Higher Ground farm

Higher Ground farm

Up on the roof of the Boston Design Center in South Boston is Higher Ground Farm. The farm has been growing food for a couple of years now, although few people in the neighborhood seem to know about it. It was made possible by a change in the city’s zoning laws that made urban agriculture permittable. The farm sells its produce, including kale, arugula, and tomatoes, to local restaurants and at farm stands. Credit: Martin LaMonica.

Rooftop greens

Rooftop greens

The project was initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and two benefits, which altogether raised about $40,000, says co-founder and farmer Courtney Hennessey. Even with customers willing to buy its crops, the project is a “labor of love/insanity,” she says since it’s difficult to earn profits. The main problem is that the scale of the operation is relatively small, which limits its output. During the growing season (they’re shutting down for the winter now), Higher Ground grows between 30 and 50 pounds per week. Credit: Martin LaMonica.

Courtney on roof

Courtney on roof

Setting up the space was not trivial. The farm grows all its produce in plastic milk crates filled with soil and compost. Those 600 crates needed to be carried up through the elevator to the top floor and then up a fairly narrow staircase to the roof. Much of the work was done by the founders and volunteers, some of whom were cross-fit trainers looking for a challenging workout. Higher Ground Farm also hired a crane that lifted many of the crates up to the roof directly. Credit: Martin LaMonica.

Room to Grow

Room to Grow

Hennessey hopes to earn more money from the space by planting more produce at an adjacent spot on the same roof or by hosting events. She said the majority of urban farmers need to have some other activity, such as educational programs or event hosting---essentially agritourism. She’d also like to install some greenhouses in the adjacent space. Credit: Martin LaMonica.

Event space?

Event space?

The building itself was chosen for farming because of its space and because the roof was designed to withstand weight. In fact, on another portion of the building roof is a large solar array. There are two other rooftop farms in the area, including a Whole Foods in Leominster that is growing food on its roof. Credit: Martin LaMonica

Can cities grow their own food? That’s the premise behind urban agriculture, a movement to convert urban spaces into growing spaces. An experiment in urban agriculture is taking place at the Boston Design Center, a huge building in a formerly industrial space in South Boston.

I visited Higher Ground farms and talked with one of its founders, Courtney Hennessey, about the project, which started growing in 2013. The farm’s experience shows some of the potential and challenges with urban farming.