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Alumni Find Higher Calling on Boston Rooftop

Take urban agriculture to new heights

 John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessey
First UVM friends, now business partners, alumni John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessey are bringing basil to Boston from above. (Photo: Arthur Pollock)

The Boston Design Center, a massive barge of a building on the South Boston waterfront, is home to 87 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 class of 1999 alumni John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessey, the farm began phase 1 of its life this summer. About 1,400 plastic milk crate planters cradling luminous shoots of basil, arugula, cilantro, parsley and tomatoes are 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 next spring, 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. 

Signals

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 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 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. Hennessey said she did, fatefully. 

Higher thinking

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.”

That they did, but things didn’t exactly proceed with Nike-like dispatch.

Treasure hunt

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 20 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.

Then began a lengthy permitting process with the famously bureaucratic Boston Redevelopment Authority, which was engaged in the onerous task of rewriting its regulatory code to make commercial urban gardens of all types -- which were suddenly attractive to urban planners -- permissible. The work was time-consuming, but Stoddard says the BRA, counter to type, was "nothing but helpful."

More than culinary interest

Stoddard and Hennessey brought in their first harvest in early August. Since then they’ve been selling an average of 60 pounds of high-end greens and herbs and 30 pounds of green tomatoes a week to eight of Boston’s top restaurants. As their tomatoes begin to ripen, they expect to do even more business.

The success they’ve had isn’t merely of culinary interest. Stoddard, the business half of the duo – Hennessey is the farming expert – will embark on an important and challenging fund-raising campaign as soon as the growing season ends. Phase two of the project -- constructing an eight-layer engineered bed on the roof and then depositing mountains of soil on it, using either mammoth blower trucks or cranes -- will cost a cool $250,000.

Based on this summer’s success, Stoddard says, “I think people see what the potential can be. Not only are we getting the experience of connecting with the market, we’re showing lenders, supporters and others that were capable of doing this.”

Slow good

An emerging investing philosophy known as Slow Money –- the finance-related cousin of the fast-food-countering Slow Food movement -- will help the cause, says Julia Shanks, a Boston-area consultant who specializes in food-based businesses and heads the Slow Food Boston chapter.

Investing in companies like McDonald’s or Monsanto “might get the best dollar return, but the social return is zero -- it’s negative,” she says. Slow Money “is getting people to take a portion of their portfolio and invest it for 10 years at two percent instead of five years at 20 percent. And it gives you social return and environmental benefit.”

How does Shanks, who has advised Stoddard and Hennessey, see the financing prospects of Higher Ground Farm?

It will be a challenge, she says, “But they’re up there, they’re growing, they’re selling, they’re making it happen. They’ve got the drive to figure it out, and they are figuring it out.”

If the quality of the product 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.”