On the roof of the nearly century-old, eight-story Boston Design Center in the city’s Seaport District, kale, arugula, herbs, and flowers grow from fertile soil against the powerful summer winds that blow off the surrounding Atlantic ocean. Salad mix is harvested, weighed, and bagged for delivery. Gulls circle high above the tomato plants. This is Higher Ground Farm, Boston’s first and largest rooftop farm, founded in 2013 by friends and farmers Courtney Hennessey and John Stoddard.
Their partnership was natural. The two University of Vermont alums parted ways after graduation, but each continued developing their skills and interests in all things food – Courtney in her work with The Food Project in Boston and as a CSA manager in Western Massachusetts, and John with his studies in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. Their return to Boston life and work in local restaurants led the duo to reconnect and discover their perfect target market – chefs. “Chefs are just so excited about this concept of urban-grown food being so different than what they’ve seen in Boston,” explained Stoddard. “We haven’t had many times where we haven’t been able to move product.” And of course, on the rare occasion something doesn’t get sold, it’s donated to the Boston local food rescue organization Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which distributes the fresh, healthy food the same day to local meal programs and social service entities serving those in need.
“Trying to learn to be a farmer is really learning to be a businessperson.”
Higher Ground Farm utilizes about one quarter of the Design Center’s total rooftop space, 2,000 square-feet of which is used for planting, and the remainder for other necessities like processing and harvesting. Higher Ground Farm is an open-air farm growing in containers with 1 foot of soil depth. Hennessy explained that the space was an accidental find, but a great fit. “We were looking at a building close to here, saw this building, contacted the property manager, and got in to talk with the right person.” Stoddard and Hennessy signed a 10-year lease at the end of 2012, and began preparing for their historic first season. Along with the staples they’ve grown from the beginning, like mustard greens, arugula, kale, tomatoes, tatsoi, salad mix, and herbs, this is the first season the farm is home to flowers, before they are proudly displayed in colorful bouquets in the Design Center’s many showrooms.
Rooftop farming, with all of its unique characteristics, presents many distinct challenges: First, the costs of creation and expansion of a fertile environment that can sustain growth. “We’ve added a little more planting space each year, but every time we do it, it’s very expensive,” said Stoddard. “Buying soil is expensive. The cost of the crates that hold all that soil was pretty substantial as well, so any expansion we’ve done has been donated.” Among all the costs, the Higher Ground duo must be extremely conscious of soil fertility, due to the very nature of the rooftop environment. “Wind is our biggest pest, we tell everyone. We’ve learned a lot about it over the past few years,” explained Hennessy. “We’re dependent on weather and other natural elements,” added Stoddard, “How much rain we’re getting, snow melt, seagulls, and more. Nutrients just go right down the drain. But we’re being efficient with our water and testing our soil, like any other farmer.”
Running Boston’s first rooftop farm is a learning experience for the two pioneers. Reading practical and informative books like The Market Gardener, studying crop plans, and learning the methodology behind crop rotation only scratch the surface of their commitment to becoming better, more informed farmers. “It’s a challenge to not have grown up a farmer and now have a farming business,” said Stoddard. “We’ve been really successful for what we have, but we have a lot to get better at it, too.” With the help of three interns, Stoddard and Hennessy are able to spend some time in their office looking at the big picture: discussing their finances and planning the season. “Trying to learn to be a farmer is really learning to be a businessperson. Having the interns provides a great learning opportunity for them, and also allows Courtney and I to spend time in the office.”
The benefits of urban rooftop farms like Higher Ground are tremendous. The black roofs that are typical in most urban environments absorb heat during the day and then radiate that heat out during the night, making cities hotter than non-urban areas. A roof farm can lower the temperature of roofs and therefore, the surrounding air. Farming on multiple roofs in Boston could have a big impact on energy use, which in turn would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released, a key component of climate change. A roof farm retains and slows the run-off of precipitation into storm drains, which keeps our waterways cleaner. By adding green space in an urban area, urban farms increase biodiversity and provide habitat for a diversity of insects and birds.
At three years in, Higher Ground Farm is providing Boston with environmental benefits, fresh, local produce, and innovation and inspiration, but Stoddard says, “We’re not there yet.” To achieve their goals, Stoddard and Hennessey need to figure out what they need to do to make this farm something that can actually employ people and be financially sustainable. But for now, the duo are excited to provide good food for their community, bike their fresh grown produce to their favorite local restaurant customers, and be a bright green spot among the gray of the city. “It’s nice to create something, to create a change,” Stoddard explained. “This is all just a new way of making change in the world.”
Check out this beautiful video to see more of Courtney and John at Higher Ground Farm: Learn more about Higher Ground Farm on their website.