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

Flanner harvests in the mornings, barters vegetables for lunch at local eateries, and in the afternoons bikes dozens of pounds of produce to restaurants that have commissioned them. He and Novak run a Sunday farm stand.

Across the country, a handful of commercial-scale rooftop farm start-ups have fashioned a rough formula for profit: It involves the distance vegetables must travel from farm to table, their consequent price and quality, and a city's food culture and population density.

New York City seems to calculate high on the benefits, and hundreds of other rooftop gardens are in the works, some even large-scale.

In the Jamaica section of Queens, the start-up Gotham Greens just signed a lease to build a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse on a roof and grow 30 tons of greens and herbs for sale. The company has a $1.4 million budget and will grow hydroponically, using recirculated water and dissolved nutrients to produce enormous yield without soil.

"We see it as a compelling business opportunity," says co-founder Viraj Puri, who hopes to expand to larger rooftops and farm an acre or two at a time.

In the South Bronx, an affordable-housing developer is designing a 10,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse for an eight-story building to be run by a local food co-op.

On the Upper West Side, the Manhattan School for Children is building a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse both for food production and environmental education.

And this spring on the Lower East Side, Amber Kusmenko, 27, an animator, and her boyfriend hauled 4,000 pounds of soil to the roof of their co-op to build a 200-square-foot farm. "It feels like a big accomplishment," says Kusmenko of the cucumbers and bush beans she has been harvesting.

The biggest obstacle is cost. A structural engineer must assess the roof's ability to bear weight. A base layer of heavy-duty plastic may be laid on the roof, and it may be retrofitted for drainage or even outfitted with a greenhouse -- though plenty of food can grow cheaply in a Toys R Us kiddie pool or a basic wood box.

Other aspects can be difficult, too, such as providing the amount of water plants need under direct sunlight, dealing with high winds, and hauling soil and other materials upstairs.

The benefits are the sun, the ability to custom-engineer the soil for each type of plant, and the lack of pests -- snails, insects and rats, on ground level in the city.

"Our biggest pests were the squirrels and the landlady," says Kerry Trueman, 49, who kept an edible garden on the roof of her West Village apartment until her landlady shut it down.

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