How They Got There: A Q&A With Rooftop Farmer Annie Novak

How They Got There: A Q&A With Rooftop Farmer Annie Novak

by Noah Davis

It was raining when I met Annie Novak. One wave of the torrential stuff had already passed — although more would come later as part of a record-breaking 24-hour period — but a steady drizzle was still falling as she showed me around Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, a 6,000-square-foot space on top of a converted Greenpoint warehouse. The view of the East River and the Manhattan skyline was stunning. The peppers looked bright and plump as water dripped off them onto the dirt/gravel/compost mix that makes their beds. For the past three years, Novak has run the farm, growing vegetables, teaching kids through a partnership with Growing Chefs and refining her business model. In breaks between chatting with the visitors who’d braved the rain to purchase her efforts, Novak chatted about the challenges of urban farming in Gotham, why she chose this life, and how a Chicago girl who grew up paging through Vogue with designs of “being fabulous” in New York” ended up digging dirt out of her fingernails year round.

How did you end up here on this rooftop in the rain?

I became involved at the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in 2009 as a co-founder when the idea was first proposed between the owner of the building, Broadway Stages, and the green roofing company Goode Green. The building owner had initially planned on doing a green roofing installation with regular sedum. The only thing my co-founder Ben Flanner and I really changed was the soil mixture to increase the level of organic matter in it, particularly the compost. Then my co-founder and I went loose with vegetables. He left the project five months later at the end of the first growing season. For the last two years, I’ve been farming it with an increasingly narrower crop list. The idea is that I’m really trying to perfect a balance of crops that are good yield for their time/square foot/dollar made and crops that botanically do well. We don’t water very much up here so it’s nice to grow plants that do just as well and are as tolerant of heat and lack of water as sedum. In vegetables that’s very rare, but we’ve managed to find some sweet spots with the crops.

What was your farming experience before you started Eagle Street?

When I was an undergraduate, chocolate agriculture was my thesis project. I did part of my degree in West Africa at the University of Cape Coast working with chocolate farmers in Kumasi, which is in the central region of Ghana. It’s a beautiful, beautiful part of the country, and they grow really delicious chocolate that’s marketed here in the U.S. under the brand Divine. It’s a British company. You can buy it at health-food stores. I was more interested in environmental issues but it’s really difficult to get people to care about that narrative. If you’ve ever walked down the sidewalk and crossed paths with a Greenpeace person with a clipboard, usually you break eye contact. I found that what I wanted to do was get people to realize that the way they eat their food mattered. The easiest way to do that was with chocolate. It’s a luxury good. It’s something people really care about. They recognize the high quality of it. I started with that and then when I graduated in 2005 I started working with local food for a number of reasons. One that was really life-changing was that my father died in a car accident. I thought of all the work I had done in West Africa and how hard it would be to go back to any equatorial region and be that far away from my family. I also wanted to do something that would allow my family to take care of itself. I became a farmer. My sister is a doctor, and my other sister does a lot of charity work for degenerative diseases. All of us are trying to figure out ways to take care of each other as women.

When I first got hooked on local food that had a lot to do with it. The thing that really sold it was that there are very few other careers where you can continuously improve. Your whole life’s work is finding mentors and continuously improving. I get more and more fascinated because vegetables are just infinitely interesting. The way that plants, insects and the environment interact is fascinating. That’s how I first got started. I don’t really see myself doing much else. Every time that I think I’m bored, there are four or five other chapters of this very narrow career that I can see myself getting better at.

When I first got hooked on local food that had a lot to do with it. The thing that really sold it was that there are very few other careers where you can continuously improve. Your whole life’s work is finding mentors and continuously improving.

Why New York?

