Coming in loud and clear

While the rover’s radio silence of late might lead you to believe it’s been trolling around the dark side of the moon for the past few months, actually, its recent transmissions have just bypassed you good folks in Houston. However, If you follow me on twitter (hint hint), you might have intercepted these signals on their way back to other terrestrial forums. In other words, I’ve been publishing elsewhere.

A couple days ago, I posted another entry in the Huffington Post Blog. It was a review of an unusual show that indie buzzband Arcade Fire gave in my hometown of Brooklyn.

Speaking of hometowns, I’m also ramping up my contributions to my local neighborhood blog, Bushwick Daily. I’m now part of the news team there and will be contributing stories as much as time and other commitments allow.

Finally, I know you’re on the edge of your seat to hear how my first season of gardening turned out. Look for a post on that soon.

I’ll leave you with an unbelievable fall sunset shot from my roof.

Rooftop Sunset large

How (and what) my garden grows

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m growing vegetables in a garden plot at Eldert Street Garden, a community garden located about 10 or so blocks from where I live in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. I discovered the garden one summer Saturday last year when I was out scouting community gardens in the area on my bike, having just started this blog and wanting to see what was going on locally with urban gardening. No one was working in the garden that day, but to me it was the most inviting of the gardens I visited. In a narrow, shaded lot sandwiched between apartment buildings and veiled by an ivy-covered chain link fence, the garden was a cool, lush oasis of green. It was bursting with life, but a bit wild and unkempt. No one was present, but a hand-painted sign welcomed onlookers and made a friendly pitch for volunteers. The overall vibe was open-source. I made a mental note to return.

I finally connected with the caretakers of Eldert Street Garden in mid-April this year, dropping in while I was out running. A handful of people were working that day, including Kim, a founder and unofficial garden mama, who was happy to answer my questions. Were they looking for volunteers? Duh, it’s a community garden. Could I grow my own plot? Absolutely, for a mere $25 annual fee I could enjoy all the rights and privileges of a garden keyholder. If it seems like I was asking the obvious, it’s only because I didn’t expect the path to garden membership to be so astonishingly easy. I’d heard that in more genteel Brooklyn neighborhoods like Park Slope, it can be nearly impossible to get a garden plot. But this was Bushwick, which, while rapidly gentrifying, is no Park Slope.

Sundays are the usual workdays at Eldert Street Garden, when the most garden members and volunteers will be out working on their plots or other projects. Garden keyholders are also required to attend at least a couple of more formal organized workdays that occur periodically during the growing season, the first of which is this Sunday. I put in a couple of informal Sunday workdays before planting my plot, sewing grass seed in bald spots on the garden’s lawn, shoring up a part of the landscaping bed that runs along the garden’s cobblestone path with a rock border, and tilling and mixing fresh compost and peat moss into the raised bed where I would have my garden plot.

On May 12th, I planted my garden. First, I made a trip to a garden store in Williamsburg that carries Rooftop Ready Seeds, a brand started by Riverpark’s head farmer, Zach Pickens, who I interviewed last fall for this blog. Rooftop Ready Seeds (the name is an ironic play on Roundup Ready, agribusiness giant Monsanto’s brand of genetically modified crops that are manipulated to withstand Roundup, its herbicide product) are saved from plants that have thrived in rooftop locations in the city, often through several generations. The company has a partnership with Brooklyn Grange to save seeds from its rooftop soil farms in Brooklyn and Queens, which are the largest such farms in the city and the world. It’s an excellent pedigree for urban gardening, so I was curious to see how they would grow in my own garden plot.  My seed-buying criteria was, “would I want to eat it?” To my dismay, the store was out of Rooftop Ready’s roquette arugula seeds (I guess there’s a reason why “arugula” is used as shorthand for “urban foodie”), but I was happy to come away with seeds for royal burgundy bush beans and two vareties of lettuce, buttercrunch bibb and deer tongue. That day, Kim also brought to the garden a bunch of donated seedlings that were free for adoption. Many nurseries and garden stores will donate unsold plants to community gardens such as ours, since we have limited funds to work with. I planted two kale seedlings and one swiss chard.

