Farming on the Roof in Brooklyn

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On-the-roofIt’s an unassuming facade on the edge of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Housing film and television production studios, this multi-story building is often full of surprises. But for city children (and their parents or caregivers) who don’t get out to the country often, if ever, the top of this spot offers a great afternoon field trip and small slice of heaven.
You’d Never Know

My daughter’s 2nd grade teacher at our local public school, P.S. 261, had arranged for an early summer trip, to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, a member of the Rooftop farms organization. We were met by volunteers Andrew, Alice, Robin and Emma, who allowed about 25 of us, to venture through the building maze up to a path of colorful rubber mats and out onto the roof. The farm is four years old and run by about 15 workers along with volunteer members of the community.

Rooftop-CompostOnce out there, we were greeted by a combination of an enviable river view and mid-town Manhattan across the way, as well as some rather large containers of rotting organic foodstuff–in the form of compost.

We learned right away that rooftops provide key weather needed for farming. We also discovered that in NYC, the sewage system is about 100 years old – and not really big enough for all the things that end up in it. When it’s really raining it overflows, sometimes allowing dirty water to get into the rivers, but here on the rooftop farm, we found out the water goes into the plants and is absorbed by all. In a dream world, these farmers would love to have rooftop farms all over the city.

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The Magic Blanket

Rooftop-ClimbOur guide Andrew explained the rooftop was covered in 200-thousand pounds of soil that was brought onto the roof by cranes. That soil acts as a “magic blanket”–blocking cold air from what’s below it in winter and keeping the building cooler in the summer–saving money for the business underneath, not to mention all the wonderful food they yield.

We climbed a short ladder and found rows and rows of crops, including basil, lettuces, radishes, Swiss chard, peppers, beans, herbs and edible flowers.

You-Plant-It

Rooftop-KidsPlantingThe kids learned about the lifecycle of the plants from soil to the seed to the final plant bursting through. They learned it takes a lot of energy for the seed to sprout through the soil. On this day, each child planted Nosturtiums in small containers. For some of the kids on the roof, this was their first time ever planting an actual seed. Our guides explained to the kids that the natural sugar starts to leave the fruits and veggies the minute they’re picked–so the kids began to get the idea that if they wanted the best fruits or vegetables, they need to get ’em as soon as possible after that happens.

Cool Composting

Andrew told us about compost-what goes in/what comes out and what kind of difference it can make. He said only one percent of the population is familiar with composting. And he then went on to teach the big words of the day: “bio-degradable, de-composition and organic.” He explained how everything that goes into composting should be organic–and that it would lead to soil that’s healthy and full of nutrients. The process takes 3-6 months, and a team of de-composers (including worms, flies, maggots (baby flies), beetles, and the key players-bacteria. Andrew picked up a handful of dirt and told the kids that handful alone contained more than 7 billion bacteria. Big kids points on the gross/cool factor.

Rooftop-FarmViewFrom there, we moved on to beekeeping– where we learned things ranging from the key homing properties of the queen bee to what happens in the event that the queen bee dies. When asked where they would get a new one, the kids suggested that they could order a new one off the internet. Or, as they soon learned, they could call a beekeeper and have them bring a new one over. They also learned about worker bees and drone bees. And the piece de resistance, came with learning they’d almost all eaten bee throw-up–in the form of honey. (Ewww!! Yum…)

The farm tries to focus on different products every year—with this years “focus” on peppers—and a goal to make a great hot sauce.

They also keep chickens (and one rooster) for some minimal eggs, and more for their poop–which is always good for a laugh when it comes to second graders.

Special group arrangements can be made for kids on weekdays. On Sundays, anyone can come visit, and help out with the farming, as well as buy the crops.

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9 Replies to “Farming on the Roof in Brooklyn”

  1. Great article, and sounds like great fun for the kids — as well as educational. I also learned that I guess we are part of the 1% — the one percent that compost, that is. Good for the plants and flowers, and the few things we grow. (I don’t think our roof would hold tons of dirt — plus it’s slanted!)

  2. Fascinating story! Great trip for the youngsters…and a peerfect learning experience while having fun. I’d like to visit on a not-so-hot Sunday and maybe even help with the farming and bring home some crops.

  3. this was really wonderful. totally enjoyed the story and i am intrigued by the whole massiveness of the garden itself. who gets to eat the veggies?

  4. I’ve heard musical references to a stairway to heaven, but had never before come across the concept of a stairway to a farm.

  5. Anyone has the ability to join in the farming, and purchase the crops–typical hours are all day Sunday. But others can be arranged…

  6. I loved learning about the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. It is fascinating to think of that all going on up there and it is a great story about how making creative use of space can have multiple benefits health and environment wise. And a great view to boot!

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