Margaret Shepherd is a greenhouse manager at Gotham Greens, a skyrocketing company that grows and delivers fresh, hyper-local greens from their rooftop greenhouses in New York City. In our conversation, we touched on hydroponics, robot greenhouses, Tibetan blessings, women in agriculture, vegetable dreams, and the wildness of being a farmer in NYC.
Can you give a little snapshot of what you all do at Gotham Greens?
Sure, we have 2 greenhouses now but we’re definitely growing. All the greenhouses are on rooftops. Since we’re in a city, that’s kind of the only space we found that’s available. It’s been really great. There are a lot of advantages. Obviously there are a lot of disadvantages of doing everything on top of a roof, but for instance at the greenhouse where I am right now, it’s on top of a Whole Foods. So when we do deliveries, we deliver throughout New York, but for a lot of deliveries I just bring them right downstairs. Customers can come look right out the window, see what’s going on, say, “That’s where I’m buying my lettuce from!” They can meet us, meet the farmers, and you don’t really get that in a city, so that’s exciting.
We’re all hydroponic, so we have lettuce and basil, and in this greenhouse in the back we have tomatoes. It’s all pesticide-free, not technically organic because that’s a whole other field, but we don’t use anything that’s not organic. GMO-free, all that good stuff. We sell just to places in New York. We sell 365 days a year, which is really helpful, especially for the workers because they’ve got jobs throughout the year, which is pretty incredible for agriculture. And then for instance in Hurricane Sandy, we still had lettuce. A lot of the farms in upstate New York and around here got washed out, so we were one of the only ones.
In this greenhouse, it’s all automated. If it starts raining, the roofs will close. If it’s really hot, the roofs will open. It’s all automatic. Same with the windows. We’ve got shade curtains for when it’s too sunny, which also work for insulation in the winter time. For our form of pesticide use, we use bugs. We release beneficial bugs to eat the pests that we have here, so that keeps it down without having to use harsh chemicals.
Wow, it sounds like a robot greenhouse.
Yeah, it’s very futuristic-feeling here. I’ve worked on farms before this, and it’s not like that. Sometimes I learned more about food safety from working in a restaurant that helped me here than from working on a farm. There’s no dirt here, no soil. There’s a lot of science involved, so it’s very clean and…feels very futuristic.
The New Yorker has featured some awesome cover art of green rooftops and garden paradises in the city. What do you think it is about visions like these that stir our imaginations so much?
I love seeing rooftop gardens popping up all over the city! As more and more of the world is becoming urban, our greenspace is being taken away. I love that people are starting to utilize roofs to bring back plant life into the cities. I do worry, though, from an engineering standpoint about people putting more plants on a roof than it can handle. Once the weight of the root systems, water, soil/substrate, and plants are factored in, green roofs are very heavy and put a lot of strain on the building. Each building is different, so growers should just be aware of what their roof can take. When engineering new buildings, the weight of gardens on the rooftops should be taken into account. It’s an exciting time to live in a city!
Tell me more about hydroponics…
All the water goes down through the channels, and there’s water running through it 24/7. It gets recirculated so we’re using the same water over and over again. Weirdly it’s actually really efficient water usage. [Phone buzzes.] Oh! we’re dealing with a tomato issue…
Ah! You can go, if you need to!
No, it’s ok. I’ll get there in a minute. Anyways, water with nutrients gets recirculated, which acts as what soil would do, and that’s how the plants gets the nutrients. That’s kind of the gist of hydroponics in general.
So the channels here we harvest one day, then the next day we put in new plants once they’re about this big…about 4 inches. We’ve got three different sections. We seed them and put them in trays, where they stay for about 10 days, then we take them into the nursery, where they grow about 4 inches in about 10 more days, then they get transplanted to the next place to get harvested. So it’s a very quick process. Within 35-40 days from seed to harvest, and it keeps going. Not like on a farm I’ve ever been to before.
Yeah, I read somewhere that your yields are 20-30 times higher than with typical production.
Yeah, the plants are just so spoiled here. [Laughs]. It also helps with pests, because if there’s any sign of pests, we’ll harvest that out and wash the channels out real quick before we put in new plants. That alone gets the pest count down a lot.
It seems like there’s a ton of potential for you all to grow and for this model to take off.
For sure. And that’s why we’ve gotten a lot of publicity for it, but also we’re starting to grow, so we’re looking at different areas. We’ve got two greenhouses in the works right now outside of New York, also. People in the city want local food and it’s hard to do that, so this just feels like a real way of sustainably growing for this growing population. It’s really nice to work here…it’s a tangible thing I’m doing that feels like I’m a part of the solution to sustainability.
Totally. Is it just wild to be walking around huge buildings in New York, and then you just go up in one of them and suddenly you’re in nature? With all that green space!?