When I was a little girl my mom subscribed to Vogue, W, and I think maybe Time and Newsweek, so I spent a lot of hours on the kitchen floor reading about fashion. I was totally in love with New York City. I grew up in Chicago, and it’s a beautiful city in its own right, but my aunt lived out here. She lived right across from H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side. We would come here, roller-skate and go to the Met. I was obsessed with the idea of going to college in New York. I applied to two schools in New York and one school elsewhere. I went to college out here specifically to pursue a career in writing and being fabulous. I went to Sarah Lawrence College and their whole mantra is “Follow Your Bliss.” It’s the Joseph Campbell motto, and I adore that idea. I adore the idea that if you put a good idea into the world, things flow toward you like water. It’s been 100-percent true if I set my mind on something. I’ve never, ever hit failure because New York is a place where that sort of thing is possible. You can get really big, really easily. Big is a relative term; it’s not like I’m a billionaire but I’ve been able to succeed in the things that I care about because this is a city that receives that really well.

At this point I would have a hard time moving. I’ve farmed in about 11 different countries practicing different crops with different farmers and different methodologies, but what I like about New York is we have a tomato season and we have a broccoli season. We have a cool season for our lettuces, and we have a hot season for our peppers. We grow gorgeous garlic. There are a lot of things that we try here that we are magnificent at, and although I can’t do hazelnuts and oranges like they do in California, I also don’t have their fungal diseases. I don’t have their water issues. And I definitely don’t have their locovore snobs. We are cultivating that crop here in New York, but so far it’s pretty DIY and realistic. I like that a lot.

It seems like you hit the local farming thing at the perfect time. I have friends who have all started growing tomatoes and other vegetables in their tiny backyards.

It’s very encouraging to see the thing that you care about the most become very popular. One thing I notice is that maybe four or five years ago, it was on the tip of everybody’s tongue and it was very trendy. About two years ago it hit a trend apex, and now it’s becoming culturally embedded. I think the turnover was when people took backyard hobbyism and became entrepreneurs. I find that really different from the last big rush of local food stuff in the ’70s or early ’80s. I find it very different from victory gardening. We are seeing people make a business out of it. Those individuals are less likely to decamp on the idea, which is what I feel like happened when the victory garden died after the 1970s. We went from the ’70s to the mid-to-late-’80s, which is like the worst transition ever. I can’t imagine anything worse than all those people who went to homestead in Pennsylvania having kids who were wearing scrunchies, loving Kris Kross and completely ignoring their values. They didn’t know how to can. I’m curious to see where it goes next. All your friends who are growing tomatoes in their backyard, I hope those people also actively vote, protest against hydrofracking, and connect the little thing that they are doing for their own sustenance and their own curiosity into something that will change policy. Because otherwise we’re going to burn out on it in a couple years. Their container gardens are just going to dry up and die.

How much do you focus on making Eagle Street a sustainable business model and how much is about finding the right combination of plants and experimenting?

From a practical perspective, we’re in our third year. Besides myself, there are four other employees that I pay. We stipend our apprentices. Nobody here is full time and nobody has full-time benefits at this job. But for what we’re trying to do, which is prove that you can keep a project like this independent — we don’t receive grants — that’s all going very well. The reason I focus on the horticultural stuff is because you can only make about $1, $1.50, $2 a square foot and at a 6,000-square-foot level I don’t know how we would make this too much more profitable than we are. So for me, the interest is making sure that it serves as an example for people who want to create larger scale projects or smaller scale projects on a personal level. That’s going very well. As a woman, I’m very interested in making sure that it’s a viable business model because I think we need more examples of woman who are leading small businesses, particularly something that is as individualized as this.

You spend time teaching kids through Growing Chefs, your job at the New York Botanical Gardens and other programs. Do you think the lessons of local food and gardening stick with them?

I know it does. At the botanical gardens I have kids who have been in my program as long as I’ve been working, and they’ve become my volunteers. They start at the age of six and when they’re 15, they’re allowed to work in our program. It’s incredible. These kids go home and teach their parents how to compost. Parents listen to kids. There’s so much research on the placement of cereal boxes on shelves. I remember reading that and thinking that if that were truth, if they are so powerful as consumers, that’s the demographic I want to work with. It keeps me cheerful. It keeps me challenged. And it makes me have hope that we actually are changing something. The interesting thing about the rooftop garden is that this is all 20-somethings and up. I’ve never worked with this demographic. It’s been interesting to see that enthusiasm.

