Up on the Rooftop Farm

Friedman School grad John Stoddard has his head in the clouds and his mind on city-fresh produce

a rooftop farm at sunset

To get to the farm, you walk into the posh lobby of the Boston Design Center and go past the glass-fronted showrooms displaying sumptuous upholstery fabrics and imported carpets. You nod to the impeccably dressed salespeople, take the elevator as high as it goes, push through a fire door and climb a steep, echoing stairwell to the roof. There you’ll find a wiry and well-tanned John Stoddard, N09, in dusty jean shorts, T-shirt and baseball cap, counting bags of basil and parsley for the day’s delivery.

Stoddard is the co-founder of Higher Ground Farm, the first commercial rooftop farm in Boston. From the top of the eight-story building in the city’s Seaport District, he has a dizzying view of the skyline and the future of urban farming. He and his business partner, Courtney Hennessey, planted their first crops in July last year after three years of planning. Over the summer and fall, they raised greens, tomatoes, herbs and flowers in 1,400 black milk crates filled with 25 tons of soil; if all goes as planned, next season they will install a more permanent, field-like system on the same roof.

Rooftop farming has a lot going for it. “Green roofs” help absorb sunlight to keep buildings from getting hot in the summer, providing a natural form of air conditioning. If you have enough of them, cooler roofs also mean cooler cities, because they reduce the “heat-island” effect that makes cities hotter than neighboring suburbs. Vegetation can keep up to 75 percent of rainwater from running off a building and taxing the sewer system. It can also extend the life of a commercial roof two to three times by protecting it from the elements. For city dwellers, it means fresh produce for stores and local restaurants that doesn’t have to be trucked in.

With this in mind, several cities have made agricultural additions to their skylines in the last five years. Chicago has a 20,000-square-foot farm above its largest convention center, and New York City has a handful of skyline farms, including 15,000 square feet of greenhouses atop a warehouse in Brooklyn.

Upward Innovation

Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino dubbed this waterfront area of the city the “Innovation District,” in part to attract start-ups with a technological bent. Urban agriculture may not have been his intention, but he has embraced it.

“A different sort of innovation is happening,” says Stoddard. “And I think it’s great because I would love to see innovation with sustainability in mind.”

John Stoddard, N09, and his business partner, Courtney Hennessey, harvest vegetables and flowers and deliver them to downtown restaurants via pedal power. Photo: Maureen WhiteJohn Stoddard, N09, and his business partner, Courtney Hennessey, harvest vegetables and flowers and deliver them to downtown restaurants via pedal power. Photo: Maureen White
Stoddard and Hennessey, who have known each other since they were undergraduates at the University of Vermont, came up with the rooftop farm plan while they were working at a Boston restaurant. Both are avid foodies, cooks and gardeners. Stoddard, a graduate of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Friedman School, hoped to do work related to food systems, and Hennessey, who has worked on commercial and urban farms, wanted to grow things.

“Courtney says she loved farming, but didn’t like having to live where there were no people,” Stoddard says. With the buzz of the city streets below and the beauty of the blue skies above, “this is sort of the best of both worlds.”

The farmers spent more than a year looking for a building that had everything they needed: a big enough roof area, a structure strong enough to support the added weight of soil and equipment and a landlord who could appreciate their vision. “It takes that person who thinks this is a cool idea,” Stoddard says.

When he first saw the stout skyscraper that is the Boston Design Center, Stoddard thought, “We could graze mini-goats on that thing.” Only a portion of the roof was available (the other two-thirds were already dedicated to solar panels), but being able to lease more than an acre of prime downtown real estate was enough.

Because rooftop farms typically aren’t covered by zoning laws, Stoddard and Hennessey had to obtain variances and permits for their venture. But they said the mayor’s office and the Boston Redevelopment Authority were very supportive. “Working with the city has been pretty great, actually,” he says, noting that Boston has made green roofing a priority in its efforts to address climate change.

The Business Proposition

Money has been the bigger challenge. The farmers raised $35,000 from a Kickstarter campaign and benefit concerts, but still need another $250,000 to fully realize their dream of building out to 55,000 square feet. Small business owner was a new hat for Stoddard, who also works for the nonprofit Health Care Without Harm, helping hospitals and other health-care institutions find local, sustainable sources of food.

“It took a while to really think of ourselves as entrepreneurs,” he says.

Right now, the farm supplies 14 restaurants and stores in the North End, South End and Fenway. Their delivery method is as sustainable as their farming. They strap coolers full of produce onto a bike trailer and pedal through the city streets.

It’s fairly expedient. On an ideal day, they will have everything harvested by 11 a.m. and delivered by 1 p.m. But some days, like this one, things are a bit behind, and some bags of basil have gone missing. (Hennessey accidentally took them with her earlier in the day.) So rather than disappoint his restaurant clients, Stoddard pulls out his knife and heads back to the basil plants.

There are some special challenges to rooftop farming. Regular soil, for example, would cave in the roof, so they needed a special, lightweight mix of growing medium. They trellis their seven varieties of tomato plants every six inches to stabilize them against whipping winds. Instead of crows, seagulls are the resident nuisance birds, but so far, the worst they’ve done is try to nest in an empty planter or two.

A Somerville company, Recover Green Roofs, which has created rooftop farms and green spaces for such places as a Whole Foods Market and public schools, has worked with Higher Ground Farm on its design and will install the next phase, which will include a root barrier, insulation and drainage boards.

But even getting this year’s soil-filled milk crates safely up eight floors was no mean feat. Stoddard’s first idea was to recruit volunteers from a local fitness club to pass the crates up the stairs, bucket-brigade style, “like a flash mob of 200 people.” In the end, they hired a crane. “It was 2,000 bucks, but worth every penny,” he says.

Then there are the small inconveniences. If he leaves behind the bungee cords to secure the coolers to the trailer, it’s a long ride up on the freight elevator. “You have to plan as you are coming and going,” he says. “You don’t want to waste a lot of time forgetting things.”

The weekend is Stoddard’s favorite time to be at the farm, because most surrounding businesses are closed, and even a big city farmer likes a break from the hustle and bustle. Plus, he says, he can usually snag a free parking space on Sundays. On weekdays, he says, doing some quick farmer’s math, “It’s two pounds of arugula just to park.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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