Planting Rooftop Farms Takes Off in New York, Other Urban Areas

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

NEW YORK Like many a farmer, Ben Flanner rises with the sun. Like most crops, his need water and weeding -- bright tomatoes and fragrant basil, delicate nasturtiums, mottled melons and black eggplants, mustard greens, puntarelle, peas, beets, beans, kale -- about 30 fruits and vegetables in all, and then there are the herbs.

But his farm is not like most farms.

His farm is three stories off the ground.

Beyond it is a sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline. Below it is a TV and film soundstage.

Flanner's 6,000-square-foot farm is on a rooftop in the industrial Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. He hopes it can become a model for others who want to grow food but lack space.

The problem in cities such as New York is always land. It's expensive and valuable, and it never makes more sense to plant than build apartments. But from a bird's-eye view, much of the city is rooftops. Most roofs are flat. They get direct sunlight, a rare commodity in a densely built place.

In recent years, enthusiasm has grown for green roofs, hailed for harnessing rainwater that can overwhelm urban sewage systems, and keeping buildings warmer in winter and cooler in summer, lowering electricity use.

But amid increasing interest in fresh, local food, this season seems to herald the era of the rooftop farm. It's as though somewhere someone decreed, "Roofs shall not lie fallow." And a colony of entrepreneurs, residents, schoolteachers and restaurateurs set to work.

"All right, open the floodgates!" Flanner says to a volunteer assistant holding a hose on a recent morning.

"Sweat these babies down!" says Flanner, speaking of the mustard seeds just laid into the earth. A Brooklyn restaurant ordered 10 pounds of mustard greens to be delivered next month. Mustard greens take exactly one month to grow. Flanner is working on deadline.

Flanner, 28, considered going to the country to farm -- only to realize he didn't want to leave the city, he just wanted to be a farmer. He quit his job at E-Trade and partnered with Annie Novak, 26, who had farming experience. The green-roof design firm Goode Green agreed to do the installation for free and the production company Broadway Stages agreed to pay for it, as an experiment on the roof of its Greenpoint building.

It took two days for cranes to haul 200,000 pounds of soil made of lightweight expanded shale, like crushed brick, onto the roof. It cost $10 per square foot, or $60,000. Now it is up to Flanner and Novak to make a profitable farm.

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