City residents foster farming revolution
by Heather Senison
Sep 06, 2011 | 925 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two years ago, a group of New Yorkers got together with a vision of an urban rooftop farm to grow produce to sell around the city.

After changing their original location from Kings County, Brooklyn Grange built a 40,000-square-foot farm atop the six-story Standard Motors building, built in 1919, at 37-18 Northern Boulevard in Long Island City (LIC).

“We’ve loved our home here in Long Island City,” said Anastasia Plakias, managing partner and co-founder of the Grange, as she got started on picking nine pounds of fresh parsley to fill an order.

The area is an “incredibly diverse and multi-cultural community,” she said, “that really seems to cook and that’s a wonderful thing for us.”

Plakias, who will be 28 on September 11, grew up in Greenwich Village and now lives in Greenpoint. She said she had the benefit of a mother who always bought fresh produce and butcher meat for dinner.

After attending Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and working in the hospitality industry in New York City, Plakias decided to get into writing about her passion: food.

So she followed the owners of Roberta’s restaurant in Bushwick, now a sister business to the Grange, around with a tape recorder to write a feature on them, which led to her helping them build their garden and deciding to build an urban farm in her home city, Plakias said.

“Shepherding the plant through its life cycle from seed to plate,” she said, “was an eye-opening and very rewarding experience.”

The landlords of the building in LIC, Jeff Rosenblum and Ashish Dua, owners of Acumen Capital Partners LLC, were very receptive to the idea of growing an urban farm on their rooftop, Plakias said.

Having a rooftop garden benefits them, she said, because of its affect on their utility bills.

“Green roofs are a wonderful way of cleaning and cooling the air for the city,” Plakias said.

The farm also insulates the building in the winter, so “it’s a value to the landlord in terms of their building costs but also to the community and the environment in terms of resources saved.”

As an added benefit, the farm absorbs rainwater for the city, she said, which built its sewer system before its rapid development in the early 20th Century.

“If it rains more than a tenth of an inch in the city, our sewer systems overflow and raw sewage seeps out into Jamaica Bay and the East River and all our local waterways,” Plakias said. “Anytime you can absorb storm water you’re really doing the city a big favor.”

Brooklyn Grange benefits in return from the 1,000 tenants in the building, who have access to the farmer’s market held in the lobby on Wednesdays.

The Grange also sells produce, salsas and other foods they put together at a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn to shoppers at the Brooklyn Flea Smorgasburg in Williamsburg on Sundays, in addition to restaurants around the city.

Plakias said the Grange is pleased to share recipes and preparation tips with shoppers at the markets.

“It is always really wonderful to see someone discover something like Thai basil at our farm stands,” she said, “and get excited because it’s something that maybe they don’t get at their local supermarket and it’s a flavor that maybe reminds them of home.”

The Grange also cultivates honey from bees they keep on the roof along with many other unique items, such as ground cherries, which Plakias said is one of her favorites because of the unique husk they grow in, making them part of the tomatillo family.

The Grange hosts private parties at a picnic table that sits more than 50 people at the West end of the farm and hosts open volunteer days on Wednesdays.

They also run a nonprofit called City Growers, which hosts school groups, community organizations and other city residents at the farm for educational tours and workshops, Plakias said.

Brooklyn Grange will also add a new roof to their business this winter, which will be growing plants and produce next spring.

For more information on the rooftop farm and its activities, visit Brooklyngrangefarm.com.
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