13 Jun 2010

A Farm Grows in Brooklyn

by Rebecca Troutman

Farmer Annie Novak, the co-founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, gushes excitedly about her penthouse view. This high-rise is no ordinary bit of open-air space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—it’s a 6,000 square foot organic vegetable farm whose inhabitants are swiss chard, lemongrass and bok choy.

“Today is such a beautiful day, slightly overcast, and all the greens are growing!” Novak says on this spring afternoon in May, overlooking the Manhattan skyline.

Eagle Street Rooftop Farm has much to celebrate: a one-year anniversary, a thriving CSA program, and hundreds of volunteers hoping to take free classes about city composting, urban beekeeping and more. Eager to help her weed and nurture the organic vegetable harvest, city dwellers tiptoe around the plots and pull the strays from the base of seedling tomatoes.

The community could not be more overjoyed by the wealth of fresh, “hyper-local” food available to them from just 20 stories up.

Brooklynites visiting the farm for a weekend event

With precious little terroir to call their own, New Yorkers are beginning to look upward, establishing more rooftop farms every year. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm was built in April, 2009 with a green roof design by Goode Green. The design installation was financed by the building hosts, Broadway Stages, which has a history of community involvement.

Rooftop farms require many different considerations than the cultivation of solid ground—not only structurally but also botanically. Eagle Street’s green roof base is comprised of two inches of polyethelene, drainage mats and retention and separation fabrics. Above that are shallow beds of compost, rock particulates and shale (all from Pennsylvania).

This mixture is ideal for rooftops because it is lightweight and allows for water retention and air circulation.

“When you’re putting 200,000 pounds of dirt on a roof,” Novak advises, “you should at least speak to an architect to engineer. Once you harness some access to water, the growing in general is pretty straightforward. Seeds want to be planted and they want to flourish and grow.”

That said, Novak is quick to acknowledge that shallow beds caused some setbacks in her skyscraper plants. Tomatoes, microgreens, alliums and herbs were the most successful in the founding year of the farm, and she produced the highest yield on tomatoes, kale and chard. The winter squash, sadly, could not make it with their complicated root system.

Novak is confident that growing in the city is a growing trend, one that creates more green spaces in cities, reduces asthma rates, and creates more access to fresh, healthy produce. “I’d like to see more people feeling confident about their ability to grow their own food—an ancient well-practiced art that anyone can do,” she insists, despite one’s supposed lack of a “green thumb.”

She is also very eager to see city farmers embrace some elements that some more conventional farms have not been able to have, such as good market share and health care.

As far as advice to others who wish to farm in metropolitan areas, Novak is overwhelmingly positive and says that your passion will catch on with the public. “Food is so good, and people eat every day. I think just staying excited about that is why people just come back—curious and optimistic people.”


Eagle Street Farm, 44 Eagle Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY