Eagle Street: The Commercial Organic Farm—on a Brooklyn Roof

08 Dec, 2013

It’s atop a building in the most populous borough of the most populous city in the US, and the last place you would ever expect to find a commercial organic farm. Even Annie Novak, co-founder and head farmer at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, can still be surprised by the sight. “You walk into a warehouse, go up these stairs and through a courtyard,” Novak told Organic Connections. “By the time you get to the roof it really is the last thing you’d expect to see: a 6,000-square-foot field blooming with flowers and full of ripe vegetables. I myself am often taken aback with how beautiful it is because you literally come around a ninety degree turn and you’re sort of blindsided by this just postcard view—it is so, so lovely. It re-inspires me every time I’m up there.”

The farm is now in its fifth year of business. It was one of the first of its kind, and Novak thinks very likely it was the first. “It was a pioneering project and had a lot of impact because we were the first commercial iteration of this kind of concept,” she continued. “A lot of people had grown plants on their roofs in containers, and many in the green roof industry had tried privately to grow vegetables in a green roof space. But as far as I can tell in the years we’ve been around,  nobody has come forward and said that they were first doing a green roof that grows vegetables and then sells them.”

The Farm

Novak was originally brought in as part of the idea of installing a vegetable farm instead of just a green roof consisting of plants and flowers. “In 2009 the building owner Broadway Stages had hired a green roof company called Good Green,” Novak recounted. “I was brought into the conversation as part of a brainstorming process for an agricultural base instead of just a green roof.

“It doesn’t change the installation too much—it still has green roof layers in terms of the membranes that they install, and still uses a green roof soil media. What changed was the composition of the soil. We upped the amount of compost that was in the mix, which increases the water retention. It adds to the weight which is something to worry about, but it also allows you to grow things like a tomato instead of a succulent.”

Today the farm is thriving. “We grow about sixteen different crops, and within each many varieties,” Novak continued. “The primary one we grow is chili peppers for a number of reasons but mostly because of the green roof; we do our best to not irrigate and I’ve found that in years of growing different things that chilies are one of the crops that use the least amount of water while still doing really well horticulturally.”

The Customers

As one might guess, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm’s clients are the ones closest by. “We have always made an effort to work with people local to us,” Novak explained. “We have a Sunday market that we have open during volunteering hours. When you’re volunteering you’re also welcome to shop at our little market; it’s right there on the farm.

“There’s a lot of Brooklyn pride involved what we do which wasn’t something I was anticipating but it’s amazing how much the Brooklyn ‘brand’ has really taken off within the last five years. So for whatever it’s worth we sell mostly to neighbors. We get a lot of international visitors to the farm, but in a way it’s still local because they come right up to the roof, purchase it and mostly they enjoy it in their hotel rooms before flying home.”  

Chefs always appreciate the flavor of extremely fresh produce—and the farm has tapped into that market as well. “We also have relationships with chefs within a couple of miles of the farm,” Novak said. “It’s important to us that our deliveries are as local as possible, mostly because there’s a huge amount of local food available in New York. What separates us and makes our product very special is that we’re literally picking it and an hour later we’re bicycling it over to you.”

Education

But the commercial operation is by no means the only reason for the farm’s existence. “We run a really strong education program,” Novak explained. “We have dozens and dozens of schools coming up during the growing season, and then in the summer we have camps coming up.

“For the most part the kids are so savvy. Part of the reason is that the teachers that would make the effort to make a fieldtrip here are ones that are doing a really good job of integrating this kind of education to their classrooms. When we bring the children up we always have them look at the skyline because we’re right against the New York skyline; we’ll ask them to identify a couple of buildings and everyone recognizes the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Then we’ll ask them to turn around and identify a couple of plants, and much of the time I’m surprised by how many they can.”

There are, however, humorous episodes with the city kids encountering a slice of what is really country life. “A funny moment happened a couple of years ago when we had a kid up,” Novak recalled. “He was walking across the farm and noticed birds and got really excited. ‘I want to go visit them! It’s great that you guys have these pigeons!’ And I was like, ‘Those are chickens,   actually.”

Uniquely Qualified

Years ago Novak herself became enamored of farming through a rather humorous incident. “When I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, I had the opportunity to travel to West Africa,” Novak recalled. “While I was there I met a chocolate farmer’s son who offered to take me to visit his father’s chocolate farm. I love to eat it so I went. While I was out in the jungle with him there was sort of a funny moment when I was complaining about how hot I was, and I wanted to stop walking around and see the chocolate trees and go home. He was laughing at me because we were actually in chocolate trees the whole time; I just hadn’t recognized them.

“It was one of those light bulb moments where you realize you don’t know very much about these things. I decided kind of that moment to start learning more about agriculture, and ended up writing my thesis on chocolate agriculture. When I came back to the States, finished my degree and graduated, I was lucky enough to get an internship at the New York Botanical Garden. I continued pursuing farming and horticulture from there.”

Spreading the Goodness

From her rooftop oasis, Novak is reaching far and wide to strengthen local agriculture. “From the chilies that we grow we make a really great hot sauce called Awesome Sauce,” Novak said. “We’ve been selling it for about two years now it’s got a pretty loyal fan base. We’re hoping to find ways to expand that label and products by working with farmers upstate to supplement the chilies that we grow, so it will be a partnership.

“That’s something that we’ve always been focused on, trying to find ways to support the farmers in our regions through our branding and through our community. It’s great to be an urban farmer but we’re part of the larger network of agriculture.”

But it’s mainly through demonstration and influence that Novak hopes to make the largest impact. “Growing food is something that happens all over the world; a lot of people are involved in it and it’s something that sustains us,” Novak concluded. “We know that for our size we will never be able to feed all of Brooklyn, let alone all of New York. So at the end of the day what really resonates with me is the impact that we have as a site. When people can see the process of food being grown, participate in it and educate themselves enough, they move out into the world and shop in other places as educated consumers.

“I feel strongly that we make up for our size by being a lighthouse. If you’re the person guiding the ships to shore and teaching them a little bit about the food system, you have a much larger impact than your actual square footage.”

For more information on Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, check out their site at www.rooftopfarms.org.

For more information on Annie Novak, please visit http://annienovak.wordpress.com/about.

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