City Garden on the Rooftops of NYC - City Garden And Farming
3.13.12

Urban farming. By now most people are familiar with the term or have at least heard it mentioned. It’s a movement that began to spread in NYC 4 years ago and has not stopped. But why stop something so innovative and beneficial?

The first time I realized the real impact of urban farming was when I was volunteering at the Brooklyn Grange last summer. A group of us were weeding tomato plants feverishly when Anastasia Plakias, one of the co-founders of Brooklyn Grange, came up to our group and told us that one of the children she was giving a tour to had asked “Where do the chicken nuggets grow?”  Half of us laughed and the other half just looked surprised. Anastasia explained that she is not surprised and a lot of the children she shows around the roof really have no idea where there food comes from. They gazed bewilderingly at the honeybees, carrots and turnips popping out of the ground and are delighted to see tomatoes just floating on big, billowing bushes.

Although I did not come to the farm that morning to learn about what kids thought about food and farming, it immediately grabbed my interest. I had come to the farm for the selfish reason of escaping the city. I had volunteered at various rooftop farms before, but the reason I decided to explore Brooklyn Grange in the middle of September was to escape the sadness of another summer ending and to try and take myself away from the insanity that is our city. I was granted both these wishes. To get to the farm in Queen, you have to take an elevator or stairs up to the top of a 6-story warehouse and climb a small narrow set of stairs to the sprawling 40,000-foot organic farm. Getting up to the farm is an experience in itself. You pass through one empty lifeless room to the next and are finally outside, where there is nothing but life and energy.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I arrived. I had not called anyone beforehand and did not email, either. I walked through the rows of greens until Anastasia came up to me. I was put to work immediately, no questions asked. I introduced myself to the other volunteer farmers and began weeding tomato plants. Oh, was it satisfying. It was much more stress relieving than any yoga class I have been to, and I have been to a lot. I rolled up my sleeves and sweat was beading down my face, but I just didn’t want to stop. The satisfaction of getting fresh air and pulling weed after weed until it was clean was just too satisfying.

We stopped for lunch, which Anastasia made for us. The lunch consisted of fresh tomatoes and basil from the farm, organic whole wheat bread and cheddar cheese. She cut thick slices of tomato and generously topped in with chucks of cheese and basil, which she picked from long stalk with the roots still on. We ate the sandwiches right there on the roof, inhaling every bite, sweaty and happy.

With my fingers caked in mud, I shoveled in bite after bite, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if city kids could have this type of experience?” I left Brooklyn Grange that day with a tan, a full stomach and a relaxed feeling – something I did not expect to have in the middle of September. What I took away with me was a genuine interest in farming, which coincided with my interest in child nutrition. I began to think more and more about the comment the child made about chicken nuggets growing in the ground. It became less funny and more worrisome.

Every child should know where there food comes from. Every child should experience growing their own food and the patience and hard work it take to get the food from the ground to the table. I guarantee that if a child develops an interest in farming, they are more likely to want to eat a carrot than potato chips.

The access to urban rooftop farming in our city is so easy and welcoming. Locals and schools just need to jump at the opportunity. I think more and more, we are seeing an emphasis on teaching children about nutrition and food – but wouldn’t it be great to have a child volunteer a few times a week at a farm?

In 2012, we already have a few rooftop farms in our city and it is continually growing. Although Brooklyn Grange is considered the largest rooftop farm in the world, a smaller one, Eagle Street Farm, gets certainly as much attention.

Eagle Street Farm in Greenpoint Brooklyn was founded by two of the pioneers of urban farming in our city, Annie Novak and Ben Flanner. Ben Flanner is a co-founder of Brooklyn Grange, as well. The Eagle Street Farm produces hyper-local produce for the community. The farm operates a small CSA program. Eagle Street is a great place to visit after brunch at Brooklyn Label or a walk by the waterfront. If you do not have time to volunteer that day, pick up some fresh vegetables or eggs and check out the chickens and rabbits on the roof.

Annie Novak founded the program Growing Chefs in 2005. The program is in partnership with Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Eagle Street Farm. It is designed to connect people from ‘field to fork’. Growing Chefs focuses on youth and raising a generation of healthier eaters and more conscious minded citizens. There are many classes for kids and schools hosted at Brooklyn Botanical gardens and at the farm on Eagle Street. See some of the upcoming events here.

There are many opportunities to get involved in your local urban farm. I cannot think of a better way to spend a Saturday than to get some sun and work with a group of dedicated people who are interested in preserving the health of our city and our youth.

Mike Bitlonen is the VP of Red Jacket Orchards and has a goal of creating orchards on urban rooftops.  They are guessing they can harvest 200 trees on a large roof.  They are looking for a bunch of volunteers to make this plan a reality.  Now is the time to become involved if you are interested. Contact Mike Bitlonen at mbiltonen@redjacketorchards.com directly. There are many options out there for both children and adults to become involved in their local urban farm community.

Below are links to help you get started in urban farming:

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