My garden plot in late May: sprouts are coming up!

My garden about ten days after planting. Clockwise from upper left: royal burgundy bush beans, swiss chard, kale, deer tongue lettuce, and buttercrunch bibb lettuce.

After planting, Kim instructed me to water the plot “way more than you think it needs.” Then, in the immortal words of Eric Clapton, the main thing to do is just “let it grow“. We’ve been having a lot of rain this spring, so grow it did.

Garden, June 9th

My garden on June 9th. I planted four new eggplant seedlings that day, two of which are easy to spot in the bottom right corner.

About a month later, the garden is thriving. Last Sunday, I planted four new eggplant seedlings that were grown at Bushwick Campus Farm & Greenhouse (I’ve mentioned this project in previous posts), which is located at a public high school that I pass on my way to the garden from my apartment. I’m quite eager to taste my first Bushwick eggplant (fingers crossed).

Updates

Whoa!! My eyes tell me it’s been six months since I last posted, but I can barely believe them. I’ve been silent here, but I haven’t been idle. The rover branched off from the urban agriculture beat to pursue some other projects – it was winter, anyway, and there was exploring to be done. So, what have I been up to?

Writings

In March, I had my debut post published on the Huffington Post blog. It was about Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline to carry dirty crude oil from the tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama is expected to make a decision on whether to approve this project, which prominent climate scientist James Hansen has called “game over for the climate,” later this year.  Read my full take on the issue here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-wolfram/keystone-xl-pipeline-_b_2909468.html?utm_hp_ref=green

Last month, I tried my hand at music writing for my neighborhood blog, Bushwick Daily. Twin Sister, one of my favorite bands making music today, played a set at underground Bushwick venue Silent Barn, and I was there to report on the show. I also got a chance to talk to their lead singer and came away with some inside, and, as far as I can tell, as-yet-unreported, information on their plans to release new music this year. http://bushwickdaily.com/2013/05/twin-sister-live-in-bushwick-dish-details-on-new-album/#more-17975

Other News

In February, I spent two weeks in the Princeton, NJ, area to train on a project my firm is doing for Bristol-Myers Squibb, the pharmaceuticals company. This isn’t really relevant to anything I’m doing with this blog, but I wanted to share what was absolutely the highlight of the trip for me (other than the extravagant business-travel meal budget). Apparently, it’s not uncommon to see wild turkeys holding up traffic in the driveway into Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Plainsboro office park. I saw it happen twice while I was there (see photographic evidence). Maybe BMS should consider getting into farming too?

At the first hint of forward progress, this turkey would turn around and attack the car's front tire

Each time the car inched forward, the turkey would turn around and attack its front tire.

Speaking of getting into farming, this spring I began an urban agriculture project of my own! I’m now a member of the Eldert Street Garden, a community garden in Bushwick, and I have my own little garden plot there. It’s my first time gardening, and fortunately I’m getting plenty of help from the other gardeners. Right now I’m growing royal burgundy bush beans, two kinds of lettuces, swiss chard, and kale. Here’s what my plot looked like a couple weeks ago. Check back here soon for more in-depth accounts of my gardening experiences.

My garden plot in late May: sprouts are coming up!

My garden plot in late May: sprouts are coming up!

A gingko tree grows in Brooklyn: some thoughts on urban foraging

I saw something unusual when I emerged from my apartment building Friday morning. An older Asian man with his arms raised above his head was pushing rhythmically against one of the few scraggly trees on the block. On one of his hands he wore a plastic glove. A crazy, I thought. But quickly I discerned the method to this madness. The tree’s berry-sized fruit pattered the pavement like rain as the man continued to deliver blows to the tree. Sensing me, he turned, and, making the connection between his ethnicity and what I know about New York trees, I inquired, “Gingko?”. He flashed a crooked smile, grunted in affirmation and knelt down to collect the gingko nuts on the ground.

