Rooftop Farming

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New Yorkers are famous for describing distance not in the number of miles needed to travel but in the number of city blocks.


So ask rooftop urban farmer Ben Flanner about the elevation at which he grows vegetables, and instead of an answer calculated in feet you get the Big Apple variation on a theme: “We have a 1-acre farm in Queens, which is seven floors high, and a 1.5-acre farm in Brooklyn, which is 12 stories high.”


Flanner is the head farmer and president of the Brooklyn Grange Farm, an intensive green-roof operation. An industrial engineer with a background in business and marketing, he made the leap into farming after working on a marketing project at a winery in Australia.


“Once I was back in New York, my interest slowly but steadily increased, and I began reading books, visiting farms and planning the switch to begin organic farming,” he says.


In 2009, he cofounded Eagle Street Rooftop Farms, the first rooftop soil farm in New York, and then went on to start the Brooklyn Grange. In two years, that business has yielded more than 40,000 pounds of vegetables, herbs and honey, which is sold through restaurants, farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture operations. 


Brooklyn Grange has received awards, including the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities’ Award of Excellence in 2011.


Everyone is welcome to hear Flanner’s talk to the Connecticut Horticultural Society on Thursday, Nov. 15, at Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Dr., in West Hartford. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Cost is $10; CHS members and full-time students attend for free.


Flanner will describe the farm and logistics involved, including the crops grown and how the produce is sold. Not surprisingly, the biggest challenges of raising vegetables on roofs involve wind and soil.


“We grow (plants) in compost mixed with stones, which is very similar to loamy soil,” he says. “Wind can stress the plants over time, and also causes us to take extra time in staking and providing extra support for many crops. The lesser depth (of the soil) plays into staking and supporting, and also into the importance of soil maintenance and nutrient replenishment—composting!”


By the way, Flanner, who was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wis., and earned his degree from the University of Wisconsin, doesn’t try to pass for a native New Yorker. He currently is developing sustainable energy technology that he says is “fueled by friendly, Midwestern charm and the elongated ‘a’ in the Wisconsin accent.”


The Connecticut Horticultural Society is a statewide, nonprofit organization dedicated to the appreciation of gardening. Visit www.cthort.org or call 860-529-8713. 


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