High up amidst the industrial milieu of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City – surrounded by cranes, building sites, factories and highways – sits a green space that helps produce more than 22,000 kg of organically grown vegetables each year. One of two rooftop urban farms run by Brooklyn Grange – co-founded by New Yorker Anastasia Cole Plakias – this space has not only become a viable commercial business that is repairing the disconnect between urbanites and their food sources, but it’s also helping to create a wider community around the philosophy of local, organic fare.
“Do you fancy a little game of pepper roulette?” Anastasia Cole Plakias asks me, as we stand amidst the rooftop garden beds of Brooklyn Grange, looking out across the East River to Manhattan. “Of course,” I reply, never one to back down from a challenge. We’ve already sampled a hearty range of the garden’s bounty today – including ground cherries, lime basil, coriander berries and various types of salad greens – but none have involved a game of roulette.
She picks two shishito peppers and hides them behind her back, shuffling them and then presenting me with her two fists to choose from. I pick the right. Grinning at each other, we both chomp into our allocated pepper and wait for the fire to hit our mouths. Anti-climax ensues, as neither of us have a hot one. “The Japanese originally brought the peppers over from Portugal and bred the heat out of them,” she explains of the peppers’ history. “But Mother Nature’s tricky like that and she always gets her way! There’s always the odd one that’s still hot.” There’s no questioning Anastasia’s devout passion for Brooklyn Grange, and for the art of urban farming, as she shares little anecdotes like these every few steps as we wander through the garden. And it’s a sign of a good urban farmer when they can spot an insect that is only passing through. “If you take a look at any of these plants, you’ll see that it’s teeming with life. There are pollinators all over the farm.
Many of them are our own honeybees, but a lot of them are also visiting – that bee right there is no honey bee of ours,” she says, gesturing to an insect making itself busy on one of the flowers. “We’ve created a pollinator pathway and increasing biodiversity is becoming extremely important. We love to see visiting pollinators up here on the farm.” As we walk further to the back of the farm, a raucous uproar erupts from the chicken coup. “Oh boy, what are the girls getting into?” Anastasia says as she walks over to investigate the melee. She explains that raising chickens on an urban farm isn’t a particularly profitable exercise, but that they keep them around for educational reasons.
“The farm hosts a non-profit called City Growers that brings kindergarten through grade 12 youth up to the farm for educational visits. And it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart because I was born and raised in Manhattan. Among New York City kids, the luckiest of us have parents who actually take the time to shop with us and teach us the difference between junk food and quality ingredients, but even that’s rare. So a lot of kids come up here and they don’t identify any of it as food – to them it’s just plants. But they all eat eggs and seeing the chickens helps them realise that it’s a working farm.” Anastasia knew next to nothing about farming – urban or otherwise – until about five years ago.
Working in the hospitality industry at the time, she became fascinated by a plan to create a small urban farm on top of two shipping containers in the backyard of a pizzeria in nearby Bushwick. After volunteering to help to build those gardens but finding that neither she nor anyone else involved really knew what they were doing, she enlisted the help of a college friend, Gwen Schantz, whom she knew was an avid green thumb and urban farmer. Anastasia had also recently read an article in New York magazine about a guy named Ben Flanner, who had built a 6,000- foot rooftop farm on top of a building in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Greenpoint.
She emailed him about trading visits at each other’s farms, and it quickly became obvious that the trio shared the same vision – to turn urban farming into a fiscally sustainable business and to prove that there is a model for rooftop urban agriculture that supports commerce and job creation. The next year, their idea took shape with their first rooftop farm on top of an almost century-old building in Queens. And in 2012, they built a second, larger farm atop a building in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard – where Anastasia and I stand today. “It’s increasingly important to offer green space in cities, and building a public park space in a city can take a long time and a lot of money,” she explains. “But operating this as a private commercial business has allowed us the freedom to offer that service to the community.”
You’d be pressed to find better views of Manhattan than from this rooftop, which provides glimpses of several of New York’s key landmarks, including the Willamsburg and Manhattan Bridges, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, and the recently completed Freedom Tower. Ensconced in the industrial ambience of the Navy Yard, the 65,000-square foot rooftop garden’s perimeter is lined with a procession of tall, sturdy sunflowers, which, aside from looking pretty, act as a windblock to protect the other plants from the impact of erosion and desiccation of the soil.
Producing more than 22,000 kg of organically grown vegetables each year between the two farms, Brooklyn Grange now also employs a full-time staff of ten and sells its fare via three channels: wholesale, retail (at farmers markets) and community-supported agriculture. The cohort also hosts regular events including yoga, compost workshops and detox nutrition workshops, as well as the occasional wedding. “Our population here in New York is becoming denser and now more than half the world’s population lives in cities, so we have to be smarter about how we use our urban spaces and become polyfunctional,” Anastasia explains of their ethos. “We have to do the spaces justice and utilise them in a way that is functional and efficient.”
Cultivating a local community is essential to the Brooklyn Grange mission (they also use organic cocoa husks from their Navy Yard neighbours, Mast Brothers, as one of their mulches). In addition to the City Growers program, they also host an initiative that helps asylum seekers, who are awaiting legal asylum status, to integrate into the community and acclimate to American culture by taking part in Brooklyn Grange’s different farming activities. Anastasia says that, personally, what was once her greatest challenge is what she now considers her greatest success: the idea that they will never do things perfectly. “It’s that realisation that we’re still a work in progress and that there’ll always be a learning curve ”
Her hope is that everyone, especially our younger generations, will have the opportunity to learn to appreciate the beauty of real food – something she’s grateful to her mother for teaching her. “Take pleasure in what you’re eating,” she says. “You have the opportunity to experience real joy three times a day. And if you really do take pleasure in that experience, you’ll find that your body thanks you for it.”