Recommended Readings: “The Farm on the Roof” by Anastasia Cole Plakias

April 27, 2016 at 6:09 pm

The Farm on the Roof

I just finished The Farm on the Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us About Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business, Avery, April 5, 2016, by Anastasia Cole Plakias, vice president and founding partner of Brooklyn Grange.  Driven by their visionary and tenacious spirit, we’ve followed the young company from the start because of Ben Flanner, president and head farmer, whom we had followed from his prior work at Eagle Street Farm – and, in fact, supported their Brooklyn Grange Kickstarter campaign in a very small way back in 2010.  So we are always happy to hear about their happenings and I eagerly read about how Brooklyn Grange got its start and has evolved into a shining beacon for sustainable urban rooftop farming.

The Farm on the Roof

The Brooklyn Grange Flagship Farm in Long Island City, Queens, NY.

Currently spanning two rooftops, Brooklyn Grange grows an abundance of crops atop a total of 2.5 acres, producing over 50,000 lbs of organically-grown vegetables each year.  They also operate an apiary, keeping bees in over 30 naturally-managed honey bee hives, on roofs dispersed throughout New York City.  As a result of their tenacity, Brooklyn Grange is the U.S.’s leading soil-based rooftop farming and intensive greenroofing business, and the farms bear the fruits of their labor – in this case with their wholesale, retail, and CSA members literally eating the fruits of their labor!

The Farm on the Roof

Celebrating with neighbors and colleagues at a Flagship Farm event.

Pleasantly surprised by the structure of the book, I am also very impressed not only by the team’s successes, but with their whole-hearted respect and commitment to each other and the communities in which they grow at their Flagship Farm in Queens, New York and the Brooklyn Navy Yard rooftop farm.

“In 2009, a hopeful group of individuals found each other and their purpose. From backgrounds as varied as finance, hospitality, and writing, the founders of Brooklyn Grange set out to grow food on the rooftops and unused spaces of NYC. What they found was a world rich in opportunity, challenges and hard-won lessons. The Farm on the Roof tells the story of how their unique approach to entrepreneurship allowed them to turn a previously untested concept—an ecologically and financially sustainable rooftop farm—into an operating, money-making enterprise.” ~ from their publisher, Avery

Presented in an a non-lineal format, the gritty narrative draws in readers immediately with stories of the nascent ideals, inspirations and aspirations, cautions, and many struggles of the start-up from the kindred spirits of the founding members, Anastasia Cole Plakias, Gwen Schantz, and Ben Flanner, who started the business in 2009 with help from two of the owners of Roberta’s, and now operate the farms with partner Chase Emmons, who joined the team in 2011.

The Farm on the Roof

The Brooklyn Navy Yard Farm

Starting with “The Crossroads of Complicity and Conviction: Why We Left Steady Jobs to Take a Chance on a Dream” and ending with “It Takes a Village: The Partnerships That Make Us Whole,” The Farm on the Roof flows beautifully and organically – almost like a well-written novel.  Readers glean insight into each founding partner’s background, their desire to be able to work at a job they loved where they felt they could achieve measurable progress; at the end, you get a sense of knowing a good bit about their personas and commitment to each other.  In this way The Farm on the Roof offers an intimate, behind-the scenes look at the principals and the farms on a daily basis as well as the greater perspective of where they came from individually and how they would like to continue to grow as a well-knit team.

Although Anastasia does go in depth regarding vegetable crops, soil issues, farming conditions of a roof in the sky, etc., this is not so much a How-To on rooftop agriculture as it is on creating a small, sustainably-principled and run business.  This is truly a book for anyone considering starting a small business, offering insight into making sure the partners have similar ideals and goals; sharing numerous lessons learned from strategic dealings with public and private stakeholders; giving advice on the importance of record keeping and number-crunching as well as selling techniques to wary roof landlords; fostering community-focused products and programs; creating multiple revenue streams such as their events, lectures, and educational programs; and when time and money are of the essence, simply pushing through the hard times, or “just monster it” as they say.

The Farm on the Roof

Yoga atop the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Anastasia says her name may be on the book, but all of her family of Brooklyn Grange crew members contributed greatly to their story, and examples and specifics abound.  I certainly recommend The Farm on the Roof to anyone considering entering the hard-working field of urban rooftop agriculture and really to everyone considering getting into our greenroofing market with any type of a small brick and mortar business – tons of great insights, and lots of do’s and don’ts here in this inspirational book!

Here are some early words of praise:

“Brooklyn Grange represents the best of passion and purity. Every page of this book oozes the sweet nectar of creativity, community, and commercial wisdom. That the story reads like a fast-paced novel simply confirms the power of visionary sustainable businesses.” ~ Joel Salatin, Author, Farmer, and Owner of Polyface Farm

“This book answers the big, tormenting question: how can a small, organic, local farm become financially independent? It’s a blue print for the term “Sustainable Agriculture,” which requires not only that we don’t pollute Mother Earth, but that we find ways to make farming work financially in order to perpetuate and sustain it.” ~ Isabella Rossellini, Actress, Filmmaker, Author, and Conservationist

Aramis and I had the great pleasure to attend a private dinner function at the awesome Brooklyn Navy Yard rooftop farm last October at the 2015 Cities Alive Green Roof & Wall Conference, sponsored by rooflite®, whose intensive ag growing media they use at both farms.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner among colleagues and the stars and the folks at Brooklyn Grange.  If you have the opportunity to visit either of the farms, you should! Just check on availability first at their website.

The Farm on the Roof

A view of the Flagship Farm; photo courtesy of rooflite®.

And I have featured Brooklyn Grange a couple of times over the years in Haven Kiers’ and my annual Top 10 List of Hot Trends in Greenroof & Greenwall Design, most recently last year in the #9 category “Beekeeping on the Roof: Biodiversity with Pollinators.”  In 2013 Ben Flanner participated in our second biennial Greenroofs & Walls of the World™ Virtual Summit in the collaborative video “Skyrise Ag: 5 Ways to Local Food Production” with Helen Cameron, Mohamed Hage, George Irwin, Ben Flanner and Alan Joaquin.  You can watch the video here.

More info:

Visit BROOKLYN GRANGE ROOFTOP FARMS.

Read The Farm on the Roof Penguin Random House Press Release.

Buy The Farm on the Roof on Amazon.com or visit Brooklyn Grange for a list of other sellers here.  And if you’re in the neighborhood on May 15th, you can attend a book reading at KGB Bar as part of a guest-curated series on food-related readings!  For more info, contact Brooklyn Grange at info@brooklyngrangefarm.com or leave them a message at 347.670.3660.

The Farm on the Roof

An evening at the Brooklyn Navy Yard rooftop farm.

Kudos, Anastasia, on a great job telling the Brooklyn Grange story!

By Linda S. Velazquez
Greenroofs.com Publisher