NYC Start-up Brings Hydroponics to the People

August 29, 2011 at 2:27 pm Leave a comment

© Photo by Margarida Correia. See caption at bottom of article.

In the vast expanse of barren rooftops that mark this north Brooklyn neighborhood, one stood out far above the rest:  the one atop Bushwick Starr Theatre.  It was the only roof with plants — all happily soil-free, or “hydroponic.”

Rather than soil-filled terracotta pots, the plants grew in trays and tubs attached to tubes that piped in liquid nutrients. Most grew vertically, like the tomatoes and cucumbers climbing the roof fence and onto a trellis.  Others — the bok choy and collard greens, for instance — grew sideways from the side of a wall built from milk crates.

The plants – green and laden with vegetables – seemed at home in the Willie Wonkaesque environment.  Miniature melon-shaped “Mexican sour” cucumbers dangled from plant stems like earrings.  Peppers lounged under the shade of floppy leaves, while the herbs — basil, thyme, sage, parsley — basked in the sun.

The rooftop Eden functions as a lab for Lee Mandell, founder of Boswyck Farms, a start-up business that designs and builds hydroponic growing systems for residents, nonprofits and other small organizations in New York City.  Mandell tests and tinkers with the systems on the roof — as well as those in his loft apartment nearby — to see which ones work best for which plants.

“We test everything here.  When we deliver, we want to make sure the systems are bullet-proof,” said Mandell who has built systems for the Fountain House and the Child Development Support Corporation (CDSC), two non-profit organizations.

Boswyck Farms highlights yet another turn in the urban agriculture movement: individuals and small organizations are setting up on-site alternative systems for growing food. The systems are especially relevant in communities that lack access to fresh produce.

“One of our core missions is to bring high-quality food to areas of New York City that don’t have it,” said Mandell.

CDSC produces 150 heads of lettuce weekly with the hydroponic system that Mandell built and installed for the organization in May.  The lettuce grows indoors in three double-tiered, 20-foot-long rows that occupy 300 square feet of space.

CDSC installed the hydroponic system to supply its food pantry with fresh produce.  It harvests the lettuce Thursdays at 9:30 a.m., just 30 minutes before opening the pantry to the public.

“You don’t get it fresher than that,” said Mandell.

In addition to lettuce, the hydroponic farm at CDSC will produce bok choy and collard greens.

Mireille Massac, public relations coordinator at CDSC, liked the fact that greens would be available year-round for pantry clients.

“The season ends in October.  This will go on in the dead of winter,” she said.

Hydroponic farming also offers many environmental benefits.  Among other advantages, it uses 70% to 90% less water and is two to three times more productive per square foot than conventional, soil-based growing, said Mandell.

As big a proponent of hydroponics as he is, Mandell is not anti-soil.  He likes dirt and often visits Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, a soil-based urban farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to get his “soil fix.”

“Hydroponics is just one component of decentralizing the food production system and bringing good food into the hands of the people,” said Mandell.

Mandell looked out into the vast landscape of empty rooftops. “There’s a lot of land up in the air,” he said.  “It would be great to see all the rooftops being used – for wind, solar, food production.  It’s an amazingly underutilized resource.”

Caption for photo above: Lee Mandell, founder of Boswyck Farms, harvests hydroponic tomatoes from a 1,000-square-foot rooftop test growing facility in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

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Entry filed under: City Farmers, Local Food Production, Rooftop Gardening, Urban Agriculture. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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