Mother Earth Living

Eagle Street Rooftop Farm: The Future of Urban Agriculture

Can urban agriculture help cities produce their own food? Annie Novak and the team at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm have set out to prove it can.
By Tabitha Alterman
March/April 2012

Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn overlooks lower Manhattan’s famous skyline.
Photo By Tim Nauman
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How to meet our growing population’s ever-increasing need for high-quality, healthy fresh food may inspire the pontifications of politicians, economists and academics across the nation. But as any architect will tell you, the best way to envision the potential of a project is to build a model.

The visionaries behind the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm have done just that. In 2010, the 6,000-foot rooftop farm in Brooklyn produced about 30 varieties of organic and heirloom fruits and vegetables. And the full-scale farm just happens to sit opposite one of the most stunning views around. Situated in the charming neighborhood of Greenpoint on the East River, the employees, apprentices and volunteers who plant seeds and pull weeds at this amazing farm do so while overlooking the famous sweeping view of the lower Manhattan skyline. And they’re out to prove that farming in the city is a viable option for growing food—and making profits—as we move into the future.

Eagle Street owes much of its success to a network of partnerships. The farm is run by Annie Novak, a veteran gardener at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and the unstoppable force behind Growing Chefs, a nonprofit she started to help connect urban dwellers with their food sources. Annie works with Growing Chefs to host educational workshops at the farm, and the nonprofit supplies her with weekly volunteers who water, weed, harvest and turn compost, among other eye-opening tasks for city dwellers, some of whom have never even seen a growing edible plant, let alone a compost pile.

Much of Eagle Street’s hyperlocal produce is enjoyed by neighbors who purchase it directly from the farm during Sunday open hours in the growing season. This allows Annie and her team to pick superfresh produce and eliminates the need for travel, reducing their carbon footprint. On Sundays, the farm is open to visitors who want to shop or simply enjoy the green space and the incredible view. Some of them also come to drop off the food scraps they collect all week to donate to Eagle Street’s compost piles.

The farm has also buddied up with Brooklyn Honey to raise bees on the rooftop; an upstate farm that runs a subscription-based community-supported agriculture (CSA) program; and many talented chefs in the neighborhood.

Even the origin of the project was a partnership. Gina and Tony Argento own the building beneath Eagle Street farm, which used to house a bagel factory. Their television and movie production company, Broadway Stages, has undertaken many community-improvement projects in the neighborhood, and they decided to finance putting a green roof on the building. The team at New York City design firm Goode Green designed and installed the system—a 6,000-square-foot roof that hosts 200,000 pounds of shale, rock and compost. And Annie runs the farm with a team of volunteers and apprentices who work by her side. These are the kind of innovative partnerships that will be necessary to make urban agriculture a reality.

What Grows on Rooftop Gardens, Anyway?

If you were to visit Eagle Street Rooftop Farm this season, you’d notice the predominance of Swiss chard, kale and tomatoes, plus an abundance of hot peppers, cherry tomatoes and sage. You’d also spot eggplants, radishes, peas, beans, herbs and flowers. You might even be delighted to taste Annie’s special rooftop salad mix, comprised of rooftop-loving greens. Over the past three years, Annie has learned a lot about what grows well on rooftops, and she continues to hone her annual what-to-plant list. Among the knowledge that the Eagle Street team hopes to transfer to new urban farmers: Rooftop veggies tend to be smaller than crops grown on the ground, so microgreens and hot peppers become a focus. It’s hotter on the roof, which is wonderful for growing sun-loving plants such as tomatoes and eggplants, and it means you can plant sooner and grow longer than on regular farms. On the flip side, added heat translates to more watering, and hence the need to establish sustainable watering systems such as rainwater catchment and drip irrigation. While pests and soil diseases aren’t much of a problem on rooftops, high winds can be devastating to tall plants, so trellises and supports must be extra secure. Annie is carefully curating the plant selection year after year, and her data will no doubt be helpful to future rooftop pioneers.

Is This Financially Viable?

Many city dwellers rightfully take pride in the potted tomato or two they keep on the roof, but that can’t make a huge dent in our national food needs. Eagle Street is setting out to prove that rooftop farming can produce sizable quantities of food and make money. Considering that traditional agricultural government subsidies don’t extend to urban areas, there are real challenges facing the effort, but the team at Eagle Street hopes to be a model of economic viability merged with environmental sustainability: The farm’s upfront seasonal costs are paid for by its CSA membership dues; the four part-time employees are paid through produce sales via the Sunday market and sales to restaurants and other regional markets. Fundraisers and sales of value-added items such as hot sauce and pesto pay for the apprenticeship training program. Every year, Annie aims to help Eagle Street become more self-sufficient. Currently, rooftop chickens and rabbits make homemade fertilizer to add to the farm’s extensive composting project. Along with the rooftop honey, the farm turns a profit by making value-added goods. In addition, they save some of their own seeds to reduce overhead costs.

What Can We Learn From Eagle Street Rooftop Farm?

