Boston-based Urban Agriculture Startup Hopes to Build Farm on Higher Ground
October 14, 2011 | Noelle Swan
Courtney Bissonette and John Stoddard hope to bring a concrete wasteland to life.
Urban skylines around the world are dotted with vast expanses of concrete that absorb solar heat, raising the overall temperature of cities and increasing energy costs. More and more cities have started to turn to green roofs—patios and rooftops covered with gardens, trees, or sod—as a way to make wasted space productive, decrease air pollution, reduce energy costs, and bring nature back into the city.
Bissonette’s and Stoddard’s company, Higher Ground Farm, aims to be one of the first to bring this new trend to Boston with a 25,000-square-foot working farm.
“The mayor has made a commitment to sustainability, and green roofs are on the radar,” said Bissonette, “but they aren’t really happening in Boston.”
That is where Higher Ground Farm comes in.
Bissonette, a 34-year-old bartender with five years farming experience, and Stoddard, a 34-year-old server with a master’s degree in food and agricultural policy from Tufts University, have teamed up as Higher Ground Farm. After a year and a half long search, they are zeroing in on a Boston rooftop to use as a 25,000-square-foot “food roof” for the 2012 growing season.
A Charlestown, MA warehouse for Save That Stuff and a South End parking garage are two potential sites for Higher Ground Farm to set down roots. Structural engineers are examining both sites to determine whether they can physically support the many layers and tons of soil medium involved in a rooftop farm.
“Only 5 percent of the roofs in the Boston area will be able to hold the weight that you need for a green roof,” said Bissonette. That is part of the reason it has been so difficult to find a location. She adds, “It’s an interesting process approaching people that aren’t necessarily part of the green movement to talk to about it. We’ve done the pitch a couple times and it hasn’t really led anywhere, but these two are starting to lead somewhere.”
The pair hopes to begin installation in March, 2012 in order to start harvesting tomatoes, leafy greens, cucumbers, herbs and other crops high-value crops suited to rooftop agriculture by late April or early May. Depending on the site selected, it will take anywhere from one week to three or four weeks for Recover Green Roofs, a Somerville, MA-based company that provides “vegetated blankets,” to install the waterproof membranes to protect the roof, various layers of insulation and drainage, and soil medium.
Before installation can begin, Bissonette and Stoddard will have to figure out how to finance the operation.
“To build it and to the point of picking the first radish is about $225,000,” said Bissonette. She said that they plan to hold a startup fundraising campaign and solicit funds from local entrepreneur organizations, friends, family and their contacts through the restaurant industry. The two recently pitched their business plan to the Slow Money Alliance in Boston, a non-profit investment group. Bissonette said that they made some promising connections but it remains to be seen how they will pan out. The farm will be a for profit enterprise and Stoddard said that they expect to turn a profit within five years.
Save That Stuff has offered to absorb the costs of structural assessments and to provide a rent-free lease. The parking garage has donated the services of its own structural engineer. A real estate firm is working pro bono on the project. Bissonette and Stoddard say they are thrilled with the community support and hope to pay it forward by involving the community in the farm.
“We don’t want to just be a food factory on a roof. We want to be a farm that’s welcoming,” said Stoddard. He and Bissonette are modeling their business after Brooklyn Grange Farm in New York City. “They have volunteers, they have community days, that’s kind of what we want this to be.” Zoning and safety issues will have to be addressed before the farm can open to the public, but Stoddard said he is determined to make the farm “an opportunity for people to get involved and learn about urban agriculture.”
While Stoddard and Bissonette plan to work the “land” themselves, they hope to bring in interns and volunteers for additional labor. “We’re hoping to eventually partner with a university so we could have a mutually beneficial relationship so they could use us as a lab.” He adds that they hope to launch a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. “Part of the point is being able to connect people to how their food is grown.”
Stoddard believes that connecting to the community will create a sustainable customer base. “People are going to know what we are doing.” The farm will not seek organic certification, but community members will see for themselves that organic practices will be employed. He added, “We’re open to the creativity of people giving us ideas about how we can be efficient environmentally and monetarily. We’re looking at any and all ideas to make this a sustainable project.”
Although the project is still in its infancy, Stoddard and Bissonette already have plans for expansion. They hope to be supplying restaurants and the community by this coming spring and opening up their second farm within three to five years. They anticipate active harvest from late March through November. The winter months of December, January, and February will be a time of rest before sowing new crops in early March.