Two Farmers Seek to Create Educational Farm in Philadelphia, PA by Cultivating an Urban Rooftop
July 6, 2012 | Kelly Hatton
Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm founders Clare Hyre and Rania Campbell-Cobb are working to transform what is now an expanse of grey roof in Northwestern Philadelphia into a full-scale educational farm.
After years of working on farms around the country, Hyre and Campbell-Cobb landed in Philadelphia where they each work in the field of agriculture education. Hyre explained that both women found themselves dreaming of “a certain type of thing that didn’t exist in the city” – a way to farm within city limits and to share their love of growing food with other Philadelphians.
In 2011, they began looking at potential farm sites around the city and found Self-Help and Resource Exchange (SHARE). SHARE, a nonprofit organization focused on food access and education, offered Cloud 9 a space to farm on the roof of their food distribution center. Though neither Hyre nor Campbell-Cobb had any experience farming on a rooftop, they seized the opportunity to partner with a like-minded organization.
“It was a combination of naivety and excitement,” said Hyre, reflecting on the project’s beginnings. She and Campbell-Cobb quickly became students of rooftop farming. They visited New York City’s rooftop farms, Brooklyn Grange and Eagle Street and honed their vision for Cloud 9. Now, well versed in the benefits of rooftop growing, they’ve become advocates for rooftop agriculture and its possibilities.
“If we really want to think about feeding the city, we need to think beyond vacant lots,” Hyre explained. Cloud 9 will be one of the first rooftop growing operations in Philadelphia. Hyre and Campbell-Cobb envision the space functioning as a working prototype where they’ll experiment with different growing methods and share results in an effort to make rooftop farming a feasible endeavor for potential urban farmers and home growers alike.
“I can see it benefiting a full range of people,” Hyre said. She imagines elementary students learning to plant seeds at Cloud 9, high school students working on the farm during the summer, college students conducting farm-based research and adults participating in workshops.
To start off, Cloud 9 will grow plants in raised beds and containers using an ultralight soil medium on about a quarter acre of rooftop. They hope to eventually install a green roof, a layered roofing system that can be covered in soil directly and planted. Rainwater will be collected, stored, filtered and used for irrigation. Season-extending techniques, such as planting in cold frames, will also be employed.
In urban areas, making use of available rooftop space makes good, green sense – rooftop vegetation helps keep buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer, rainwater collected and put to use on crops reduces rainwater runoff to the watershed, and an abundance of plants can improve air quality while reducing air pollution.
But these benefits don’t ease the initial challenges of establishing a complex and costly growing facility. After a year of planning and fundraising, Cloud 9 is stalled on set up and without plants for the 2012 growing season.
“The lesson we’ve learned for that is that really be careful when you’re picking out the location for your site,” said Hyre. There’s no established model for renting space to farmers, especially on atypical spaces, like rooftops, and negotiating terms such as length of the lease, uses of space and building resources can be challenging. Hyre advises future agrarian lease-seekers to have a clear sense of project needs from the outset and to plan for the long term.
Cloud 9 hopes to be up and growing next year. Until then, Hyre and Campbell-Cobb are attending farmers markets to share their vision and continue to raise funds. While both women are still otherwise employed, they’re working to secure a lease and non-profit status for Cloud 9 to move the project forward. They’ve completed a successful fundraiser campaign on Kickstarter and keep their supporters updated on the Cloud 9 blog. Despite setbacks, the drive to realize their vision hasn’t waned. In a recent post, Hyre shared her response to the question ‘why rooftop farming?’ with readers:
“If you are like me and you grew up in the county the constant pulse and crowded intensity of the city sometimes gets to you. Going up to the roof is like going to a park – you can over see the city and breathe more deeply. Now imagine if you could have the park on your roof… that’s what Rania and I have in mind. Only instead of just grass and trees we’ll have fruits and vegetables to sell, and loads of educational programs.”
The image is one that could soon become a Cloud 9 reality for Philadelphia residents.