Sustainable urban farming hits the roof – literally, and on several levels. A rooftop farm, Sky Vegetables, in the low income food desert known as the South Bronx is paving the way to greener inner city neighborhoods everywhere. It’s a farm that residents will no doubt look up to for multiple reasons, the most obvious being that the totally closed unit occupies the rooftop of a newly constructed 8-story apartment building.
While urban farms aren’t new to New York City, the Sky site toward the north end of the metropolis isn’t a touring stop. It’s a serious agricultural operation that will supply fresh, locally grown food to the neighborhood via harvest boxes through community supported
agriculture programs, and through markets across the Bronx borough. All produce is grown without pesticides or insecticides in greenhouses that will use solar power and rainwater harvesting. Unlike many other urban farms across the country, Sky Farm is a totally hydroponic operation.
Partnerships Are Big At Sky
Keith Agoada, founder of Sky Vegetables, began planning the now functioning rooftop farm in 2009. Construction on the greenhouse project took 2 years to complete, and started the first crop in February 2013. The first harvest planned for late spring. Along the way, Agoada
formed partnerships with a team of highly qualified professionals, each with a distinct set of skills and knowledge to take the fledgling farm from startup to success in short order. The scientific advisory board includes Will Allen from Milwaukee’s Growing Power, and Michael Christian from American Hydroponics.
The South Bronx is a place that has distinct cultural groups, each with their own organizations. In forming partnerships with local neighborhood groups, Sky Vegetables ensures that good food is being made available to people living in the blocks surrounding the farm. Plans include hiring and training from the neighborhood to fill the duties of caring for the crops, harvest, distribution, and community outreach. Since his initial concept to what is now a reality, Agoada always saw teaching people in the neighborhood how the growing operation ticks as part of his big picture.
Arbor House, which sits beneath Sky Farm, is not your average affordable rent building. Freshly completed by Blue Sea Development, the 124-unit housing project is a model in green building and sustainable living for the city, the state, and literally all of the United States. Adding a vegetable farm to the roof is like the icing on the cake. “It is an exciting project,” as Laurie Schoeman, NYC Community Relations Manager for Sky puts it. Nothing quite like it exists elsewhere. Innovation abounds between the marriage of green building to greenhouse rooftop farm. The partnership between Sky Vegetables and Blue Sea is one to be proud of. For residents, the place is full of healthy lifestyle perks from the living green wall in the foyer to music in the stairways, and on to energy efficiency that will allow them more affordable utility bills. While residents might not be able to access the farm casually, it provides important heating and cooling benefits to their homes. Arbor House is constructed mainly with recycled materials, and was awarded both a Platinum LEEDS certification, and NAHB Green certification.
The Crops and Systems
Under the direction of master hydro farmer, Joe Schwartz, and his assistant Kate Ahearn, winter crops provide the neighborhood with lots of fresh greens, including kale, 5 kinds of lettuce, chard and basil. Warmer weather will bring more sunshine, and the crops will change to take advantage of that, versus the use of grow lights needed to supplement on days with less than 6 hours of sunlight. Grow lights are also used for germination to ensure the process is smooth.
All growing equipment used in the rooftop farm comes from American Hydroponics. Sky Farm will employ 20 full time and 10 part time workers. They’re using NFT with flood and drain setups for seed germination. They anticipate yields of 300-400 tons of local fresh produce every year from the 8000 square foot growing space.
Rooftop Farm Aiming High
Sky Farm, and Arbor House in the Bronx offers the world a model for sustainable development, and building integrated agriculture. On a mission to improve city dwellers’ health and nutrition, Sky Vegetables also seeks to help localize the economy, help educate community residents and youth to growing fresh food, create new jobs, along with promoting healthy eating through community programming.[alert type=white ]This article was originally published in Garden Culture Magazine, Issue 3 under the title,”Uber Green Farm Above”.[/alert]