The City’s First Farmer-in-Residence Grows on Staten Island

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To the joy of tenants and local restaurant owners alike, Empress Green brings commercial farming to a residential building.

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At Urby on Staten Island, Empress Green grow some 50 varieties of produce, flowers and herbs, plus tend to a rooftop apiary.

Green roofs have surged in popularity over the last decade or so, but traditional staples like grass and succulents are increasingly being set aside in favor of a more productive plots run by aerial agriculturalists. Lettuce, beans, carrots, turnips and even beehives now fill roofs stretching across the five boroughs, mostly situated atop warehouses and commercial buildings, and with smaller rooftop gardens a feature of some private homes. (You know this if you’re a regular Edible reader.)

For those who can’t install a multi-million-dollar mini-farm to complement their penthouse, however, there is another option for attaining ultra-fresh, ultra-local produce: move into a building whose amenities include a farmer-in-residence. So far, the choices are rather limited—just one property in the city, Urby, comes with a commercial rooftop farm. But judging by the enthusiasm with which the farm has been met, it will soon be joined by others.

“We’ve already had interest in our farmer-in-residence model from other businesses,” says Zaro Bates, whose company, Empress Green, operates the 5,000 square-foot Staten Island farm. “So that’s helping to facilitate sustainability and food production initiatives on site at a variety of commercial buildings.”

Bates and her husband-slash-business partner, Asher Landes, met in 2013 while apprentices at Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop farm; their partnership has only blossomed since then. At Urby, they grow some 50 varieties of produce, flowers and herbs, plus tend to a rooftop apiary. An on-site communal kitchen hosts dinners made with the couple’s bounty (Urby also has a chef-in-residence), while tenants can snap up veggies from a weekly onsite farmstand or through a CSA membership.

That only accounts for about half of the farm’s 200-pound weekly harvest, however. The rest goes to local restaurants, which especially value Empress Green’s leafy greens—including baby kale, baby spinach, mixed mustards and lettuces—for their unbeatable freshness. The arugula, according to Phil Errigo, owner of Paulie’s Pizzeria and Errigo’s Restaurant on Staten Island, is “the best on the planet.”

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Errigo’s establishments are situated just down the block, and most of Empress Green’s small battering of additional clients are local as well, including Amadeus and Korzo Klub. “I think the chefs see the farm and get excited about participating,” Bates says. “It’s so much more wholesome and engaging an experience than looking through a catalogue or calling a distributor.” Anything leftover also stays close, going to Project Hospitality, a food pantry located a four-minute walk away.

Most likely, though, Empress Greens will soon begin turning up on menus further afield—that is, ones a few miles rather than mere meters away. Otto Zizak, owner of Korzo Klub, already serves a “New Crop Salad” made with Empress Greens at his two Brooklyn locations, Korzo and the Brooklyn Beet Company. “The leaves scream freshness,” he says. “After ten years of sourcing local lettuces from all over the tristate area, these are the brightest, most flavorful greens we have ever used.”

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