Gingko biloba trees are common in New York City. Native to China, the tree’s nut-like fruit is used in traditional Chinese medicine and cuisine, and some among the Chinese immigrant population in the city make the most of this public arboreal endowment each fall when the fruit ripens. Though I knew about the gingko trees, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would be interested in foraging fruit from the city’s trees. To me, it’s another potent example of cities’ capacity for producing food, and a kind of parable for the false dichotomy between the agrarian and the urban. Without any purposeful cultivation, food is already growing all around us. Even the activity, the pollution, and the endless pavement of this massive metropolis can’t stop plants from growing and bearing fruit.

A gingko tree in Manhattan

A gingko tree in Manhattan

When I studied abroad in Spain, I marveled at the orange trees that were planted everywhere in cities in the south. I would occasionally pick up an orange that had fallen to the ground and breathe in deeply the sweet citrus smell at the base of the stem. I was curious as to how they would taste, but hesitant to try one as someone had warned me they were actually quite bitter. Moreover, there was something impure about a city-grown orange. It was tainted by its presence in a public space, unsequestered from the masses of people walking by daily and the other perceived contaminants of its environment. Our sterilization obsessed culture, with its shrink-wrapped and tamper-proof-packaged guarantees of wholesomeness, prohibited the consumption of such an orange.

Immigrants, particularly those from poorer countries where food doesn’t just magically appear at the grocery store, seem less hung up on the provenance of urban-foraged food. This can sometimes be problematic, as when fishing the East River. And pollution can be a legitimate concern for plants growing in an urban environment. (Just how much of a concern? I may have found a new research topic… ). In the case of gingko nuts, I can’t imagine there being any major concern. There’s certainly no shortage of adventurous food writers who have gathered their own gingko nuts, cooked them up at home, and lived to tell about it.

Riverpark Farm: green acres, blocks from Park Avenue

The Tuesday after I moved soil at Farm-In-The-Sky, I left work during my lunch break to visit urban farmer and friend Matt Lebon at Riverpark Farm and Restaurant. The fact that a lunch-break visit to the farm from my office in East Midtown, Manhattan was feasible speaks to the urbanness of this particular urban farm. A thicket of high rise apartment and office buildings stretches across East Midtown and its neighbor to the south, Kips Bay, where Riverpark is located; parks and green space are scarce. I happened upon Riverpark in July while killing time before a movie I was going to see at a nearby cineplex. Following 29th Street east towards the East River, I sought the river’s open expanse and its promise of relief from skyscraper-induced claustrophobia. At First Avenue, the asphalt of 29th Street turns to cobblestone and passes a small security booth. Intrigued, I continued on without interruption by the guard in the booth. The road came to a cul-de-sac, opposite which was an unexpected sight: an attractively fenced-in lot with rows of green, lush plants growing out of elevated planters.

Before: Riverpark Farm in July

This was Riverpark Farm. The farm and its namesake restaurant sit on the public grounds of the Alexandria Center for Life Science, a research park for biotech companies comprised of sleek, ultra-modern buildings of glass and steel. The marriage of this highly ordered, lush space and the sterile architecture evoked a science fiction utopia. I was so swept away with the scene that by the time I returned to the cineplex the movie I was going to see had sold out.

Three months later, the weather was chillier and the sky grayer than on my first visit, but the farm was just as green. The space wouldn’t remain green much longer, though; by the end of the week, the space Riverpark Farm had occupied for over a year would have to be vacated. The farm was situated on a stalled building site, and construction on the site was slated to resume. Fortunately, Riverpark had anticipated this eventuality by using highly portable, stackable milk-crates as growing containers for its crops. By next spring, the farm would reconfigure somewhere else on the Alexandria Center’s grounds. With just days left before the move, I followed Matt through the milk crate maze as he furiously trimmed and harvested crate-plots of fragrant herbs. With the deadline for the move looming, Matt had to stay busy. That morning alone, he harvested 40 pounds of bell peppers.

Much as I would have liked to shirk work obligations and linger on the farm a little longer, my final visit to Riverpark’s original incarnation was brief. My mind, however, continued to linger with the farm even after I arrived back at my desk, my curiosity about how a farm came to be in such an unlikely environment still unsated. So I was grateful to be invited back the following week to speak with Zach Pickens, Riverpark’s head farmer, and Chrissa Yee, a project manager at the restaurant who helps coordinate operations with the farm. Our conversation covered a lot of territory, including Riverpark’s beginnings, how one becomes an urban farmer, and what the future might have in store for Riverpark and urban agriculture in New York as a whole. 

