Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rooftop farming, and how hipsters help urban agriculture

Eat it, don't tweet it.

The farmer’s market at Union Square Park was packed this weekend.  Local and artisanal foods are popular.  They've been turned into a status symbol by urban hipsters, as this satirical music video, “Eat it, don’t tweet it,” attests. Foodies, farmers markets and CSAs all play important roles in the evolving food policy discussion in NYC.


The most common arguments in favor of producing more local and regional food include freshness, taste, and better nutrition. Also, there are the social and economic justice benefits of more widespread distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables in lower income areas with more bodegas and fewer supermarkets, sometimes known as food deserts.  Some other reasons for getting more of our food from within NYC and NY State are less commonly discussed and deserve closer attention.

People who are concerned about climate change and energy security recognize that NYC’s food supply, like that of other US cities, is highly dependent on oil.  Our national industrial agriculture system is completely reliant on long distance shipping of food.  It’s widely said that the average distance from farm to table is about 1,500 miles by truck and train.

Since we’re at the end of the age of cheap oil, our food system will have to change. World oil demand keeps growing, but depletion of existing giant oilfields is just barely being replaced by new sources, which tend to be mostly from more difficult, dangerous and expensive sources. The price of oil and liquid fuels will be increasingly volatile and generally higher. The US food system will have to contend with higher prices.

Growing more of our food closer to where it is consumed, with much lower transportation costs, will become more important for economic reasons. If a 50 pound bag of potatoes from Oregon costs only $7.50, how much money is being made in transporting it across the country? If the increased cost from higher fuel prices were to exceed the slim profit margin for shipping it, the price would have to go up to include the extra costs.  We can only guess when farmers raising potatoes in upstate NY or Pennslyvania would be able to compete with western farms.  If anyone can refer me to an agricultural policy or advocacy in NY State that is actively studying this, please let me know.

But the timing is less important than the general direction.  City officials, notably NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, have joined food policy advocates in calling for more food being grown in the City and the surrounding region.   How can we speed up this process to create more local economic activity now, and building the agricultural capacity of NY State so we'll have it when we need it?

Getting more people in NYC environmental, progressive and food circles to start discussing these not very hip and trendy issues seems like a reasonable place to start.

We can weave them into more comfortable topics, like rooftop farming, which is just getting started in NYC. Because it’s such an unfamiliar concept, it has great potential to change public perception about how and where food is grown. Some will ask: why grow food on the roofs of city buildings when we can just truck it in from southern California? One answer is that as the price of transporting food from far away gets higher, food grown with very low transportation costs will become more cost-effective.  And it can create economic opportunity for New Yorkers.

Brooklyn Grange Farm, LIC, Queens

We put a safe, pro-business spin on urban rooftop farming and put the following piece in the LIC Partnership e-newsletter.  It inspired virtually identical stories days later in the NY Daily News and The Real Deal real estate blog, spreading the unfamiliar concept to many thousands. We got only a few calls, but as more building owners decide to make the move, it will become increasingly common.

Commercial Farming Businesses Want to Rent Your Roof

Until recently, the roof has been the only floor of your building that can’t be rented out. We want to inform you that you can now collect income from your roof, and gain the marketing benefits of a highly visible green initiative, by renting it to a rooftop farming business. Please contact these three firms directly.


Brooklyn Grange is an established rooftop farming business that is expanding and seeking long-term leases on roof space in the Western Queens and North Brooklyn area. They are looking for roofs with at least 30K square feet of unobstructed flat space, particularly on older buildings with concrete rooftops and many internal columns. Landlords can expect to receive rent as well as up to $100K in real estate tax abatement, and do not have to invest any initial capital in the installation of the green roof facility. Green roofs are environmentally friendly and can extend the life of your roof by over 100% while reducing heating and cooling costs in your building. For more information about turning your roof into an income-generating agricultural facility, visit www.brooklyngrangefarm.com or call 718-404-2023.

Gotham Greens is seeking 30K+ square feet of industrial/manufacturing rooftop space to expand its commercial scale greenhouse operations. Gotham Greens currently operates the city’s first commercial scale rooftop greenhouse and supplies its fresh produce to NYC retailers and restaurants year round. For more information, please see www.gothamgreens.com or contact info@gothamgreens.com.

BrightFarms designs, finances, builds and operates hydroponic greenhouses at or near grocery retailers, cutting time, distance, and cost from the produce supply chain. BrightFarms enables supermarkets to revolutionize their supply chains in a way that is better for their profits and for the planet. The company signed its first contract with McCaffrey’s Market in October 2011 and plans to build its first three commercial greenhouses in 2012. BrightFarms considers three types of sites: new construction, retrofit rooftops, and at grade (parking structure or spare ground level land). Prospective sites must be at least one acre in size. BrightFarms is especially interested in building on sites with waste heat sources that they can recover for their greenhouses. For more information, visit www.brightfarms.com.

Probably only a small fraction of NYC’s food can be grown within NYC. A report by Jon Bosak of TC Local suggests that NY State itself may not have the capacity of being self-sufficient in food. But we have to start somewhere. Here's some resources.

Article on rooftop farming potential -

Can NY State feed itself? - http://tclocal.org/2009/06/

Comprehensive Look at Urban Agriculture Policy in 16 Leading US Cities - http://bit.ly/unYoub

A video about farming in NYC - http://vimeo.com/32758897

A site about NYC food policy -http://www.urbanfoodpolicy.com/   

NE Food, a site about regional food policy -http://www.nefood.org/  

"Fifty Million Farmers," an article in which Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute explains why we will need, yes, fifty million farmers. -