Go Fish: A Next-Gen Rooftop Farm Is Set to Sprout in New York

VertiCulture Farms seeks to bring aquaponic agriculture to Brooklyn.

Rooftops in Brooklyn. (Photo: Simone Becchetti/Getty Images)

Dec 2, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It says something good about the direction we’re heading when reports of a new rooftop farm cropping up somewhere like New York doesn’t exactly feel like news. But the new farm envisioned by VertiCulture Farms cofounders Ryan Morningstar, Miles Crettien, and Peter Spartos several stories up in Brooklyn manages to take the burgeoning trend to a whole new (and yes, newsworthy) level.

Early in November, the trio launched a funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise $10,000 to create what appears to be New York’s first commercial-scale aquaponic rooftop farm, where they plan to not only raise locally grown herbs and vegetables but also fresh fish. With just hours to go (as of this writing), they’ve already surpassed their goal by $1,000, and it seems they plan to waste no time in putting that cash to good use—they’ve already invited donors to tour the farm come mid-January.

Ryan Morningstar. (Photo: Indiegogo)

The new VertiCulture farm will be set atop a converted industrial building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. Outfitted with fish tanks and vertical grow beds, the farm will yield the equivalent of 380 square feet of produce in just 120 square feet of space. It’s an ingenious little man-made ecosystem, really: The tilapia provide the nutrients that feed the plants, while the plants filter the fish’s water. (VertiCulture is even investigating how to close the loop completely by figuring out how to raise food for the vegetarian tilapia on-site.)

“When we look out at Brooklyn, we see opportunity,” Crettien says in a promotional video for the VertiCulture funding campaign. “We see the potential for commercial-scale farming that will grow enough food to feed the people who live here directly.”

He’s not alone, of course. Back in 2010, Brooklyn Grange began a project that would eventually become the world’s largest rooftop urban farm, sprawling some 2.5 acres across two rooftops in Brooklyn and producing a whopping 50,000 pounds of organic produce each year.

Products of VertiCulture Farms. (Photo: Indiegogo)

Yet even with the proliferation of such success stories, there’s plenty of opportunity for more. In a city that reigns as one of the most densely populated on Earth, where soaring demand has pushed luxury condo towers ever higher—and sent real estate prices into the stratosphere—New York’s rooftops remain a largely untapped resource. As The New York Times reported a while back, there’s almost a billion square feet of rooftop across the city, most of which persists as desolate asphalt wasteland.

Which is a shame, because we know that green roofs have all sorts of environmental benefits, including dramatically reducing heating and cooling costs, and soaking up rainwater (up to 90 percent in the summer), which prevents all that runoff from swamping the city’s aging storm sewers.

And if you’re going to go green on the roof, why settle for the equivalent of a suburban-style lawn when you can actually raise food you can eat? You can’t get much more locally grown than hauling your vine-ripened tomatoes down the elevator to distribute to residents below.

It’s this aspect that makes the VertiCulture project even more outstanding, because in addition to ticking off all the boxes when it comes to sustainability, the project’s founders also plan to serve Brooklynites who haven’t exactly been part of the borough’s whole organic/artisanal/foodie renaissance.

“New York is a place that’s rich in opportunity and at the same time ridden with inequality,” Morningstar says in the video. “You walk through some neighborhoods and there are farmers markets, CSA pickups, Whole Foods. Then you walk through other neighborhoods, and the only place you can get fresh produce is a bodega.”

To help remedy that, VertiCulture’s team wants to sell its harvest at nearby farmers markets, as well as establish a sliding-scale CSA for the local community.

“We are really a social-mission-driven company,” Morningstar tells Brooklyn Magazine. “One of the things we really want to do is to provide fresh, affordable food for people who don’t necessarily have the best access to it.”