What are some challenges of farming in the city?

In general, choosing to do farming is difficult. There are a lot of things that are out of your control. You can be very, very practiced, you can plan ahead, but then you get thrown a loop by the weather, by a disease, or what have you. There’s not a lot of difficulty that’s unique to being a rooftop farm. It’s stuff that you anticipate. Maybe the difficult thing is knowing that I can’t grow as much food as I’d like to. Being limited by the space of the roof is much more frustrating than you can imagine because we have such interest and there’s such a need out there for good food production. Sometimes I wish I was able to spread more dirt on more places. But it’s not something that happens as easily as you would hope because of the cost involved, the permitting and finding the right landlord.

I’m working a lot. And I always do, and I always have. I think part of it is that when you care a lot about the thing that you do and you’re lucky enough to get paid to do it, you don’t have a real reason to stop.

Are you starting a revolution? Will I look out in ten years over Greenpoint and see rooftop gardens there and there and there?

I think what we are hoping to inspire is just the spread of green roofs in general. Whether or not the green roofs produce food is something that is individual to the building owner and the people involved. Certainly, this is a city that needs more green roofs. We have a sewage system where the pipes are physically not large enough to accommodate the amount of septic waste and wastewater we produce. I would like to see more buildings, particularly in a city like New York where there is a lot of capital floating around. This isn’t the best time in the world, but we are known as a place where development is possible. The only thing that I can hope is that this project gets people excited about it, and that it’s seen as such a value to the building that more and more landowners decide that “Okay, I’m going to take away the soil footprint by putting in a building, but I’m going to keep that soil footprint and the capacity to hold storm water by putting a green roof on the top.” This is something that is not difficult. There’s new legislation out that says if your building is 100 feet or higher, you can put a green roof on without an excess of permitting as long as the green roof is four inches thick. It will make it easier for building owners.

You’re pretty much constantly working. Where does this end?

I’m working a lot. And I always do, and I always have. I think part of it is that when you care a lot about the thing that you do and you’re lucky enough to get paid to do it, you don’t have a real reason to stop. Although I do want a dog, and I haven’t got one because I don’t have time. That would be the key thing going on right now.

Where do I go next? I’m making plans for the winter. I usually get to go abroad. Last year I went to Tanzania. This year, I have to decide if I have the time to do it. There are a lot of places that I want to go and many more projects that I want to be involved in, but we’ll have to see how that goes. In the meantime, career-wise, Growing Chefs is a project I really care about. I’d like to see the cooking and the gardening workshops embedded in more nonprofits and more schools. I think there’s a never-ending need for that kind of work, so I can’t see that project slowing down any time soon. It’s been something that’s steadily growing for the last seven years.

I read your goal was to visit every country where salt and pepper is produced.

Yeah, it’s been a side project for a couple of years now. I’ve successfully gotten it in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Tanzania and many other places. It’s a good way to keep traveling. A lot of them are equatorial, which means I’m learning about foods that I couldn’t learn about here. I’ve learned an awful lot about bananas this past year. So that was cool.

Are your fingernails ever not dirty?

No. Golly, no. This is sort of an ongoing source of embarrassment. I’m very good friends with a family in Westchester. The father is a doctor. We were eating dinner a few days ago. I spent the night and the next morning he had left me two nail files — hospital equipment — and he said, “Please feel free to use this.” It’s how it goes. I think there’s a period at the end of February when there’s been enough of a lack of soil work where they’re clean but of course that doesn’t happen when I go down South.

Who should I talk to next?

Duke Riley.

Noah Davis is frequently lost.

Photo of Novak by Jackie Snow.