After: The former site of Riverpark Farm in late October (courtesy of Riverpark Farm)

The greening of a stalled site

It may seem foolish to start a farm on a site that you could be asked to leave at any given moment. For Riverpark, that moment came barely a year after its unveiling. But it was this very flexibility that gave the project life in the first place. “Because it was a stalled site, we were able to use that space for free, and I think that’s a big part of why this was a viable project for us,” says Chrissa Yee, the project manager.

Head farmer Zach Pickens explains, “In the city, access to land is the biggest barrier for urban farming, and so having a landlord that is amenable and not only likes the idea but is partnering to make it happen, is working alongside us to make it happen — that’s major, that’s something that really hasn’t happened before.”

Riverpark sought a permit from the NYC Department of Buildings to farm on the stalled construction site. With the support of the local community and GrowNYC, the non-profit organization that runs the city’s Greenmarkets (including the renowned Union Square Greenmarket), Riverpark won approval for this unprecedented “temporary alternative use” of a stalled construction site. And they’ve returned this community support in kind. Although Riverpark is a “for production” urban farm on private property that supplies produce to a single restaurant, it has opened its doors to the public at large, hosting school groups, providing free tours, and offering free Saturday workshops to other would-be urban farmers.

Farmer of a new frontier

Might Riverpark’s workshop attendees one day start their own urban farms? Everyone starts somewhere, and with urban farming, there’s no clear path to follow to make it a livelihood. This is partly because of the newness of the practice to the modern city, and partly because the myriad mutations of the concept of a farm are still proving their fitness in the urban ecosystem. Pickens’ own experience offers a glimpse of what it’s like to grow into a profession that hasn’t settled into a definitive shape. Though he grew up gardening with his parents in rural Ohio, it wasn’t until he moved to the city that he started gardening on his own — on a rooftop, no less.

“I got really excited about it, and this was a time when urban agriculture was just coming up and getting into people’s minds, so I was really excited to be a part of something that was just emerging. It was just kind of like a clean slate, like ‘let’s figure out how to make this work’, on rooftops, in backyards, on windows, whatever.”

Pickens’ initial idea was to combine urban farming with his interest in education, but says “eventually, I started to see business opportunities with urban farming, especially with restaurants. I had my hands in a lot of different projects. I wanted to explore a lot of questions about the food system and about urban agriculture and how to make it work best . . . I was working farmstands, youth run farmers markets with GrowNYC. I had started a school garden program, I started a rooftop garden for a restaurant in Fort Greene — I was just getting involved in everything I could.”

Pickens took a soil management course at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and counts “certified Master Composter” among his credentials, “a degree I’m kind of more proud of than my master’s degree,” he says with a laugh. But that’s about the extent of his formal farming education. He has otherwise learned mostly by doing, and by visiting other farms and sharing knowledge with other urban farmers. As Pickens puts it, “nobody’s written a book on this,” so the educational role assumed by so many working urban farms, including Riverpark, is essential to the growth of urban farming.

Riverpark is here to stay — and so is urban farming

There’s no doubt that urban farming is on the rise. Riverpark could be taken as a symbol of its ascendance; the fact that a high-end restaurant with the backing of a major celebrity chef started its own urban farm signals urban farming’s move toward the mainstream of the urban food economy. High-end diners are now putting a premium on locally-produced food, and at Riverpark they can eat as local as it gets. “The assistant executive chef would regularly come out and harvest his basil at five o’clock, half an hour before it’s showing up on a plate,” Pickens says, describing the affinity of the restaurant’s kitchen staff for the farm. “We even had some of the line cooks coming out and working a couple hours a week a little early before their shift and help harvest, help water . . . if they are on shift, they can come out and harvest exactly what they want for their station.” In its first year, Riverpark kept crops growing all 12 months with the assistance of low tunnel coverage, and was able to keep the “farm” modifier preceding many produce items (farm eggplant, farm purple tomatillos) on the restaurant’s menu year-round. Even now, with many of the farm’s milk crates stacked and tucked away behind the restaurant, Riverpark has kept lemon verbena and strawberries growing in adjacent low tunnels. (Fortunately, the bundled-up farm was undamaged by Hurricane Sandy, Pickens reported to me the week following the storm. Though it is close to the East River, which is actually a tidal strait connecting New York Harbor and the Long Island Sound, Riverpark was elevated enough to resist the historic storm surge flooding of coastal Manhattan.)

