The Rooftop Farm

by Sophia Kelley MFA '10

The Rooftop Farm

Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is an unlikely spot for a farm. Not only is it dense with buildings and asphalt, but the soil here is soaked with toxins from decades of heavy industry.

Yet in a sprawling warehouse near the East River, Annie Novak '05 hustles to prepare fresh herbs and other produce to sell at her farm's market day. Novak wears lightning-bolt earrings as she energetically instructs the staff and volunteers, welcomes visitors, and sets up produce for sale. The basil tops, kale, salad greens, and radishes were all grown right here, on the 6,000-square-foot farm on the roof of the building—Novak's neat solution to the problems of both space and soil.

Novak started the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in 2009. She says the original idea was simple: to sell organic produce to local restaurants. But her vision expanded as she realized the community needed more. The farm now serves as a place where Brooklynites can gather to get their hands dirty and learn how to grow their own produce in urban spaces.

When a neighborhood mom and her young son arrive to check out the farm, Novak wastes no time enlisting the extra help. "Show me your green thumbs," she encourages. Emerging into the hazy morning sun and ascending a metal staircase, visitors step out among 15 divided rows of burgeoning growth. A group of volunteers harvests baby spinach with Manhattan's sweeping skyline in full view. "The whole beauty of urban agriculture is how it can connect people through volunteerism and education," Novak says.


1.) Soil
The first question a rooftop farmer must answer: Is the roof strong enough to hold all that dirt? Eagle Street's growing medium weighs 200,000 pounds. It came from Pennsylvania and is made of compost, rock particles, and shale, which allows for water retention and air circulation. Most important, it's lightweight.

2.) Green Roof System
Beneath the soil, a two-inch-tall green roof system promotes good drainage. The base includes a layer of black plastic to protect the roof, a layer of plastic cups to hold rainwater, and a layer that stops the soil from getting into the cups. The system can hold an inch and a half of rainwater, reducing storm-water runoff and helping to cool the warehouse below.

3.) Bees
The farm keeps three beehives in partnership with a local urban beekeeper. Though the majority of the farm's crops don't require pollinators, the bees forage Brooklyn's trees and weeds to make a unique urban honey, which is sold on market days. Novak says there's another benefit to caring for 35,000 bees: "They've taught me the importance of being calm."

4.) Chickens
A small flock of chickens spends its days in a mobile coop, eating bugs and spreading nutrient-rich fertilizer among the produce.

5.) Rabbits
Four rabbits eagerly eat plant scraps and provide more manure for fertilization.

6.) Compost
Any plant scraps that the rabbits and chickens don't eat get composted, as does food waste contributed by neighbors and area chefs. The result returns vital nutrients and microfauna to the green roof's growing medium.

7.) Crops
Not everything can grow on a bright, hot, windy roof. Since the soil on the roof is fairly shallow, certain crops (winter squash, for example) don't do well. Successful crops include microgreens, kale, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.

8.) Hose
Rainwater hydrates the established plants, but delicate seedlings and transplants must be watered by hand until they acclimate to the warm, windy conditions on the roof.

9.) Restaurants
Several area restaurants feature the farm's organic produce on their menus.

10.) People
"Brooklyn is full of people who like to cook," says Novak. Connecting people to their food is one of the farm's main goals. To that end, volunteers of all skill levels are welcome to pitch in every Sunday. A more formal apprenticeship program lets participants shadow a farmer in all aspects of the work, and weekly workshops and children's educational programs help community members get in touch with the land … while up on the roof.