University of Vermont

Courtney Hennessey '99 and John Stoddard '99

Owners, Higher Ground rooftop farm

Courtney Hennessey '99 and John Stoddard '99

Higher Ground Farm, Boston’s first rooftop commercial farm, is located on the roof of the eight-story Boston Design Center, a massive barge of a building on the South Boston waterfront. The farm is the brainchild of class of 1999 alumni John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessey. The farm's phase 1 of life included about 1,400 plastic milk crate planters cradling luminous shoots of basil, arugula, cilantro, parsley and tomatoes arranged in sections on the roof.

When more than 1,000 tons of soil covering 38,000 square feet are hoisted to the roof during phase 2, Higher Ground Farm will become the second largest rooftop commercial farm in the country. That prospect -- and their progress to date -- have earned Stoddard and Hennessey recognition from Mayor Thomas Menino, the Boston Globe and a host of other Boston institutions.

Stoddard and Hennessey never thought they would be agro-pioneering business partners one day, when they were majoring in Environmental Studies at UVM. They were just good friends.

“We met on the second day of class,” Hennessey says, on the Harris Millis quad. “John lived in Harris and I lived in Millis. Our rooms faced each other, so we would signal back and forth."

They hung out together, went to parties, and shared an interest in social and economic justice and community based farming. After graduation, they went their separate ways, Stoddard to Oregon as a VISTA volunteer, Hennessey to several artisanal farms New England. But they stayed in touch. Hennessey transitioned from farming to working as a manager at a series of farm-to-table restaurants in Boston.

When Stoddard returned to his home Boston area to enroll in Tufts’ Agriculture, Food, and Environment masters program, he asked Hennessey, then working as bar manager at a trendy Boston restaurant called Toro, if she had a part-time job for him. She did.

Higher thinking

At the time, Stoddard was taking a sustainability course at MIT that required a project. He decided to focus the project on Toro, and Hennessey threw out an idea: adding a green roof/garden to the restaurant. The economies of scale on Toro’s small roof didn't work, it turned out, but the idea of starting a rooftop farm stuck with Hennessey and Stoddard.

“After I left the farming community, I was in in the restaurant business for eight years,” Hennessey says, “and I’ve worked for a lot of really big name chefs. We thought that, with the relationships we have, the experience we have, this would be a good business to start. So we just went for it.”

They found the 55,000 square foot Boston Design Center and have been expanding since. The next growing season will offer CSA shares.

Higher Ground customer Louis DiBicarri, chef and co-owner of Boston restaurant, Tavern Road, is impressed with Higher Ground's product and then some.       

“When I found out exactly what it was and how big it was going to be, I realized this is a very significant thing they're doing in the city of Boston,” he says. “I was so impressed that I just wanted to be a part of it. Knowing these people outside of what they're doing right now and seeing them take on a whole new identities and become these real pioneers, it's such a cool thing to see happen.”