Low tunnels set up for winter growing

Having worked its way into the hearts of its diners and chefs alike — as well as spontaneous visitors to the Alexandria Center — Riverpark and the Alexandria Center are working together to find a new home for the farm. It could reappear as several discrete plots scattered throughout the plaza, or it could relocate to a consolidated space in front of the restaurant, according to Yee. Whatever the case, Riverpark remains committed to the task of bringing the farm back to the Alexandria Center’s grounds next year.

The farm’s spatial flexibility and mobility serves as a model that other urban farms could follow to obtain the precious real estate they need. Pickens suggests that a kind of “mobile farm” could be a viable business model for future urban farms; a container garden using portable hardware like Riverpark’s milk crates could move from one stalled construction site to another, packing up each time construction on its temporary home resumes. As of November 4th, there were nearly 700 stalled construction sites registered with the NYC Department of Buildings throughout the five boroughs. In theory, these stalled sites could represent an untapped resource for enterprising “nomad farmers,” to borrow Pickens’ term, who would trade stability for affordable real estate. However, many such sites would likely not be suitable for farming if the planned structures were already partially built. Still, even if a model relying on stalled sites proved unviable, there’s enough city rooftop space highly suitable for farming (a 2011 study by the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University’s Earth Institute identified at least 3,079 acres of such space) and unmet demand for local produce ($900 million, according to one study) to be sure that urban farming in New York City is far from reaching any limits on its growth. “Every single summer since I started farming in the city,” Pickens remarks, “I keep saying ‘alright, is this the year, is this the year that the bubble bursts and the trend dies and nobody cares anymore and they move on to something else?’, and it doesn’t happen. It just keeps getting stronger and stronger.” Urban farming might have once been viewed as a passing trend, but it has now gained the momentum of a movement that’s here to stay.

The young and the restless . . . urban farm

A moveable farm: buckets of soil loaded onto the service elevator at Farm-In-The-Sky

Moving is a fact of life for New York City residents, especially among the young. In just over 5 years of living here, I have lived in no fewer than six different apartments. It’s a combination of factors that make twenty-something New Yorkers so peripatetic. Our limited budgets are set against an ever more expensive rental market. And we’re no strangers to frequent and sometimes dislocating changes, of lifestyles, priorities, and relationships.

A couple weekends ago, I learned that for young urban farms, moving is no less a fact of life than it is for young urbanites. Since meeting farmer Matt Lebon of Farm-In-The-Sky, I had been in touch with him about visiting another farm he tends in the city, Riverpark Farm. I had planned a Sunday visit, until I received a message from Matt the Friday before saying that a recent development had thrown off his work schedule: Riverpark Farm was going to have to move. The farm, a project of its namesake restaurant, a high-end establishment in Manhattan overlooking the East River and co-owned by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, was situated on a stalled building site next door to the restaurant. Knowing that the site could only temporarily host the farm, its founders designed the farm to be portable and modular.  Now, the day of testing its portability was nigh, which meant I would have to reschedule my Sunday visit. Matt also mentioned in his message that Farm-In-The-Sky was undergoing a move, of sorts, of its own, and invited me to lend a hand to an “all hands on deck soil move day” on Saturday. With my Sunday now free, I decided to enlist in the effort to move soil from Farm-In-The-Sky to its sister farm, Bushwick Campus Farm.

