing the food miles, or how far your food has trav­eled from farm to shelf.


These are farms where food and tech are really col­lid­ing. Gotham Greens grows acres of let­tuce with no soil in site. Hydro­pon­ics drip feed nutri­ent enriched water straight to the plants roots held uni­formly in a hol­ster. At Bright­farms’ green­houses, they employ an inte­grated mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem which can sig­nal a remote farmer when to water the crop, feed it nutri­ents, or change the tem­per­a­ture, all through an auto­mated sys­tem. By cul­ti­vat­ing this way, they can more effi­ciently uti­lize their own and the city’s resources.


For now though, the final price point of urban-farmed food remains a hur­dle for farm­ers intend­ing to make their pro­duce avail­able to all. “A lot of peo­ple really want to quit their jobs and become New York City farm­ers, but you can’t do that and still have an apart­ment for $2,000 a month” says Novak. “At a cer­tain point, it’s just obnox­ious to charge $16 a pound for arugula.”

Cur­rently, there are only three for-profit farms har­vest­ing in the city. Finan­cial resources are slim, and most farms rely on grants because sales are just not enough at this point. Oper­at­ing costs vary greatly from farm to farm, and are higher on the roof-top end of the spec­trum. Although New York may be one of the most expen­sive cities to farm, it still sits apart from oth­ers in its advantages.

With a deep water­shed in the Catskill Moun­tains, and cli­mate change likely bring­ing more rains to the north­east, New York has plenty of water. (See the City Atlas inter­view with cli­ma­tol­o­gist Allan Frei for a dis­cus­sion of the mon­u­men­tal NYC water sys­tem.) This makes New York City prime real estate for urban farm­ing, explain­ing the recent boom in acreage. The only lim­it­ing source for water is whether there is a spigot on the roof. Often farms resolve to run­ning a house out the win­dow of a bath­room below.

The same can­not be said for cities in the west, like Los Ange­les, Phoenix or Hous­ton, who each face severe water short­ages and already employ water rationing mea­sures, namely by lim­it­ing out­door water usage, i.e. gar­dens. Even Atlanta and Orlando are strug­gling to keep the taps flow­ing. In many of these already dry cities, urban farm­ing could add a sig­nif­i­cant stress on the water sup­ply that many say is cur­rently unnecessary.

Addi­tion­ally, New York’s den­sity, the high­est in the coun­try, means it can eas­ily trans­port food through the city by bike, like many farms already are. Some cities have seen urban farm­ing replace, rather than sup­port urban­ism, how­ever. This process, often in eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling cities like Cleve­land and Detroit, where vacant hous­ing lots are being torn down by the block, can spell urban sprawl down the line, push­ing future devel­op­ment away from the city. This makes New York, where com­pe­ti­tion is no longer for avail­able ground space (there is none), but for air space, an even more viable option for rooftop farming.

Even if these farms pro­duced a neg­li­gi­ble amount of food, the ben­e­fits of a green roof are still deserve atten­tion. New York has thou­sands of rooftops, often lay­ered with black tar sheets that absorb, rather than reflect, heat. The asphalt streets do the same in a city that is often five degrees warmer than its sur­round­ings. Green rooftops not only help reflect heat, but act as an insu­la­tor to keep build­ings cool in the sum­mer. The plots also help to absorb stormwa­ter, an immense infra­struc­ture need recently real­ized by Hur­ri­cane Sandy. Increas­ing green space in cities decrease the runoff into rivers and pub­lic water sys­tems, decreas­ing the chances of flood­ing both within and out­side the city.

Urban farm­ing think-tank Five Bor­ough Farm, a project of the Design Trust for Pub­lic Space, is lead­ing the dis­course on pol­icy change and acknowl­edge­ment. As a first step, the group wants the city to estab­lish a for­mal urban agri­cul­ture plan, even­tu­ally work­ing to inte­grate it with the city’s exist­ing poli­cies. The team is also lead­ing the mas­sive under­tak­ing of doc­u­ment­ing and map­ping the 700 urban farms in the city, an effort hop­ing to actu­al­ize the farms impact in the city.

This year will see the start of an inten­sive study on what and exactly how much pro­duce is har­vested from these farms and gar­dens, how much profit it brings, as well as what kind of labor goes into run­ning them. The group is hop­ing this will help farms answer to donors and investors who would bet­ter be able to under­stand at what stage in devel­op­ment urban farm­ing is at as a whole. This, they say, will trans­late to bet­ter funded farms able to grow more food and even­tu­ally expand.

With the city’s vast net­work of for­ward thinkers, farm­ers like Novak and the Five Bor­ough Farm group are look­ing to con­tinue to see New York’s gar­dens and roof tops blos­som. After an impres­sive boom in the past decade, and many farms slowly get­ting their start this past year, Novak remains pos­i­tive the urban farm move­ment will con­tinue heartily.

This trend of younger peo­ple get­ting their hands in the soil is what has deliv­ered the city its new­found green space. The ques­tion is: once the sex­i­ness wears off, how can we main­tain this move­ment? “It is a trend, but I don’t want it to be a trend. I want it be like how we are now, for­ever” says Novak.

More info here.

A timely NPR report on the eco­nomic chal­lenge of farms that sup­ply green­mar­kets.

Pho­tos: Naima Green, Five Bor­ough Farm, Bright­farms, Gotham Greens