A compost project grows in Brooklyn
By Candice Huber
Brooklyn Grange is a rooftop farm operation that grows a variety of vegetables and markets them to the local community. I say farm “operation” because they are more than just a farm. They have two rooftop farms complete with egg-laying hens, a commercial apiary, mushroom production, educational programs, consultations on green-roof technology, and rooftop events. Located in a city of eight million people, the founders of Brooklyn Grange have realized that the road to success lies in community partnerships and cooperation.
One of the rooftop farms is located within the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Navy Yard is an urban industrial park with over 200 businesses –designers, builders, tech firms, cafes, and coffee roasters – all which, in one way or another, create organic waste in their daily operations. Whether the waste is sawdust, coffee grounds, or employee lunches, it costs money to have it carted away to landfills.
At the same time, Ben Flanner and the rest of the Brooklyn Grange team were spending money on having compost delivered to their rooftop farm, right above these businesses. They realized that, by turning the waste from the businesses into compost, they could reduce fees on both sides as well as saving the time and fuel of trucking.
With the help of a SARE Community Grant award, Brooklyn Grange implemented a plan to pull together the businesses, set up a composting site, manage the compost process, and apply the compost to their farm, while at the same time educating the community on how and why to compost their scraps. The goal was to close the loop: As people and businesses in the community contributed compostable waste, they then bought back that waste after it has been transformed into fresh vegetables.
The compost project is located on the lot that belongs to the King’s County Distillery, which contributes spent grain to the piles. To collect waste from the other businesses 64 gallon toters are distributed around the Navy yard and are wheeled back and forth to the piles.
Along with the spent grains from the distillery, materials from the different businesses include fish, coffee grounds, chaff, chocolate husk, sawdust, and wood chips. The compost team also takes contributions from farmers markets, florists, landscapers, and even horse manure from Prospect Park stables.
The quality of the incoming materials is generally quite high, although some effort is required to sort out any inorganic materials like twist ties or rubber bands. The compost managers found they couldn’t follow a specific recipe, as the quantity and availability of different materials ebbs and flows. But by paying attention to what is working and why, they are able to constantly adjust their piles to maintain the biological activity needed to break down the materials.
The piles are turned on a regular basis to provide oxygen, and water is added as needed. Spent coffee grounds were found to be a good source of moisture for the piles as well as adding nitrogen. And New York City has lots of coffee grounds! Also, by properly tending to the piles, they have no issues with odors or rodents, both a common concern about composting in urban settings.
After the curing pile is satisfactorily broken down, the compost is sifted using a bicycle powered sifter before moving the finished product to the farm. Well over 100,000 pounds of organic material was processed in the first year of their project, producing over 75 yards of finished compost.
The totes are used again to get the finished compost up to the rooftop farm; it gets taken on a winding stroll through alleyways and a ride up in the elevator to the eighth floor of Building #3, which is a lush, 65,000 square foot oasis towering over the East River with a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. The compost is carefully incorporated into the soil, and the result is crate upon crate of vegetables headed out to local markets.
There is a lot going on this rooftop – the vegetables, the chickens, the bees, the education, and the events – but most important is the connection. Ben and his team are constantly striving for ways to involve the community in their farm by reaching out, raising awareness, providing opportunities, and working together towards common goals.