Storey says that while vertical aquaponics and hydroponics is no doubt a response to environmental concerns, the approach is also business-driven. “Energy is expensive, so reducing reliance on traditional energy sources is not just more environmentally sound but also economically sound,” he says. “Part of reducing energy inputs is tripling our production per square foot. It means that we can reduce our energy consumption per unit of output by 66 percent.” In other words, the small farmer has fewer overhead costs.
Of course, right now, vertical aquaponics is not a money-maker for larger commercial outfits, but even in the face of traditional horizontal farming approaches, there are some practitioners. The largest, FarmedHere, operates in a 90,000-square-foot greenhouse just outside Chicago. And in municipalities all over the country, from farmers’ markets to backyard goats, we’re already seeing popular interest in what Storey calls “a kind of grass-roots renaissance in the small-producer farming economy.” Storey is confident in vertical aquaponics’ viability for larger operations, but there’s a caveat: “To make this new economy happen, we need to start using urban and high-value land and real estate more efficiently, and that means growing up, but growing up intelligently.”
Brooklyn Grange—the leading rooftop-farming and greenroofing business in the U.S.—agrees, in principle. But the founders, Ben Flanner and Anastasia Cole Plakias, are “growing up” in a different way.
Flanner, who previously worked in consulting and online marketing, cultivated a fascination with farming while daydreaming on the job, especially in regards to how agriculture “will influence our earth’s future—our growing population, climate change, land preservation, international trade, and of course, public health.” When he and Plakias set out to start their operation, Flanner says, “We looked across the city and saw the potential in the thousands of roofs, and set out to find good roof space.”
In Gabrielle Langholtz’ WNYC profile of Brooklyn Grange, she reports that the pair found their farms by using Google Earth satellite images “to scan for big, flat, sunny rooftops” and that in the process of scouting, guerilla-style, set off their “fair share of alarms.” By 2012, they’d rented vertical space in two boroughs—with farms in Long Island City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Brooklyn Grange grows salad greens and leafy greens, root crops, tomatoes, peppers, and rotating seasonal crops including the likes of eggplants, berries, and tomatillos. They are especially proud of their “crisp, colorful, ever-evolving salad mixes and our sweet heirloom tomatoes in the peak of the summer season.” They sell at farmer’s markets, as well as wholesale to New York restaurants and retailers, and maintain a thriving 24-week CSA—which includes, season and stock depending, flowers, hot sauce, and honey cultivated in their very own rooftop apiary.