A Tale of Two Farms
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
Urban farming is not new. The practice of growing food in cities dates all the way back 3,500 years ago to Mesopotamian farmers. And Brooklyn, home to NYC's hippest neighborhoods where street art is legal and retired investment bankers get their yoga teacher license is no exception. With rooftop gardens, 'how to build your own urban farm' classes and farm to table restaurants located throughout the borough, residents can eat and grow local food. Two noteworthy urban agriculture spots are Square Roots on Flushing Avenue and North Brooklyn Farms under the Williamsburg Bridge.
Square Roots is a Silicon Valleyesque start-up accelerator where farmers are entrepreneurs, and the growing techniques are the latest in renewable energy. A neighborhood away is North Brooklyn Farms; a green space for people to meet, eat sustainably and grow food, friendships and their connection to nature. Both are Brooklyn based and primed to push the confines of urban spaces.
“We think about ourselves as an urban farm,” said Tobias Peggs, Square Roots Co-founder, and CEO, during a recent tour of the facilities. “This is really extreme urban farming. We’re in a parking lot in the middle of Brooklyn.”
Peggs hosts monthly tours of the Square Roots campus on Flushing Avenue. During the tour, he corrals curious locals, farmers and business owners with an introductory PowerPoint, talks in front of the farm and a Q&A at their farmer’s market. He jubilantly shares his and co-founder Kimbal Musk’s, a pioneer in social entrepreneurship and the real food movement, twenty-acre farm in a Brooklyn parking lot.
Just three months shy of their one year anniversary, Peggs and Musk’s farm doesn’t look like a twenty-acre farm. It looks like a parking lot in Brooklyn with shipping containers. But when Peggs opens the container doors like Willy Wonka opening his factory for the golden ticket holders, the industrial crates transform into disco-colored vertical farms of lettuce and herbs towers -- large vegetables take too much biomass for the farm to grow, yet. Using a 3D farming technique, Square Roots has flipped farming vertical, pulled out the soil and squished the growing process into containers. The ten 320 square foot shipping containers yield an equivalent of a two-acre outdoor farm – with a fraction of the resources.
Using fewer resources is in line with Square Roots’ mission to make farming more sustainable. As agriculture is one of the leading causes of environmental degradation, especially water loss -- the USDA states that the agriculture sector uses around 80% of accessible water in the US -- Peggs believes that his container farms are a solution.
“We literally hack the fire hydrant,” said Peggs with unbridled excitement, “this whole quote unquote two-acre farm runs on about 10 gallons of water a day which is less than your shower.” The farm is 100% hydroponic – there’s no soil. Water from the fire hydrant runs through the back of the containers and drips from the top down through nutrients and onto the plants, then recycled back through the hanging fields.
The lighting system is another way the containers are efficient (and groovy.) Plants only need red and blue spectrums of light to photosynthesis so Square Roots only installs those lights. “If we were to plug this box with white light, you’d have all of that spectrum on either side of red and blue that would be completely wasted and not used at all,” said Peggs, “so we just push in the frequency of light that the plant needs to grow.”
The farmers who manage the lights, water, and crops are the ‘real food entrepreneurs.’ They are at the farm for a yearlong program where they learn how to grow food, set up a business and sell their products to local vendors and customers. “You have the opportunity to build a business out of that container,” said Square Roots real food entrepreneur Josh Aliber as he sold his basil at the campus farmer’s market. “Over the course of the year, we experiment with different business models. It’s a revenue share model so Square Roots takes a small percentage of the sales that I make.”
This crop of entrepreneurs is Square Roots first. “There’s a wide variety of individuals,” said Aliber. Aliber has a tech background and one of his fellow farmers was an investment banker. Aliber says that the diversity of background makes sense. “We are trying to see who really thrives in this type of program.”
While the farmers, technology, and techniques are all testers for this agro-incubator, Aliber and Peggs both described excitement for the project and shrinking costs of renewable energy and resources. They hope that their new-age farm will not only make real food easy to pick up but also re-connect local communities with farmers and their food.
On the waterfront, under the Williamsburg bridge and adjacent to what's left of the Domino Sugar Factor is a converted green space where farmers grow veggies and flowers, cooks host BBQs and weary urbanites escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. The farm is the quintessential blend of urban and rustic. The steel towers of the Williamsburg Bridge grow out from the green-lined crops, soil covered park benches and stain-glassed shed. North Brooklyn Farms lives up to its mission as a green space where people meet and eat.
It's the third season for North Brooklyn Farms under the Williamsburg Bridge (their first two seasons were at a green space across the street), and it always seems to be busy with people. Some sit on picnic tables, others wander through the fields and a few hop on bikes and shred the adjacent bike track.
Cooks at Aska, a Scandinavian tasting spot down the road, pick herbs from the garden for their restaurant. Farmers grow and pick vegetables for events on the farm. From wedding receptions to private corporate dinners, the farm has played host to many parties. And whenever there is an excess of food, the farmers open a farm stand on premise.
Because the farm is close to the bridge and an active construction site, the farmers have taken great care to stop and control contamination. To mitigate pollution, farmers built a pollinator border which is a ring of flowers around the crops to clean the air before it runs over the farm. Another technique to stop harmful chemicals from attacking the farm is raised farm beds.
One employee of North Brooklyn Farms said that main goal is to create spaces for recreation and for people to see how food is grown from seed to bloom.