Book Review: “The Farm on The Roof” by Anastasia Cole Plankias

The Farm on The Roof by Anastasia Cole Plankias

This is an interesting little book from the folks of Brooklyn Grange, a functioning, absolutely for-profit roof top farm in NYC.

Part of the story is, of course, “You want to do what? Where? Are you nuts?

Nuts or not, they are doing it, and have kept all the balls in the air for five years and more now. “Walking the walk” doesn’t even begin to describe the gritty, no-foolin’, pure straight up “doing it”, that is urban farming. As they say, they “took real action to create actual change”. (p. 78) There ain’t nothing realer than farming.

From the title, I was expecting to learn a bit about roof top farming, and there is some of that in here. But most of the book is about creating a sustainable, community-based business. “Sustainable” both ecologically and financially. And they have much to say on that topic, and much of it is valuable guidance for any business or enterprise.

Of course, farming is probably the hardest case of all (except maybe for healing the afflicted). Successful farming is brutally difficult work, subject to bad luck, bad weather, bad judgment, and any number of other “bads”. The payoff is thin in the best of cases, and easily can easily be negative.

Farming in a city adds layers of challenge and uncertainty: rough, human built terrain and swirling political waters may threaten the farm at any moment, to name two. Power failure knocks out elevator? How do we get tons of materials up and product down? Landlord sells property, new owner ejects tenants? You can’t really move 1,000 tons of farm to a new location.

But urban farming also has advantages, too, which the Brooklyn Grange exploits. The farm is embedded in a community, with customers and neighbors and business partners close by. The BG people have, from the beginning, relied on the kindness of others in the form of community support.

The farm is all about interaction and fostering community.” (p. 237)

They believe that “community” means something physical and personal, not the vaporous “community” of social media. Even in urban crowds, people are absorbed by the “community” accessible via their (inappropriate) little touchscreens, oblivious to the people next to them, to “the physicality of our fellow humans.” (p. 236)

The farm makes you acutely aware of the bodily presence of others…” and it is “a space for face-to-face conversation….” (p. 237) In this, the rooftop far is a “kind of refuge from the alienation of city life in the digital age.” This is a direct and positive response to the malaise described in Sensei Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation” and Sense Greenfields “Mind Change“.

A refuge for the farmers, for the neighbors, and for kids growing up in the city. If it were nothing else, this would be a contribution, don’t you think?

The Brooklyn Grange folks have also built a web of business activities that provide income to support the farm.

From the beginning, we understood we would need to derive income from sources other than produce sales.” (p. 206)

Aside from the variety of crops intensively coaxed from the beds, the other businesses include consultation and installations and events at the farm. These businesses exploit the farm and the knowledge of the farmers, and generate money. They also generate good feeling, community, and green jobs.

It is an inspiring story, but it is also educational.

You’ll also read about the people on the team, and see some of the secrets of successful collaboration. They show us that, if everyone agrees on the goal, and trusts each other, then you can make it through most anything.

The BG people would tell you that you should pursue your passion and you can achieve amazing things. But this book should also convince you that (a) farming is not for weaklings or hobbyists and (b) passion must be harnessed to serious thought and planning.

Serious thought and planning.

They make clear that all the heroic, back-breaking labor in the world will be wasted if there is no viable business plan, or if you are breaking your back doing useless stuff. For that reason you’ll read a lot about collecting and analyzing data, and making decisions based on rational analysis.

Tough stuff, not for the faint hearted or the lightweight romantic. Farming is a tough business, and they are tough-minded people.

Not that they don’t love the farm and enjoy the beauty of their urban oasis, or value their social contributions. They truly do.

[W]e love coming to work not because we make loads of money. We Don’t. We love it because we love the people, and we love the beauty of the ecosystem with which we’ve established a kind of symbiosis. Even the most misanthropic biophobe would have a hard time resisting the seduction of a beautiful day at Brooklyn Grange.” (p. 259)

What more has to be said?

Only one more thing to say: “Keep it up.”


  1. Anastasia Cole Plankias, The Farm on The Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us About Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business, New York, Avery, 2016.

 

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