Shepherding Vegetables From Roof to Restaurant

Liz Dowd, 33, of Brooklyn, is a farm manager for Brooklyn Grange.

Liz Dowd, 33, a rooftop farmer, is a manager for Brooklyn Grange Farm in New York.

What’s your farm like, and where is it?

We grow produce on the roofs of two buildings in New York City, one atop Building 3 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the other in Long Island City in Queens.

My work space on top of the Standard Motor Products Building on Northern Boulevard in Long Island City has a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of all five city boroughs. You can’t say that about the farms where I grew up outside Burlington, Vermont.

What’s different about farming on city roofs?

We use a lightweight soil specifically made for rooftop farming — ours is called Rooflite — which retains water and drains well. We have more than a million pounds of the soil lifted to the top of our roofs.

Our beds are only 10 to 12 inches deep, which means we plant more intensely, getting more plants in one bed. With shallower soil, it also means we need to use different tools and get more creative with things like trellising tomatoes.

How did you learn this farming technique?

I kept a strawberry patch with my mom as a kid at home in rural Essex, Vermont. I moved to New York City in 2003 to study photography but then became homesick for dirt.

Living in Brooklyn, I turned a large backyard into a garden. Then I took intensive classes for seven months in urban farming at the Youth Farm in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and eventually became a manager there. In 2016 I saw an opening at Brooklyn Grange and jumped at the chance.

How many types of vegetables and fruits do you grow?

On a total of 2.5 acres between our two farms, we have about 50 different crops — tomatoes, peppers, arugula, mustards, green beans, eggplant, cucumber, strawberry, plus several kinds of herbs. We grow about 50,000 pounds of organically cultivated produce each year.

Aside from sellling to restaurants, members of Community Supported Agriculture groups and directly to the public via weekly farm stands, what else does the Brooklyn Grange do?

We do guided tours and host workshops. We have youth programming in collaboration with an organization called City Growers. With the Queens-based Refugee and Immigrant Fund’s Urban Farm Recovery Project, we’ve trained refugees from Africa, Asia and Central America, who get work experience and build their résumés, as well as engage in therapeutic horticultural activities.

We host a multicourse vegetarian feast called Veggiepalooza, an annual tomato dinner and what we call Butcher Paper Dinners in Long Island City. We also host beekeeping training programs. We even have yoga classes on the roof amid the garden beds.

Do you have direct contact with chefs?

I do. It’s very rewarding to find out what they want. For instance, we can grow tiny purple edible flowers to top their dishes if that’s what they want.

I have a very close relationship with Balthazar, on Manhattan’s lower West Side, where I have worked as a waitress for more than 10 years and still serve on Saturday nights. What a pleasure to see the fruits of my daytime labor cooked so well, and watch happy well-fed faces. Sometimes I get to be the delivery person at both ends of that produce’s journey — farmer to table.

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