If you’re in the New York area, you can learn quite a lot. Because the farm is interested in helping New Yorkers connect to the entire system of food production and consumption, you can pop over to Eagle Street for weekly workshops on everything from pruning tomatoes to saving garden seeds. Over the course of one growing season, the farm hosts more than 30 school and community groups, who learn about growing food, cooking with seasonal foods, the benefits of green roofs and more. But even if you can’t get to Brooklyn for a visit, we can all learn from Eagle Street’s example. Today, about 50 percent of the world’s population lives in urban centers. By 2050, nearly 80 percent will live there. According to Dickson Despommier, the Columbia University professor who invented the Vertical Farm concept, even when applying conservative estimates to demographic trends, the human population will increase enough in the meantime to require 20 percent more agricultural land to feed us, if typical farming practices continue. But what if atypical farming practices can replace them? Steven Peck, president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, isn’t sure urban agriculture will ever be able to fully replace traditional agriculture, but he says, “We need to grow high-quality, organic food in all regions, and there is room for growing food in buildings, on buildings and around buildings. It’s a nice complement to other forms of sustainable agriculture, with huge opportunity for jobs and economic development.”

Despommier also believes the potential of cities to feed themselves is huge, and he gets excited about everything from windowsill gardens to million-dollar vertical farms. “Who cares where you start?” he says. “You have to start someplace. Let’s start by getting people in cities interested in growing their own food, however they do that.”

Annie believes rooftop farming is a natural extension of human nature. “Agriculture is a career with thousands of years of precedent,” Annie says. “Eagle Street and educational projects like Growing Chefs are simply taking our natural need and enthusiasm for the outdoors, good food and health and propelling them into the 21st century for a greener New York City—and hopefully, other cities will follow our lead!”

Food and Garden Editor Tabitha Alterman splits her time between New York City, where she grows food on her fire escape and in a community garden, and Lawrence, Kansas, where she watches tomatoes grow from her porch. 

The Dirt on Green Roofs

A green roof is no ordinary roof—you don’t just add dirt, seeds and water and voilà! First, you need a structural engineer to verify that your building can bear the load, then you must install or replace the waterproof membrane. Next, you add filtering and drainage layers, a lightweight growing medium and, of course, plants that are well-suited to the whole unique setup. Although the system can be somewhat complex, Steven Peck, president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a nonprofit whose mission is to promote the building of green roofs across North America, says that numerous existing buildings would be great candidates for a green roof retrofit, and that he has seen the additions increase property values—both commercial and residential—from 5 to 20 percent.

Although green roofs can cost double or triple what a standard roof would cost (Eagle Street reduced costs by using some volunteer labor and reclaimed materials), the benefits of green roofs extend beyond feeding hungry neighbors. Eagle Street’s roof can absorb more than 1 1/2 inches of rain, providing a reduction in stormwater runoff New York City badly needs to help prevent flooding. The captured water then helps cool the building beneath it, reducing electricity costs. Acting as insulation, green roofs lower heating costs in winter and air-conditioning costs in summer. And green spaces reduce the notorious urban heat island effect, in which city temperatures rise because of their vast expanses of concrete and blacktop.

The costs of installing a green roof are coming down, according to Peck, who attributes the decrease to increased competition and experience in the marketplace. He believes that when more cities join the ranks of Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco, and realize the multiple benefits (such as municipal money saved on stormwater systems, improved biodiversity and air quality, and increased access to healthy food), they’ll incentivize green roof projects. Dickson Despommier, the inventor of the Vertical Farm concept, says that when he sat on a board to help rewrite legislation in Seattle in order to make it legal for people to grow food on rooftops, they got the job done in just three weeks. The city’s policy makers recognized what a boon these minifarms would be for the city, so they got behind it. He says that’s what’s happening in Chicago, too. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is behind the green roof idea, so the city is, too. And they’re making it happen all over the place.

The Promise of City Farms

A groundbreaking study conducted at The Urban Design Lab at Columbia University in 2011 sought to analyze the capacity for urban crop production in New York City, and among other findings, concluded the following:

• Rooftops are a vast, underused resource that could be transformed for food production.

• Bureaucratic challenges are a major barrier to the expansion of urban farming.

• Urban farmers are establishing viable businesses by taking advantage of multiple revenue streams.

• Existing green roof incentive programs have not been designed to support rooftop agriculture.

• The skills and experience being developed by today’s rooftop farming pioneers will likely make wider adoption much more feasible in the near future.

• Urban agriculture functions as a catalyst for larger food system transformations.

• Were New York City to foster more urban agriculture, it would benefit from stormwater mitigation, soil remediation and energy-use reduction, to boot.  

Resources

Eagle Street Rooftop Farm
urban organic farm

Brooklyn Honey
raises rooftop bees at Eagle Street farm

Goode Green
green roof design and installation

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities
locate a certified green roof installer  

Growing Chefs
nonprofit that helps connect urban dwellers with food sources 

The Vertical Farm
urban food production concept

Books 

Small Green Roofs: Low-Tech Options for Greener Living by Nigel Dunnett, Dusty Gedge, John Little and Edmund C. Snodgrass 


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