9 Stories High and Rising: Boston on the Brink of First Rooftop Farm

Higher Ground Farm finalizes plans to grow crops atop the Boston Design Center.

A rendering of what the 40,000-square-foot Higher Ground Farm—Boston's first rooftop farm—could look like when it is completed. (Rendering by Recover Green Roofs, original imagery by Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm)

Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Although Boston is home to a long list of American firsts, when it comes to urban agriculture, and rooftop farming in particular, Boston is taking its time getting into the game. Only in the last three years or so has the city paved the way for farming. Many reasons exist for this delay: Boston is a bureaucratic nightmare for innovators, lacks unused open space, and is positioned on back-filled marshlands in the middle of a harbor.

Overcoming all this makes Courtney Hennessey and John Stoddard pioneers of sorts. And the duo is staking their claim in a rather unusual place—nine stories up in the Boston sky.

Hennessey and Stoddard are putting the finishing touches on plans for Higher Ground Farm, which will be Boston’s first commercial rooftop farm. The two farmers will soon be cultivating almost 40,000 square feet of soil atop the Boston Design Center in South Boston, where the view spans the entire downtown skyline—from the Prudential Center skyscraper to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Boston Harbor. To the south and west, Some of Boston’s low-income neighborhoods are visible, many of which suffer from a lack of healthy food.

When it is built, its founders say Higher Ground Farm will serve all of Boston through a variety of avenues: community-supported agriculture shares, direct sales to restaurants, a presence at farmers markets, deliveries to low-income neighborhoods and health centers, and a farmstand at the Boston Design Center.

“We liked the idea of rooftop farming because it makes use of space in cities that do not get used,” says Stoddard in the Higher Ground Kickstarter video. Stoddard, who holds a master’s degree in sustainable food and agriculture policy, continues: “There are acres of rooftops in cities that are not being used and sucking up heat and contributing to urban heat island effect, which means that because there’s so much blacktop in cities, it’s warmer here, so we’re using more energy to cool down cities. In our vision, we’ve got this amazing green roof that produces food and has these great environmental benefits, one of which is helping to mitigate climate change.”

Higher Ground recently raised nearly $25,000 on Kickstarter and another $10,000 from a benefit concert. Right now the money is being used to finalize their design for the farm with Recover Green Roofs and engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger. Taking inspiration from the Eagle Street Farm and Brooklyn Grange Farm in New York City, as well as Cloud 9 Farm in Philadelphia, Cornerstone Rooftop Farm in Minneapolis and Uncommon Ground Farm in Chicago, Higher Ground will be Boston’s first rooftop garden—but probably not its last.

The City of Boston is currently in the process of rezoning regions of the city for urban agriculture to create opportunities for several other green roof developers, including Sky Vegetables, Bright Lights, and Montreal-based Lufa, who have expressed interest in farming the now bare rooftops of Boston.

However, Higher Ground is expected to be Boston's only open-air rooftop garden. Its organizers still hope they’ll hit their original goal of opening when the ice melts later this spring—and say they could produce as much as 100,000 pounds of produce during their first season—despite the fact that they’re still waiting on final permitting from the city to be approved.

“I have to say, I’m really proud of ourselves that we stuck with it,” says Hennessey, 36, who has worked on farms and managed restaurants in Boston. “We would say, ‘I don’t know if we’re ever going to find a roof. I don’t know if we’re going to make it.’ There were some dark times, as there are in any startup. But seeing the support we’ve been able to build—we had a sold-out benefit concert in February with 400 guests—has been heartening.”

Do you think rooftop farms can have an impact on climate change and food access?

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