August 28, 2013
Office of Food Initiatives
By Peter Howe, NECN
City" and "farm" may seem destined to be permanent opposites – but this month in Boston, some urban agricultural pioneers are showing that the Hub can yield for food lovers and restaurants looking for the freshest, most local crops they can find.
The brand-new Higher Ground Farm, built on the roof of the Boston Design Center in the South Boston Innovation District, has been harvesting and delivering its first crops of everything from basil and parsley to arugula, cilantro, red mustard, and a Chinese spinach called tatsoi, with tomatoes a few weeks away from ripened perfection.
Higher ground is a joint venture of two University of Vermont-educated farmers, John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessey. "We wanted to start a viable, ‘green’ business in the city," Hennessey said, and spent many months scouting for urban land and rooftop locations for a farm. "There’s an important movement happening around looking towards growing food where people live."
Not that this was simple. At first glance, Higher Ground Farm looks like standard raised-bed gardening, on an agricultural scale. "It seems really simple to have a milk crate lined with fabric filled with dirt and have a plant in it, but getting all of those components together and then hoisting them 150 feet in the air took a lot of different people's coordination," Hennessey said. For one, the building is right next to Cruiseport Boston, so soil and supply deliveries had to be scheduled around 3,000 cruise ship passengers entering and exiting the area several days a week. A total of what’s now 50,000 pounds of soil had to be brought up by crane to the 55,000-square-foot rooftop, eight stories above the sidewalk. Higher Ground, which leased the roof from the Design Center for 10 years, this year is using about one-third of the available space and hopes to grow its footprint substantially next year and add a wider variety of crops, ultimately aiming to grow 100,000 pounds of produce annually from the roof.
You never forget, however, how close you are to the city – especially as jets come in overhead on final approach to Logan International Airport’s Runway 4 Left. The Higher Ground farmers also have stories to tell about sharing their space with five nesting families of seagulls who spend their days foraging in the harbor.
Already, the farm has enthusiastic customers in several of the city’s higher-end progressive restaurants. For chefs Andrew Urbanetti and Ryan Rolfsen at the Tavern Road restaurant on Congress Street in the Fort Point Channel section, the chance to buy arugula, basil, and greens picked not even an hour earlier and barely a mile away isn't just a feel-good.
"It’s really a great product that comes in and works very well for us," Rolfsen said, adding that bartenders are quick to pounce on deliveries of fresh basil and other Higher Ground produce to create unique cocktails. "Bartenders absolutely love it – they go ga-ga every time it comes in."
Urbanetti said: "You're getting something that's healthy, that hasn't been sitting there dying under lamps for hours or days. You've got something that's bright and delicious."
What’s happening at Higher Ground is part of a much bigger picture. Over the last year, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and aides to Mayor Thomas M. Menino have been pushing ahead with a major "urban agriculture rezoning initiative," known as Article 89. It would clarify city zoning laws to expressly allow ground-level farms of up to one acre anywhere in the city, and 5,000-square-foot roof-level farms, with bigger ground-level and rooftop farms in some commercial and industrial areas. It would also clarify rules for Bostonians who want to keep bees and egg-laying hens and allow farmers’ markets in any retail-zoned area. The BRA is working towards having the article drafted and enacted by next month.
Stoddard and Hennessey said besides growing out their operation on the Design Center roof, they are already looking for more rooftop locations and city locations to expand.
"There are a lot of benefits to people having access to a space where their food is produced," Hennessey said. "It’s green space, it’s a place for them to come that’s peaceful."