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A Farm Grows in Brooklyn
A Farm Grows in Brooklyn

Annie Novak was used to the hard work of farming. She was used to toiling away among the rows of produce in the early morning hours, before the rest of the world awoke. But farming with a city view is something different.

Farming in wide, expansive fields with fresh air and nothing but crops as far as the eye can see feels like “being on a boat in the middle of the ocean,” says Novak. But these days, she focuses her energy, time and hard work on a smaller space. She’s made a farming oasis high above the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn with her very own rooftop farm.

After years of agriculture work and training in more than nine countries, including work with West African chocolate farmers, Novak co-founded the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, in 2009. Although she misses the fresh, clean air and wide open space, she calls urban farming “some of the most exciting farming I’ve ever done.”

With her long, dirty-blonde locks, Novak was named “Cutest Organic Farmer” by the online magazine Huffington Post a few years back. But looks are the last thing on her mind when she’s tending to her 6,000-square-foot elevated garden full of organic vegetables, which sits on the roof of a warehouse near the shoreline of the East River separating Brooklyn from Manhattan.

Novak, along with other farm staffers and local volunteers, labors away cultivating hot peppers, spinach, radishes, kale and other produce on a patch of earth that, on its surface, isn’t much different than any other farm. But when the farmers at Eagle Street look up, it’s the sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline that greet them. The spectacle of the Chrysler building sits just beyond the sight of their crops. City and country life combine here, and some say it’s the best of both worlds.

It Takes a City

A dedicated environmentalist, Novak often found that people’s eyes would glaze over when she spoke of environmental issues. But when she was working at farmers’ markets in New York City, she realized that food was a popular topic. Many people were curious and concerned about where their food came from, so Novak thought that by getting involved in food and farming, she might be able to broaden the conversation and others’ concerns for additional environmental issues.

“A lot of the folks that came and shopped with us were starting to ask intelligent questions about the way the food was grown and where it was grown,” she says. “They were starting to ask questions like you would ask if you were a farmer.” Maybe these city folk wanted a way to connect with the land, she thought. The seeds for her rooftop farm were sown.

She quickly realized that starting a rooftop farm the size of Eagle Street requires a great deal more than adding soil and hoping the rafters hold. Eagle Street staff worked with Goode Greene, a green roof design and installation firm, to create the base for the farm, which included separation fabrics and drainage mats. The green roof can hold more than an inch and a half of rainwater. The rainwater helps the crops, of course, but also assists in cooling the warehouse down below, which is home to Broadway Stages, a sound stage company. After the green roof base was installed, a mixture of compost, rock particulates and shale was brought in by crane.

Although urban and rooftop farming feel like modern phenomena, Novak says that New Yorkers have been putting plants on their roofs for decades. “Urban farms have been documented here since the First World War,” she says. Those gardens were called Victory Gardens back then.

Sarah C. Rich, a California-based writer and the author of the book Urban Farms, calls Victory Gardens “the greatest historical examples of people growing their own food.” At the time, these gardens helped with the war effort and reduced the pressure on the food supply, but they also helped everyday people feel empowered, something that is echoed in today’s urban farm movement.

The goal of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a little different than gardens of the past. “What I noticed, and what I find interesting,” says Novak, “was that gardening movements have historically been about supplying food when people don’t have access to it. Today, it’s not that they necessarily lack for food, it’s that they want that sense of empowerment and knowledge that comes from urban farming.”

The Function of a Farm

Urban farms come in all shapes and sizes, with different schemes for making it all work. Like Eagle Street, some farms exist to produce food for restaurants or farmers’ markets. Other farms focus on education and community initiatives; Eagle Street also runs programs in this vein. Whether the goal is to feed the mind, the body, or a bit of both, “I don’t think that in any way negates their usefulness in cities,” says Rich.

In Rich’s book she travels to dozens of urban farms, from Brooklyn Grange, another New York City-based rooftop farm, to Ghost Town Farm, a ground-level homestead among the often-turbulent streets of Oakland, California. Rich won’t pin point an exact location where she believes the modern movement began, but she says it’s far from a fleeting trend, and it’s not something that only happens in Brooklyn or on the West Coast.

Rich points to Will Allen’s farm, Growing Power, as a role model for the modern movement. His farm was founded in Wisconsin, far from New York and California. Growing Power is situated in an area of Milwaukee considered a food desert — an area with little or no access to fresh food. Allen has implemented impressive farming techniques at Growing Power, including hydroponic farming, fish farming, and multilayers of growing systems that save space and are often looked to as the future of urban farming.

Finding Your Own Farming Oasis

You don’t need to start your own multifaceted farming system to get in on the urban farming movement. “It’s hard to find a city these days that doesn’t have one community garden, if not more,” says Rich. “There are ways to plug into existing projects.” You can also start small projects in your own backyard, rooftop or windowsill. Rich started a container garden while working on her book and found the experience of growing leafy greens “thrilling.”

If you’re new to gardening and farming, sprouts and leafy greens are a great way to start, says Novak. “It’s easier than you think,” she adds. “If you’ve ever walked down a city street and seen the number of weeds pushing their way up through the concrete, [then you’ve seen] the sheer tenacity of plants.” If you plan on going beyond a small container or windowsill garden, Novak reminds would-be farmers to have your space inspected. Rooftops need to hold the weight of the farm, and ground-level gardeners need to think about soil safety.

However you plan to do your urban planting, remember: “Plants have survived for millions of years,” says Novak. “So as long as you’re providing the basic things they need, you really cannot fail, and if you do, the great thing about agriculture is that every season you get a new chance to try again and improve your skills.” Gloria Dawson