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Six Stories Above Queens, a Fine Spot for a Little Farming

By DIANE CARDWELL, NY Times link to article
May 13, 2010

The stretch of Northern Boulevard near 36th Street in Long Island City, Queens, is about as far from bucolic as it gets: Old industrial buildings loom, traffic whizzes by, car dealerships line the street. Off in the distance, Manhattan’s skyscrapers glitter, the trains rumble, and the closest thing to a meadow is a small patch of plants the Parks Department has named Triangle 37.
But six stories up, on the roof of one of those old buildings, an ambitious farm began to take shape on Thursday. Called Brooklyn Grange — the group behind it settled on the name before they settled on their borough — it will grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and leafy greens amid the air-conditioning units and water tower perched on the 40,000-square foot-roof.
Rooftop farms have been appearing recently across New York and the nation, but few have the scope of Brooklyn Grange, a for-profit venture started by Ben Flanner, a transplanted Wisconsinite, and the operators of Roberta’s, a popular restaurant that has become something of a farm-to-table clubhouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The group plans to sell its vegetables — selected for their ability to thrive in the sunny, windy conditions of an open city roof — from a stand at the farm, and to a few restaurants.
But any garden is only as good as its dirt — in this case, almost a million pounds of Rooflite Intensive, an engineered soil mix that contains no actual soil. All day, a crane hoisted bag after enormous bag of the medium, each weighing more than a ton, up from the street at 37-18 Northern Boulevard.
After slicing open the bags and emptying them into bins perched atop motorized buggies, workers ferried the mix — over and over again, making hundreds of trips — to the other side of the roof, where another group spread it out eight inches deep over layers of root barrier, felt and drainage material deployed to minimize the need to water and protect the skin of the roof.
This is the second roof farm for Mr. Flanner, who was far too busy checking soil depth, overseeing his largely volunteer crew and addressing concerns of the building’s owner to speak to a reporter. Last year, he ran a 6,000-square-foot pilot project in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to see if a roof farm could work as a business, but he needed the larger space to turn a profit in the long term.
After a plan for a 25,000-square-foot space fell through, Mr. Flanner and his group found Jeff Rosenblum and Acumen Capital Partners, which had been planning to plant the top of the Long Island City building since Mr. Rosenblum bought it a few years ago.
“I guess it was really one step beyond what we were trying to accomplish,” said Mr. Rosenblum, who hoped the plantings would increase the office building’s energy efficiency and the lifespan of its roof.
Well into Thursday afternoon, the flurry continued, with buggies whizzing by, precariously, as workers unfurled more bedding material in anticipation of the 9,000 seedlings at Roberta’s awaiting their transplants, starting as soon as this weekend. Many on the crew — a largely young and earnest group of the partners’ friends — had learned most of their skills on this job.
“It’s really nice to be a part of something that’s really just positive,” Chris Kent, a filmmaker who had been working since 8 a.m., said during the lunch break, describing himself as someone with a black thumb. “There’s not a lot like this that’s going on.”

Jesus Rojas, the building superintendent, surveyed the action and shook his head, adding, “Only in New York,