The big move at Farm-In-The-Sky began on an unseasonably warm October morning. For six hours, I helped move literal tons of dirt. We shoveled mounds of compost and dirt heaped on the roof into growing-container buckets, moving what seemed like hundreds of these buckets of soil from the roof to the building’s rattletrap service elevator and from the elevator to the U-Haul truck bound for Bushwick Campus Farm. It was grueling manual labor, but the team, which peaked at nine strong, worked hard to get it done with daylight to spare. There were setbacks, of course: sun-damaged plastic growing containers cracking on concrete like eggshells and spilling their contents, the temporary stalls of a maxed-out service elevator, and a rumored encounter with a rodent.

A Volvo provided logistical support

The work was hard, but it was satisfying to know that our efforts were helping build the Bushwick Campus Farm’s new 2,000 square foot sub-irrigated planter garden. The farm is located at Bushwick Campus, a public school campus home to four high schools that use the farm as a hands-on learning resource. Upon arriving at the farm, the soil was to be piled into a windrow, a composting method in which a long row of soil or compost is covered with other organic waste — horse manure, in this case, a readily available commodity that works well for this kind of composting. The activity of the bacteria in the manure can generate large amounts of heat in the windrow, which kills off pests such as insects and their eggs buried in the soil.

After any hard day’s labor, the first thing anyone wants to do (yes, even before washing off the grime) is eat. But after a hard day’s labor on a farm, you not only want to eat, you want to eat well — you want the fresh cornucopia your surroundings have suggested all day. And so the crew that stuck it out to the end headed to Mama Joy’s, a new soul food joint a few blocks away on Flushing Avenue. There, I realized what brings this group together. Underneath the sustainability ethos and passion for urban farming, there exists a simple, irreducible love of good food. While my claim to the last fried chicken order in stock provoked some hostility, within minutes I was exchanging morsels of food and sips of beer with relative strangers, as we cross pollinated each other’s plates like excited bees upon the flowering herbs of a rooftop container garden.

In the midst of seemingly endless soil-bucket-burdened round trips between the roof and the service elevator that day, it occurred to me that, in many ways, moving an urban farm didn’t feel all that different from moving apartments. The repetition, the heavy loads, the pressure to finish the job before you had to return the rented truck were all familiar to me. Indeed, one could draw parallels between Farm-In-The-Sky and Bushwick Campus Farm’s circumstances as young urban farms and the circumstances of young New Yorkers like myself. These farms also face limited budgets; Farm-In-The-Sky had no money until it could convince area restaurants to support it through an RSA. They evolve to accommodate new relationships; in addition to serving as a green classroom for the high schoolers of Bushwick Campus, the Campus Farm is a demonstration site for JustFood’s Farm School NYC. The very concept of urban farms in New York City is a relatively young one. And so farms such as these undergo the steady changes of youth as they carve out a niche in their urban communities.

Farm-In-The-Sky: Bushwick’s own rooftop farm

Arriving at Brooklyn Fireproof East, a bar and arts space in the heart of the industrial section of Bushwick, I felt vaguely like I had reached the threshold of an occult and magical world. For, just a short vertical distance from where I was standing, I was to believe, there existed a farm. A farm in the sky. The sense of mystery intensified as I was pointed to a nondescript industrial stairwell and told that all the way up and through the fire door on my right, I would arrive on the farm in question. As I scaled the stairs and lost count of the flights, I felt a bit like a wide-eyed Charlie navigating Wonka’s factory. Was this a test? Was I was worthy of admission to something as strange and wonderful as a farm in the middle of this grim, post-industrial landscape?

As promised, passing through the fire door at the top of the stairs, I reached the building’s roof and Farm-In-The-Sky, where farmer Matt Lebon was waiting with a few other visitors to begin a tour. The farm tours were being offered as a part of a fundraising event for Ecostation:NY, the farm’s parent organization. It’s obvious right away that this is not your father’s farm. Coming out of my reverie, I observed that it bears little resemblance to the imagery conjured by the term. Instead of rows of identical crops in tilled soil, it’s a colorful hodgepodge of diverse plants growing out of a motley array of pots, storage bins and buckets. This practice, Matt explained, is known as container gardening.

