Brooklyn Wild: Meet Michelle Cashen, who quit a desk job to work on a rooftop farm

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Do you know your food? Michelle Cashen, farm manager at Brooklyn Grange. Photo via @esynyc

Michelle Cashen didn’t always know she wanted to work at a farm. The 25-year-old Rockaway native studied environmental policy during her undergrad years. She knew she wanted to be some kind of environmental advocate, so she got a job right out of college as a paralegal at a law firm.

But after a couple years, she realized the sedentary, office lifestyle wasn’t for her. “I did not enjoy sitting at a desk every day and for the majority of my week being inside, sitting down, not using my body,” she told Brokelyn.

While pondering a career change, Cashen, who now lives in Bushwick, looked into opportunities at Brooklyn Grange. She had been on a tour at the farm’s flagship location in Long Island City, and knew they had a farm crew and training program. “My interest in rooftop farming originated from my love of healthy food and my desire to green the city,” she says. “After Hurricane Sandy, I kept thinking, I want to help make NYC a greener place.”

Brooklyn Grange, the world’s largest rooftop soil farm, which grows 50,000 pounds of organic produce yearly, is not a bad place to start. The two farm operation wholesales produce to more than 40 restaurants and retailers across Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, operates a CSA, and sells at farmers’ markets. They also host classes and workshops, support nonprofit education initiatives, maintain more than 30 beehives across the city—the list goes on. It’s a truly mind-blowing example of what hard work, horticulture, and a little ingenuity can accomplish within the limitations of an urban setting.

She applied to the training program and was accepted, working on the farm crew for her first season at Brooklyn Grange. “That was the first time I had done any actual farming,” she says. “I had never even done gardening before. It was all learning as you go.”

During her second season at Brooklyn Grange, Cashen wore many hats, working as assistant farm manager, events assistant, selling at the farmer’s market, and giving tours. Since March, she has been the farm manager at the Brooklyn Grange’s second location, the 65,000 square foot farm atop Building 3 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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Cashen is the focus of today’s Brooklyn Wild, our new series where we tap the more rugged residents of Kings County and ask them to share some of the adventure. Every Friday, we’ll post a new interview that will inspire us, at the very least, to have a more active weekend, even if it’s just cutting down on the Netflix intake and fitting in one trip to the green space closest to our apartment. For our first installment, we talked to John Bingaman, the Fort Greene resident who takes city dogs on Doggie Day Trips to hike upstate, as his job.

Next, we spoke with Cashen about the day to day of being a rooftop farm manager, her side project operating the Rockaway Food Coop, and how else she keeps active in New York, when she’s not up on the roof.

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Cashen, schlepping kale. Photo via @brooklyngrange on Instagram.

Just a regular day at the office. Cashen, schlepping kale. Photo via @brooklyngrange on Instagram.

Describe what you do as a farm manager at Brooklyn Grange’s Navy Yard farm: What’s a day in the life look like? Any big picture projects in store for the summer? 

As farm manager, I oversee production at our Brooklyn Navy Yard location. In the spring, we’re doing a lot of planting and work in the greenhouses, figuring out where we’re going to put certain crops, working a lot with our head farmer, Matt Jefferson, and getting the farm ready.

Now, in the summer, every week we’re harvesting and planting more salad greens, which is one of our main crops that we grow, and whatever other tasks there are to do — of course weeding. There’s always weeding to do. There are so many things to get done in one week at the farm, but it’s all possible because we have a really great farm crew; they’re super talented and they work really hard. Our operation is a success every year because of them.

You cofounded the Rockaway Food Coop. Tell us about that. 

I started the Rockaway Food Coop as a winter project last December, when I was part time and farmed less (there’s quite some farming downtime in the colder months). I decided to try out the idea in Rockaway because there’s not a lot of access to smaller grocery stores there where you can buy produce from farms in Pennsylvania or upstate. There’s a Shop ‘n Stop, and that’s about it.

The idea of the food coop, or buying club, is that it’s a collective whose members purchase items from wholesale distributors, such as Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative and Finger Lake Farms, and split them up. It’s been a great way to get food to a community that wants more local, sustainable sources. It’s different from a CSA, where you pay up front and whatever’s in the share that week is what you get, typically only sourcing from one farm. With a buying club, you have more flexibility and autonomy: if you don’t want to buy potatoes, you don’t have to buy potatoes. Every week you can pick what you want.

We provide members of the Rockaway community with access to fresh, local and/or organic vegetables, meat, dairy and many other pantry items. While I still handle purchasing, figuring out how many orders of lettuce we need in a given week, for example, my business partner Kelly McMahon really runs the show now. The food coop would not be operating throughout the summer months without her. Pick up is biweekly at the 97th St. beach concessions. [Editor’s note: to sign up for the Rockaway Food Coop, email rockawayfoodcoop@gmail.com]

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Microgreens at Brooklyn Grange's Navy Yard farm, with a backdrop of the NYC skyline. Photo via @michlcee on Instagram.

Microgreens at Brooklyn Grange’s Navy Yard farm, with a backdrop of the NYC skyline. Photo via @michlcee on Instagram.

What’s your favorite part about your job at Brooklyn Grange?

Being outdoors every day! I know that’s kind of playing to your angle (laughs) but part of the reason I wanted to switch my career is because I wanted to be outdoors more and Brooklyn Grange certainly was appealing because of that. I come from a big sports background, I’ve been playing sports my whole life, and so sitting at a desk every day, especially in my 20s, did not seem like something I wanted to continue doing. Every day I’m outside, even on a day like today (last Monday) when it’s raining, if it’s a harvest, we’re outside harvesting for the more than 30 different restaurants we supply [Restaurants include Lulu and Po, Roberta’s, Marlow & Sons, among others -Ed.].

When you’re not working at Brooklyn Grange, what are your favorite outdoorsy places to go in New York? 

I love going home to Rockaway in my free time — whether it be to go to the beach or have dinner with my family. I’m fortunate in that I can go home very easily and that my family is only a short drive away.

I love surfing and I wish I made more time to do it. I started surfing when I was 12 — and am by no means an expert despite a stint as a surf instructor at NY Surf School for one summer. During that time I was out in the water everyday teaching beginners the basics of the sport. It was a blast.

I also play in a co-ed flag football league on Roosevelt Island every Sunday.

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Sunflowers at dusk at Brooklyn Grange in the Navy Yard. Photo via @maryerinc on Instagram

Sunflowers at dusk at Brooklyn Grange in the Navy Yard. Photo via @maryerinc on Instagram

Any advice for fellow Brooklynites who want to live a more active lifestyle? 

There are so many things you can do outside! New York is the perfect location in that any activity you’re interested in is only an hour away. The beach, different hiking or camping spots upstate, or one of the many city parks. You just have to get out there. There’s also always opportunities to visit Brooklyn Grange. We have public tours twice a week and host workshops on topics ranging from beekeeping to pasta making, yoga to green roofing!

Interested in getting involved with Brooklyn Grange? Check the events calendar for a list of upcoming workshops, tours, and special events. You can also stop by the flagship farm in LIC on Saturdays from 11am-4pm thru Oct. 22, for a free open house