Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A non-culinary aside: Rooftop farming, or why I need to get out more

It's a farm, on a rooftop, in NYC!
But first a preamble to this digression: People, I've been busy.  And, sadly, it's been a few weeks since I've cooked a real meal in my own kitchen.  Sure, I've made meals for my client.  I've taught groups of people how to make chicken cacciatore.  I've even been sous chef for a wedding of 120+.  But have I managed to get a single recipe up here since the 1st of June?  Negative.  (Oh, I'm also planning my own wedding.  Just one month to go - jeepers!)

Whenever I find myself clambering to do too many things with the short amount of time I have at home, I try to tell myself, "Eve, you have time.  There is always time."  But, inevitably, that "time" turns into a cranky husband-to-be begging me to please, get off the computer and come to bed, for the fraking love of god! 

The revelatory lesson beneath all this blabber?  Multi-tasking doesn't work.  Kapow!  So instead of letting all these infuriating to-do lists faff about the inside of my fishbowl brain, I head outside on my bike and let it take me away, to new and exciting places, such as:

Brooklyn Grange, the rooftop farm down the block!

I heard from a friend that a community organization called Food Systems Network NYC was organizing a tour of and panel discussion at the Brooklyn Grange Farm.  Myself and a group of about 40 other people met yesterday in the lobby of a huge prewar factory building in Long Island City, Queens, and rode the freight elevator up 5 floors, then walked the final flight, to the one-acre rooftop farm at the top.  Not only were the views breathtaking (as you can see), so was the breadth and diversity of the produce perched atop this urban jungle.  What a crazy, inspiring concept!

After Ben Flanner, the head farmer, introduced us to his planties (everything from herbs to lettuces to squash to chiles), his bees, and his chickens, we headed back downstairs to an expansive, empty room where a long table was set up in front of a few rows of chairs.  We took a seat and proceeded to learn all about the many challenges and possibilities surrounding this new and exciting quest to farm the rooftops of NYC.  Brooklyn Grange has truly been a pioneer in its mission to close the gap (in terms of both distance and privilege) between people and their food.

Some key take-aways from the discussion:

  • Although it is a substantial investment, from a purely operational standpoint, starting a rooftop farm is not as complicated as one might think.  Essentially, anyone can do it, which is what makes it such a compelling solution to the problem of increasing food scarcity in urban settings.
  • It's the financial aspect that is the main challenge (even more so than hauling tons of soil up to a roof!).  Although NYC has instituted generous incentives for developers to "green" rooftops - meaning covering them with non-edible plants in order to insulate the building and reduce energy consumption - the legislation passed never accounted for the possibility that rooftop farming would take off to the extent that it has.  The incentive, which allows for a $450/sq. ft. tax break, up to $100,000, is nowhere near enough of a leg-up for those who would want to start an urban farm.  Therefore, even though it's a no-brainer to reap the benefits of a green roof while at the same time growing local, sustainable produce for those who live under it, our city legislators have had their heads too far up their bureaucracy to realize it.  
  • Until now: currently, there is a big debate going down among City council-members over whether it would be best to broaden the existing language to aid in the creation of more urban rooftop farms, or to craft an entirely separate piece of legislation to cover this newer iteration of the term "green roof."
And I learned much, much more regarding the nitty-gritty logistics of starting up and running such an operation.  But rather than hearing it from me, wouldn't it me more interesting to just go visit?!  Drop by every Wednesday, from 2pm to 7pm, to pick up some farm-fresh produce and sneak a peak upstairs.

Hey, chicken!

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