Yeah, I mean, I bike to work every day, and then I come up here, so sometimes I just forget that I’m living in this massive city, because I’m just walking around dealing with lettuce all day. It’s pretty nice. It’s always a hilarious conversation starter when people ask me what I do, expecting me to say something in finance because I’m in New York. I say I’m a farmer and they say, “What???”
I bet they don’t meet too many farmers on a daily basis.
Is there a neat young farming community in the city?
There’s a lot of interest, especially in Brooklyn. The people that work here…it’s a really diverse company. There are lot of people from Tibet that work with us. They pack lettuce and things like that. Kind of interesting, because I went to Chile for four years to learn Spanish, thinking I would use it in agriculture here, but here it’s all Tibetan. [Laughs.] I can say ‘hello’ and ‘lettuce’ and…the basics. We actually got the whole greenhouse blessed by a Buddhist monk when we first opened. And we have a crystal right when we walk in that he says is supposed to bring good luck to our crops. I don’t know, but right after he left, our first tomatoes came in. [Laughs.] Pretty cool. He did a good job.
But there are a lot of people from all walks of life that come work here for different reasons. And same with the customers. A lot of them are our age– mid-twenties– that get really excited about this. But then you see some people coming in here that maybe worked on a farm or lived on a farm, now in their 70s or 80s, and they just love it. You get all sorts of people. It’s fun. Especially here we have our window right along the window of Whole Foods. We’re on the roof, but on the other side of the roof they also have their cafeteria area. So they can just look right in while I’m transplanting things in the kale section or something. So we can just look at each other, and they can watch me farming. Then they can go downstairs and buy the food that we provide.
Talk about the closeness of farm to table! So cool. Are you all going to focus on greens or expand?
We’ve talked about other things. It’s limited from hydroponics; we can’t do everything. We can’t grow corn, for example. We like lettuce, basil is great…the tomatoes are a lot more work, so I don’t know if we’ll have a whole greenhouse of tomatoes, for example. We’ve talked about different things, different types of herbs, cucumbers, things that produce quickly. We have different experiments…we’re always trying new varieties. This past week I’ve been experimenting with wheatgrass for the juice bar downstairs in the grocery store, things like that. It’s fun and we’re always open to new things.
Do you see women in agriculture as more of a recent development?
Yeah, the last farm where I worked was in Virginia, run by a woman. She’s 29 and ran the whole thing, selling at farmers market and all that. It was great and I loved working there. I definitely see potential and I don’t think it was happening as much 20 years ago. I was the first female greenhouse assistant here, and now I manage this greenhouse and we have three female employees that are doing the farming. So it seems like it’s growing. I see a lot more interest. In my major in school, sustainable development, there were a lot of females there, a lot studying agriculture. I definitely see potential in it. It’s exciting. It’s a fun time to be a female farmer.
Yeah, you’re a pioneer! An urban farmer.
It’s fun talking about it. It sounds nerdy to say, but it’s a really rewarding job. I loved coming here today. Everyday we’ll do a delivery downstairs, which is just bringing boxes downstairs into the produce section, and it’s exciting. You get to talk to the customers. People look and ask questions, and I can answer them with honest answers and everybody’s happy about the product. We’ll harvest and then bring it down right away.
Have you all done any partnerships with schools or other organizations in the community?
We just started doing a lot of things with schools. We always have extra seedlings, so we donate those to schools. That’s been fun. There are all these little community gardens going on, and now with social media we get these Instagram photos of kids planting the basil…it’s sweet. Especially for kids living in the city, it’s huge that city kids can also get that experience. The plan is that this fall we’ll have field trips come in.
Do you ever dream about veggies?
[Laughs.] I do. I try not to, because I need to rest. I see so much lettuce in a day, that i don’t need to. But I definitely have dreams like that. When I have a big day, harvesting all day and going really fast, yeah, I start thinking about cutting the lettuce as I’m falling asleep.
At the farm where I used to work, I used to smell like mint all day. Here…I try to take a step back from the basil and then step back into it again, because now I can’t even smell it anymore. Anytime someone new comes in, they say, “Oh my gosh, it smells so good in here!” I probably smell like basil all day.
There are worse things to smell like.
There are. I just wish I could smell it still. Right when I cut an herb I’m harvesting, I’m just surrounded by it. But now, since I manage it, it’s more looking at any sort of problem happening or seeing if gauge levels are right, so it’s a little more technical.
Last question: what’s your favorite vegetable?
My favorite vegetable is the red bell pepper. I know it’s technically a fruit, but I think it still counts. You can eat them raw (I especially like them dipped in hummus), or cooked, and it always give a nice variety of color to the plate. Although lately I have been loving the butterhead lettuce! During lunch break, we all sit at the table with a box of lettuce in the middle, and use the leaves to scoop up whatever we brought for lunch like a wrap. Delicious!