Higher than Barriers: Higher Ground Farm

As someone who stands a mere 5’2’ above ground, heights are rarely at the front of my mind. I have no problem with them. I love standing at the top of a mountain and gazing out into the distance. Better yet if I’m then able to push off the edge and ski down at full speed. Living in the city (Boston) and surrounding cities (Somerville and Cambridge) for the past few years, I’ve managed to stay somewhat close to the ground, never habituating higher than three floors up. While I’ve attempted to grow potted herbs on my second floor porch, gardening at any kind of elevation never truly occurred to me prior to this whirlwind course.

Suddenly the possibilities seem endless — if only the hurdles were less steep. Rooftop farming and beekeeping present themselves as plausible hobbies or even careers dependant on the details. Roofs can provide more than just cover from the elements; they provide a blank canvas for more creation as long as they are up to code. After visiting Higher Ground Farm, a commercial rooftop farm located on the Boston Design Center in the Seaport district, I was amazed at how much planning founders Courtney Hennessey and John Stoddard had to put in to even begin to build their farm. The sheer number of hurdles and incredible logistics involved in starting a rooftop farm would probably be enough to deter me from trying, but the beautiful farm they created has shown itself to be worth the work.

Higher Ground

At the top of the vast building, the roof of the Boston Design Center almost seems like it was built to be the basis for a rooftop farm. The top is mostly flat, with some tubes and various drainage and ventilation materials adding to the terrain, and walls high enough to prevent accidental falls. The view of Boston’s skyline and the harbor is breathtaking. It’s almost stunning enough to pull your eyes away from the incredible farm growing eight stories above the ground.

Rows and rows of milk crates filled with soil, compost, and of course a variety of plants, fill the front of the building, a mere portion of the farm’s potential space. Courtney and John maximize the space allowed by the containers by alternating seeds so that tall plants grow alongside shorter, noncompeting plants. An example of this is the tomatoes planted near basil. Courtney explained that the biggest threats to the plants are wind and seagulls. To prevent windburn, they cover some lower, more delicate crops with plastic sheets to protect them. There is less they can do about the seagulls, who enjoy perching on some of the plants as well as taunting John. (Hennessey, C., personal communication, July 23, 2014).

Courtney and John faced many of the same issues raised by Chicago urban farmers: lack of clear ordinances, zoning codes, high costs and lack of funding. (Castillo et al., Barriers to urban agriculture, 2013). I was amazed at what their combined experience and continued perseverance in the shape of hardship was able to achieve. With some assistance in start up costs, donations, and volunteer support, they are able to produce and distribute thousands of pounds of food to the Boston area. To me this shows the importance of education, both for individuals and those responsible for governing cities and land. If urban agriculture becomes commonplace and valued everywhere, the results will be extraordinary!

Castillo, Sheila R., Winkle, Curtis R., Krauss, Stephen, Turkewitz, Amalia, Silva, Cristina, Heinemann, Edie S. (2013, May). Regulatory and other barriers to urban and peri-urban agriculture. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago

Hennessey, Courtney. (2014, July 23). Personal Communication.