Q&A: NYC ROOFTOP FARMER ANNIE NOVAK

Annie Novak is founder and director of Growing Chefs field-to-fork food education program; the Assistant Manager of the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden at the New York Botanical Gardens, and co-founder and farmer of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A lifelong vegetarian, Annie’s passion for agriculture began while working in Ghana with West African chocolate farmers. She has since followed food to its roots has taken her to Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Turkey, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Fiji, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Alaska, Tanzania, through the West and Midwest; her adventures are cheerfully blogged at www.growingchefs.org. Here she answers a few questions about life on the farm, and what makes her tick:

1. How would you describe yourself? I’m above-average height with a far-above-average interest in vegetables.

2. How did the rooftop farm come about? The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is the product of some brainstorming between television and movie production company Broadway Stages and New York based green roof company Goode Green. I had the great fortune to be pulled in early on the very exciting conversation of turning a regular green roof into a produce-producing site.

3. What’s your background? I’m a ground level farmer and horticulturalist by training, and was actually rather skeptical of the rooftop idea until the wheels were set in motion.  In college, I studied chocolate agriculture, then spend a few years after college working with New York State farmers, falling in love with garlic and tomatoes.  Putting it all on a roof only makes sense in a city like New York, where concrete sidewalks outnumber any grass-based space.

4. What are your first thoughts when you wake up the morning? During the growing season — I hope it rains this week. Off-season — Sweet, I can sleep in (until 9am).

5. How do you like to relax? My mother taught me how to draw, and more importantly, she taught me that drawing makes you feel better.  When I was in high school, I first came across artists like Lille Carre, Vanessa Davis and Chris Ware, and realized it was a totally acceptable pastime to document your entire day-to-day minutia in comic chronicles.  What a relief! I could sketch away my stresses. Many a worrying windstorm battering at the rooftop chicken coop and staked tomatoes has been forcibly ignored by doodling pictures of people I have crushes on.  The final panel is always me winning their hearts by riding up on my super-sweet bicycle or something awesome like that.

6. What’s your favourite way to spend down time in NYC? I love biking in New York City.  A few years ago my friends started me alley cat racing. You zip around the City on a single speed bike through a series of check points listed on a manifesto.  Since the races are often fifteen or more miles, you have to know where you’re going pretty well.  Now I commute from Brooklyn to the Bronx (a distance of about 12 miles) for work (at the New York Botanical Garden). Some people eat their way through New York City’s restaurants, or learn all the good places to shop, in order to feel like they’re a New Yorker.  As for me, I like to make sure that I never get lost in the city.

7. What’s your favourite foodie treat? Fresh vegetables.  It shouldn’t be a privilege.

8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? Plant trees, not just seeds.  Oh, and a good night’s sleep solves most problems.

9. What’s your most treasured possession? Fortunately everything I own is a bit of a treasure; from drawings that my mother has done for me to a well-used pair of pruners.  But I make a habit of not overly treasuring objects – they can so easily be lost or damaged.  The reality is I am lucky to have few beloved things that I wouldn’t give away freely, and what I treasure the most are adventures and experiences.  It makes me feel unequivocally light and happy when I’m on a farming trip with nothing but a notebook, an apple, and a canteen of water.  Nothing is as good as a sunny day.

10.What are you coveting right now? I’m taking my first vacation during the growing season this year. Usually I have to wait for the New York City off-season to get out of town.  But this June I’m going to Paris, to see some of the finest potager gardens in France.  I’m practicing my best “S.v.p. laissez-moi visiter votre jardin!”  Hopefully I’ll make it over to London, as well.  Garden culture is so much stronger in Europe than it is here, and I’m really eager to hug some 800-year-old oak trees.

“In college, I studied chocolate agriculture, then I spent a few years  working with New York State farmers, falling in love with garlic and tomatoes”

“It makes me feel unequivocally light and happy when I’m on a farming trip with nothing but a notebook, an apple, and a canteen of water.  Nothing is as good as a sunny day.”

“Many a worrying windstorm battering at the rooftop chicken coop and staked tomatoes has been forcibly ignored by doodling pictures of people I have crushes on.  The final panel is always me winning their hearts by riding upon my super-sweet bicycle or something awesome like that.”

“Hopefully I’ll make it over to London. Garden culture is so much stronger in Europe than it is here, and I’m really eager to hug some 800-year-old oak trees.”

Photos by The Selby

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8 thoughts on “Q&A: NYC ROOFTOP FARMER ANNIE NOVAK

  1. This is such a super idea. I’m totally smitten by this idea. I have the most perfect flat roof on my block of flats. I wonder however, if Tower Hamlets’ Council would be as keen? I’m rather keen on all the furry animals too. Bees would be wicked. So jealous.

  2. Oh, Annie I just love you and your worthwhile endeavors! I still have a thank you note or two with your charming and very clever cartoons…

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