Container gardening at Farm-In-The-Sky

Why use containers to grow plants instead of something more farm-like, such as the large soil beds I had read had been built at other rooftop farms? The answer gets to the farm’s core mission, of which food output is just one aspect. The farm’s web page touts its “low cost, easily replicable DIY techniques,” which are important to its larger mission of getting ordinary people in the urban community involved in growing food. Few New Yorkers have backyards, so if you’re growing your own plants in the city you’re going to be putting planters in the confined spaces to which you have access: window ledges, fire escapes, balconies and the like. Farm-In-The-Sky serves as a model for growing techniques that are adapted to the restrictions of an urban environment.

Colorful, container-grown salad greens

One such technique is sub-irrigation, or watering from below, an important innovation in container gardening. A sub-irrigated planter can be constructed with easily acquired, recycled components. In spite of the technical-sounding name, it looks like an ordinary planter with a plastic tube protruding from the soil, which delivers water to the bottom of the pot. At Farm-In-The-Sky, upside-down Poland Spring bottles were stuck into the soil to funnel water into these tubes. The soil at the bottom soaks up the water from a reservoir via a wicking fabric and the moisture spreads evenly by capillary action throughout the soil, helping to maintain an even distribution of moisture throughout the soil that is difficult to achieve by overhead watering.

In addition to being portable and user-friendly, the farm’s growing methods stress sustainability. Thus, it generates its own fertilizer through a process known as vermicomposting. If you know your latin roots, you may have guessed that this involves worms. Farmer Matt showed us a burlap-lined bin where the worms were doing their work converting compost material — food scraps and other organic waste — into nutrient-rich fertilizer. He dug into the bin and took out a clump of compost. The worms squirming within his cupped hands had finished their job; the compost appeared as a rich, dark soil.

Farmer Matt Lebon holds up some vermicompost

This is Farm-In-The-Sky’s first full growing season, and Matt is still improvising and learning by trial and error how to farm in an urban rooftop environment. Some of the problems he has encountered are familiar to farms everywhere. Weather conditions, for example, can be just as harsh in the city as they are in the country; a hail storm destroyed this year’s tomato crop. The farm’s pests, however, are sometimes unique to the city; that same tomato crop, it turned out, had been feasted on by New York City’s signature species of wildlife — rats.

Although it’s a work in progress, the farm has had enough success to attract the patronage of local restaurants through a restaurant supported agriculture agreement, or RSA. The concept is the same as that of the more commonly known CSA (community supported agriculture), except that the arrangement is with restaurants instead of individual consumers. In exchange for advance payment, the farm provides a regular supply of fresh produce to subscribing restaurants throughout the growing season. RSAs seem well-suited to urban farms, whose proximity to trendy and sustainability-conscious restaurants allows them to deliver the freshness and locavore cred these establishments desire. Currently, Farm-In-The-Sky has a handful of Bushwick restaurants on its roster, including Cafe Ghia, Momo Sushi Shack and Northeast Kingdom. The restaurants are particularly fond of the farm’s microgreens: vegetable shoots, like radishes, picked very young while they still have a strong, concentrated flavor. Matt proudly labeled these the farm’s “cash crop.”

Microgreens: the “cash crop”

The commercial aspect of the farm led one fellow tour-goer to ask Matt the “what if” question that tends to pop up in discussions about urban agriculture. What if more and more rooftops around the city start to emulate Farm-In-The-Sky? Would the city be able one day to provide its full demand for fresh produce? Farmer Matt’s response was both humbling and hopeful. The city’s demand is gargantuan. Meeting its demand with urban farms only is probably an impractical goal for urban agriculture. But, to the extent that rooftop farming and other city-adapted agriculture systems prove to be viable commercial enterprises, urban farms could have a real impact on the city’s food supply. In any case, for Matt, that goal is tangential to the mission of enabling people in urban communities to participate in the process of growing food and attain the insights into nature and ecology that come from it.

While there is certainly something mythical about a farm in an urban industrial zone, this farm doesn’t exist to benefit a few chosen initiates; you don’t, I discovered, need a golden ticket to get in. Rather, Farm-In-The-Sky seeks to bring a new kind of farm experience to everyone in the community. In the urban future envisioned by Farm-In-The-Sky, farms are not a novelty but part of the social and economic fabric of the city — a magical idea in its own right.