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Vermont Quarterly

Urban farmers take to the roof in Boston

Boston rooftop garden


Urban farmers take to the roof in Boston

By Jeffrey Wakefield

The Boston Design Center, a massive barge of a building on the South Boston waterfront, is home to eighty-seven showrooms that house some of the world’s trendiest designers. But the most cutting-edge tenant in the eight-story building may be on its roof. 

That airy perch is where Higher Ground Farm, Boston’s first rooftop commercial farm, is located. The brainchild of John Stoddard ’99 and Courtney Hennessey ’99, the farm began last summer with some 1,400 plastic milk crate planters cradling luminous shoots of basil, arugula, cilantro, parsley and tomatoes arranged in sections on the roof. Their progress has 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. “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 in Burlington and Massachusetts. But they stayed in touch. Hennessey transitioned from farming to working as a manager at a series of farm-to-table restaurants in Boston, and Stoddard would see her during the holidays when he visited his parents at their home in the city's suburbs.

When Stoddard returned to the Boston area to enroll in Tufts’ Agriculture, Food, and Environment master’s 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. Hennessey said she did, fatefully. 

At the time, Stoddard was taking a sustainability course at MIT, which had an exchange program with Tufts, 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.

Finding a market, the top challenge for most new entrepreneurs, wasn’t an issue.

“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.”

With Recover Green Roofs in tow, the design-build firm that had advised them on the Toro project, Stoddard and Hennessey spent two years on what Recover’s Mark Winterer calls a “treasure hunt,” looking at more than twenty buildings in Boston, Charlestown, and Somerville. None of the roofs passed muster, failing to provide the necessary load-bearing capacity, lacking a reliable waterproof membrane or falling short on safety by not having a perimeter railing.

They finally found the Boston Design Center and were immediately impressed by the building’s size. When it made the grade in all other respects, they approached the management and had a deal within days.

If the quality of the product from their first growing season on the roof of the Design Center is any guide, their future looks rosy.

“It’s exceptional,” says Higher Ground customer Louis DiBicarri, chef and co-owner of Tavern Road, one of Boston’s hottest new restaurants, who’s used the same network of farmer-suppliers for years. “When you look at their product, it's on par with everyone else we’re using in the restaurant right now, and that's really impressive because the guys they’re competing with have been in business for a long time.”

But DiBicarri is impressed with more than just Higher Ground Farm’s product.         

“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.” 

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