Brooklyn Harvest: Boswyck Farms

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Boswyck Farms, a thriving hydroponics farm, is hidden on the rooftop of the Bushwick Starr, the theater on the second floor of an unassuming apartment building in Bushwick. Once you enter the outdoor space, you’re greeted by an intricate hydroponics system—white rails, vertical cubby holes, trays, hedges and more, all growing greens and vegetables. Hydroponics is, according to Boswyck Farm founder Lee Mandell, “at its most basic, growing without soil.” Instead of dirt, the plants rely on moisture which is fed through pumps and air.

Boswyck Farms started five years ago after Mandell read an article about vertical farming and visited the Science Barge, a prototype urban farm, where he was introduced to the magical ways of hydroponic farming. Obsessed with the idea of starting his own farm, he left his computer programming job and roped Chloe Bass, Boswyck’s communications and outreach specialist into joining him. The Bushwick Starr, where Mandell and Bass worked together, asked if they wanted the space and power, they said yes, and the farm began.

Hydroponic crops can be grown in small spaces, making the system especially attractive to New Yorkers. “Since you’re feeding the roots directly, they don’t need to get as big,” Mandell said. “So more energy goes into foliage and fruit production, which is one of the reasons that you get higher production out of hydroponics than out of soil, because the plants don’t have to do as much work creating roots.”

Check out the recipe for Boswyck Farms Hydroponic Pesto that Mandell shared with us>>>

“We just want to demonstrate to people what is possible,” Bass said. “To say, ‘Oh, we can come set up a farm for you, you need an acre of soil.’ That’s not something most people can do. If you say you want to make something accessible to people, you have to do it in the conditions they have, not in the conditions you would ideally want to have. We can really offer that, I’m happy to say.”

“There so far has not been a space that’s been proposed to us that we can’t do,” Mandell added.

Alex Middleton is in charge of what’s actually in the farm, which includes tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce (four to five different kinds, as opposed to the two found in most grocery stores, according to Middleton), watermelon, arugula, peppers, eggplants, purslane, mint, carrots, kale, basil, cilantro, broccoli, and squash. He also takes care to include products that aren’t necessarily available everywhere, like nasturtium (“You can eat the whole thing,” he said, “you can eat the the leaves, the stems, the whole flower is edible.”), shiso, and tomato berries. “Pretty much nothing here’s run of the mill,” he added.

Education has also become a big component for Boswyck Farm. Their main focus is with transfer schools, where students who have dropped out or failed high schools can go.

“I want to teach the kids how to think critically, solve problems, and work together,” Mandell said. “All things that aren’t actually taught in our high schools these days, which seems so completely fundamental to me and to the whole company. Luckily, since we come as an addition to a teacher in the classroom, we can do all these things. We don’t have as many limitations as the teachers in the classroom.”

“We never wanted to be a commercial farm,” Bass said. “And as we honed our focus, doing the educational programs at a bigger level just made sense. Running the company has been as much scientific experimentation as what we actually do and you see what works based on the data of your experience. Everything else just fell away and education agreed with us.”

Boswyck also works with food pantries, including the Child Development Support Corporation, where the staff helps build indoor grow rooms so the organizations can harvest and produce fresh food for its patrons. “They harvest roughly an hour hour and a half before folks come to the pantry, so people at these food pantries are getting fresher lettuce than anybody in New York City,” Mandrell explained.

“Part of the core of our mission is to help bring the highest quality of food to everybody in the city because we have this crazy idea that everyone deserves it.”