In 2010, a group of renegade urban dreamers gathered on a New York City roof. With bikes and cranes, passion and sweat—they built a farm. Then another. Then launched events. Today, Brooklyn Grange is the leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US.
They operate the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, located on two roofs in Brooklyn (Navy Yard) and Queens (Long Island City) and grow 50,000 pounds of organically cultivated produce yearly. They distribute fresh vegetables and herbs to local restaurants. Globally, they provide urban farming and green roof consulting and installation services. They partner with local nonprofits to promote healthy communities. Egg-laying hens, a commercial apiary, and a nonprofit educational arm, City Growers, all contribute to Brooklyn Grange’s mission.
Farm events started in 2011 as dinner parties. Now their public events, in partnership with Brown Paper Tickets, vary widely—yoga classes, flower workshops, dinners, weddings, corporate retreats and film screenings.
We asked Brooklyn Grange’s Anastasia Cole Plakias, VP and co-founder, and Michele Kaufman, events director, how a diverse events program grew their business and strengthened community ties.
Brown Paper Tickets Q: Why do you exist? What is your vision?
Brooklyn Grange: When the team first met in the fall of 2009, we shared the goal of creating a fiscally sustainable, scalable, replicable model for urban agriculture that could thrive without relying on ever-diminishing ground-level space, or be crowded out by development. We were drawn to the environmental benefits of soil-based rooftop farming: from storm water management to reduction of urban heat island effect and diverting food scraps from the waste stream through composting, our farm supports the ecosystem of New York City by activating existing infrastructure as green space. Rooftop farming merges the benefits of green roofs with those of urban agriculture.
We’ve [recently] focused on growing our business and optimizing operations. We’re excited to return to our core mission of sharing the knowledge we’ve gleaned over the last four seasons by launching a new workshop series. From composting and seed saving to bouquet arranging and making natural dyes from plants, we’ve cast a wide net, and enlisted experts across urban agriculture, wellness and sustainability fields to help.
Brooklyn Grange: New York City is an incredibly unique place in which to farm. On the one hand, it’s super sensible; we’re growing food directly atop a densely populated community so our harvest has little distance to travel. It uses less fossil fuels to reach consumers and is fresher when it hits their plates. And it’s an awesome opportunity for city dwellers to engage with a real, operational farm without leaving their neighborhood. On the other hand, you have all these people who want to experience the rare patch of green space but are more interested in enjoying the beauty and flavor of the space than getting their hands dirty. And that’s OK. We want our farm to be accessible to everyone, regardless of their comfort level with compost.
Events are a great way to engage that part of our community while increasing utilization of the roof.
If we can operate as a farm in the day, a yoga or Pilates studio in the afternoon and a rehearsal dinner venue for a wedding party in the evening—all on the same rooftop—we’re fully activating that space.
Brown Paper Tickets Q: How has your events program grown and evolved?
Brooklyn Grange: At first, we were just hosting chefs and restaurants to whom we had sold produce for one or two dinners per season. But as we realized the growth potential and the beauty of such a communal experience—from the diverse crowd sharing a family-style meal, to the way urbanites communed with the farm itself—we decided to invest more of our time and resources into events.
It allowed us to expand our staff. But more than economic impact, we just love to party.
From simple tours of the farm to stunningly elegant weddings strewn with fresh flowers and twinkle lights, to some pretty raucous shindigs like the Butcher Paper Dinner Series that we host with our friends at Edible Queens, we are now home to one of the most diversified events programs in the city.
Nothing makes us happier than to see smiles on our guests’ faces as they watch the sun dip behind the Manhattan skyline while sipping a cold, locally produced beer or snacking on produce plucked from the ground mere moments prior.
Brooklyn Grange: Events allowed us to pursue the passions of so many members of our team. Our apiary director, Chase, loves teaching beekeeping workshops. Our events director, Michele, is leading honey tastings. Those two experiences merged into a great offering for corporate retreats. One of our newest team members, Robyn, is passionate about health and holistic wellness, so she’s putting together detox and yoga retreats.
These events all create revenue opportunities for the farm and the instructor alike. Ticketed events are the original crowd-funding platforms, except the participants are able to reap the rewards immediately.
Brown Paper Tickets Q: How do your events help you connect with communities your farms are a part of?
Brooklyn Grange: We try to listen to the feedback we receive on social media and from visitors. One thing we heard time and time again was that folks wanted to practice mat fitness classes, particularly yoga and Pilates, on the farm. Those are now weekly classes at the Navy Yard location June through September. We are all stronger and more flexible because of it.
Brown Paper Tickets Q: Major challenges organizing events in a non-traditional event space?
Brooklyn Grange: We had to troubleshoot some pretty unique challenges as we developed our events program. We quickly realized that our compostable paper plates plan was a bust after spending half an hour combing produce rows for cups and plates that had blown around in the stiff, rooftop breeze. Then there’s the tent gamble: it seems like the forecast always predicts a 50/50 chance of rain leading up to an event. To tent the event or keep it al fresco so guests can enjoy the gorgeous skyline views and starry skies?
The uniqueness keeps things lively. We’re transparent with guests about the ways our farm differs from a traditional venue so there’s no expectation inconsistency. And we remind attendees of evening events to bring layers, because you wouldn’t believe how much cooler it is on the roof than at ground level once the sun goes down. We also harp on visiting chefs not to use light, leafy garnishes. We don’t love watching them blow off the plates.
Brooklyn Grange: We couldn’t host our events without the help and support of communities in our buildings. Our landlords at the Long Island City farm are really into food, so it’s not unusual for our event guests to realize the guy seated next them at a dinner party is the building owner. The proprietors of Coffeed Cafe at our Long Island City farm are the patron saints of rooftop farmers—they feed us, and our guests, and are always gracious when we need to borrow pitchers, steal buckets of ice on hot days, or urns of hot water on chilly evenings. The security force at the Navy Yard are wonderfully hospitable with our guests in helping folks find our building and get up to the farm. Walkie-talkies… they really came in handy.
The most important tool we use is our ticketing platform. It’s not an exaggeration when I say Brown Paper Tickets has allowed us to expand our events offerings from private lunches and dinners to the diverse range of public events lined up for 2014. We’re a tiny team, so streamlining the booking, communications and accounting process is essential. And the amazing and seemingly tireless customer support staff has been clutch in helping us convey any last-minute changes to our guests.
Brown Paper Tickets Q: Advice for non-traditional event organizers (whose core work isn’t events)?
Brooklyn Grange: Focus on the things about which you’re passionate. If you love to cut a rug, throw a dance party. If you’ve got two left feet and two green thumbs, teach a gardening class. But keep your space in mind. Let it speak to you and tell you what it wants to be. If you have a really long, narrow space that opens up into a big room, maybe you should consider making some contacts in the fashion world and hosting runway shows. It’s really important not to try and fit a square peg into a round hole. Just remember to have fun! Fun spreads faster than weeds in a wet July, so if you and your team are enjoying yourselves, your guests will, too.
Always remember who you are. At our core, we are a farm. Growing nutritious, tasty food is our passion. Doing so in New York is our dream. We believe food should be fresh, not sitting on a flatbed for weeks. At the end of the day, it’s about sitting down with our family, admiring that sunset over the city skyline, snacking on a perfectly ripe, sweet tomato and remembering: this is what real food is.