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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.