When you hear the word “entrepreneur,” what image comes to mind? A hoodie-clad Stanford grad pitching his new tech app? An ex-investment banker opening his own shop? What about a thirtysomething woman growing vegetables on a rooftop?
Anastasia Cole Plakias, co-founder and vice president of Brooklyn Grange, fell into farming somewhat serendipitously. An aspiring food journalist, she met the founders of the soon-to-be-legendary pizzeria Roberta’s in 2009 while reporting on the blossoming Brooklyn food scene. At the time, she recalls, the restauranteurs were working on turning two shipping containers into a small farm for growing herbs and vegetables.
“I was completely blown away by their cavalier attitude of just doing it—without having planned and contingency planned,” Cole Plakias says. So impressed, in fact, that she abandoned her story to help them build it. In researching the project, she met Ben Flanner, who had built Eagle Street, a pilot farm on a 6,000-square-foot Brooklyn roof. She knew then that she wanted to take the concept that Roberta’s founders had planted in her head, and take it a step further. (The pizzeria still grows much of its own produce, but has not expanded into urban farming at a large scale.)
“In talking to Ben, it was pretty clear that for [these projects] to be [economically] sustainable, we needed more space,” she says—so she, Flanner, and their two partners decided to find it—right there in New York City.
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Flanner, the CEO and co-founder of the 2.5-acre enterprise, is considered a pioneer in urban farming circles for his system of growing food using existing green roof technology. An engineer by training and a former consultant, Flanner spends much of his time figuring out how to make the operation as lean as possible.
“There are obviously some logistical challenges to farming on a roof,” he says. “Some forms of mechanization aren’t available to us that would save us time and effort…and there are little things, like, after our harvest, we have to load up a freight elevator.”
Despite the hurdles, Brooklyn Grange has managed to be profitable (though the founders declined to share to what extent), largely thanks to the creative ways in which they use their space.
As Flanner puts it, “we farm during the day, but we’re still paying rent at night.” So they found ways to use the space after the workday is over, hosting community dinners, weddings, and yoga classes. “From the beginning, we realized that if these spaces were beautiful and if they were fun and happy places to be, that they would be valuable in other ways besides just the vegetables.”
There’s also a third side to Brooklyn Grange’s business: the co-founders consult and design for other farms.
Of course, finding the right mix of revenue streams didn’t come overnight. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned from all of this is that as an entrepreneur you are going to fail. Many, many times,” says Cole Plakias. There was an experiment in retail that went awry, crops that wouldn’t grow, and the endless challenges of having to adapt traditional farming techniques to their unique situation. “There was a lot of trial and error,” she says.
In the end, says Cole Plakias, running a farm—even if it is on a roof—is not all that different from any other business venture, with one exception: “The plants don’t care that I’m a woman.”