Photograph by Bess Adler, National Geographic
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Before the students arrive, the farm 12 stories above the Brooklyn Navy Yard affords some peace and some stunning views.
Photograph by Bess Adler, National Geographic
The Plate

A Farm, Tended by Tweens, Grows on a Brooklyn Rooftop

Putting manure and city middle-schoolers together may not seem like an obvious pairing, but on a recent visit to a one-acre rooftop farm on a crisp October afternoon in Brooklyn, it somehow seemed totally natural.

Twenty or so students from the Urban Academy of Arts & Letters in Clinton Hill frolic through rows of dirt where Swiss chard, collards and various herbs grow atop a formerly underused 12-story building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They are half horsing around but mostly listening to patient instructors. Chickens cluck in cages and planes fly overhead. We’re standing on soil, but we’re also surrounded by stunning birds-eye views of Manhattan. “Sky joy,” 11-year-old Dakota Ray calls it, as she bends to fill her basket and laugh with her friends.

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Dakota Ray, 11, far right, and her friends from the Urban Academy of Arts & Letters in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn pick ground berries as part of an educational after school program at Brooklyn Grange. Photograph by Bess Adler

The farm is owned by Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farming and green roofing business that boasts the largest rooftop farms in the U.S. They lease some space to City Growers, a nonprofit educational group that connects urban communities and agriculture through workshops and classes. Last year, City Growers received a four-year grant from the city to run an afterschool program that brings kids to the farm and also teaches them to cook what they grow once the weather gets too cold to climb the roof. The program is free to the students who participate.

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Baby lettuces are a profitable product supplied to the city’s restaurants. Photograph by Bess Adler

Elizabeth Pierson is deputy director of City Growers. Pierson says that since 2011, City Growers has hosted over 17,000 kids (including on this farm and another rooftop farm they lease in Queens) to “learn a little bit about why rooftop agriculture is important, not only for them, but for the city as well.” Cleaner air, cleaner water and better food are just a few of the benefits, she says.

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Students Chloe Richards and Kaya Slawecka nibble on fresh greens. Photograph by Bess Adler

While the students tend only one part of the rooftop, the Brooklyn Grange farm supplies much of its produce to the city’s restaurants. It also rents out the sky-high space for weddings and hosts its own special events, like hot sauce making and compost lessons, says Matt Jefferson, farm manager.

“Our goal is to have kids up and open it to the public,” he says.

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Brooklyn Grange-grown radishes. Photograph by Bess Adler

According to Brooklyn Grange’s website, “Our mission was to create a fiscally sustainable model for urban agriculture and to produce healthy, delicious vegetables for our local community while doing the ecosystem a few favors as well. Currently, with over two acres of rooftops under cultivation in Brooklyn and Queens, we’ve sold over 200,000 lbs of vegetables, to CSA [community supported agriculture] members and directly to the public via weekly farmstands.”

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Students bend to harvest ground berries. Ground berries are ripe when they fall to the ground and their papery shell starts to split. Photograph by Bess Adler

Grange farmers have learned a lot since 2010 when they spent six days craning 6,000-pounds of soil up to the roof. “It can get windy here,” says Jefferson, adding that the crop selection has evolved to include sturdier items such as sunflowers, greens, and pepper plants.

There are even two apiaries.

While most of the peppers and sunflowers were long gone by our visit, many of the greens and easy-to-grow ground cherries (or ground berries, peculiar fruits that looks like tomatillos but are the size of cherries) were still going strong. The tiny and sweet ground berries were a particular hit with the students.

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A handful of ground cherries. Photograph by Bess Adler

Many of the kids who participated last year—the first year of City Growers’ after school program—returned this year. “This place helped me learn new foods and stuff,” says Aiko Enriquez, 12, a second-year student, while dropping ripe ground cherries into her plastic tray.

And it has also helped dispel some confusion about how plants are grown.

“I didn’t like eating tomatoes before,” says Dakota Ray. “I thought they grew seeds in your belly. Now, I’ve started eating them again,” she says.

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Student Faith Gibbs pots perennial herbs like sage and thyme to be distributed to nursing homes. Photograph by Bess Adler

Kaya Slawecka, 12, says she’ll take what she’s learned about gardening back to the rest of her family. She says she will plant a few things in pots at home, like basil and peppers. “I like spicy things,” she says.

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The students water perennial plants after potting them. Photograph by Bess Adler

Most of all, the students seem to enjoy being up high in the sky and outside, away from the noise and rush of the city streets and the familiar rhythm of everyday life. That’s pretty much why everyone else wants to be up here, too.

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Student Quentin Murphy pauses to take in the view. Photograph by Bess Adler