From the Rooftops: Green City Growers is Raising Boston's Food Profile - From the Top Down

From the Rooftops: Green City Growers is Raising Boston's Food Profile - From the Top Down
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GreenCity-1

FROM THE ROOFTOPS: GREEN CITY GROWERS IS RAISING BOSTON'S FOOD PROFILE - FROM THE TOP DOWN
PHOTOS BY ADAM DETOUR

When it came to baseball, the Red Sox didn’t give us much to cheer for this season. The team’s local food production, on the other hand, was trophy-worthy. Incredibly, by season’s end, a large new container farm on a previously barren rooftop at Fenway Park will have yielded more than 4,000 pounds of fresh food—from pea shoots to peppers—carefully tended to by urban farmers from Green City Growers.

The farm is now a stop on most ballpark tours, which welcome as many as 10,000 tourists a week. As a guide leads a tour past the farm, he motions at Green City Growers founder Jessie Banhazl. “That’s one of our new left-handed relievers,” he jokes.

Banhazl looks out over the rows and rows of fragrant herbs, dark greens and perfectly red tomatoes her farmers now tend inside Boston’s cathedral of sport. She’s almost giddy.

“I feel really grateful,” she says. “Sometimes I come here when I’m feeling really stressed out or bogged down in the day to day. It feels like an unbelievable privilege to be here.”

A privilege indeed, but one even Banhazl admits Green City Growers has earned. Since she started the Somerville-based for-profit more than five years ago, the company has proven sustainable agriculture can be profitable, and in the process launched a rooftop farming revolution.

Getting Started

Banhazl was 24 and living with her parents in Wayland when a friend told her about companies on the West Coast helping would-be backyard farmers grow their own food. Burned out professionally from a couple of years working in reality television production in New York City, the Smith College graduate and daughter of entrepreneurs had recently been inspired by The Omnivore’s Dilemma to “give people the tools they need to be able to source food hyper-locally.” She set out to do something about it.

With zero assets and nary a credit card to her name, Banhazl found securing loans for her new business to be difficult. There was also the challenge of getting lenders to buy into a concept—a business that could be profitable planting and maintaining organic gardens for other people—that hadn’t yet been proven in Boston.

Even so, Green City Growers’ first gardens were planted in 2009, mostly in residential backyards. Soon, Banhazl began getting calls from companies interested in launching gardens as part of corporate wellness programs, as well as clients exploring rooftop farming. Green City Growers’ first foray into roofs was a soil-filled kiddie pool atop a Brookline b.good restaurant later that year—which Banhazl credits as being an early adopter and “wonderful partner.”

In just a few years, there has been a “sea change” in Greater Boston with regards to urban agriculture, she says, and rooftop farming in particular. The square footage Green City Growers farms has exploded, from 2,054 square feet at 48 sites in 2009 to nearly 28,000 square feet of crops at 161 locations today (farmed by just six people)—including 12 Boston-area b.goods, eateries like Abigail’s, The Sinclair and Ester, plus hospitals, schools, and office complexes throughout the region.

Oh, and just the largest rooftop farm in New England. No big deal.

Whole Foods Market, Lynnfield

At 17,000 square feet, the rooftop farm at Whole Foods in Lynnfield is not only Green City Growers’ most ambitious project—it is the region’s biggest rooftop farm. It’s history-making as well, being the country’s first soil-based, open-air rooftop farm on a supermarket, creating the shortest food-to-shelf distance of any grocery store.

In 2012, Green City Growers bid on and won the project with Somerville-based Recover Green Roofs—which handled the farm’s design and installation. (The two companies have since worked on numerous projects together, including Fenway Farms.) All of the 7,000 pounds of food grown on the half-acre farm is picked when ripe and sold downstairs in the store, “basically 100 feet from where it is being grown,” Banhazl says, maximizing the food’s nutrient density because “there’s no transportation involved.”

Bill Ford, team leader at the Lynnfield Whole Foods Market, says Green City Growers’ shared enthusiasm for and commitment to the rooftop farm has made for an ideal working relationship since the completion of the farm in 2013. Shoppers appear to love it, too, he says.

“The produce, flowers and herbs sell as quickly as they are harvested,” Ford says. “After all, it doesn’t get any more fresh and locally grown than when it comes right from our own roof.”

The Brandeis Rooftop Community Farm, Brandeis

University

When students at Brandeis University in Waltham returned to school for the Fall 2015 term, they were greeted by a new, 1,500 square foot farm on what is known on campus as the Gerstenzang red square. Completed in May, the Brandeis Rooftop Community Farm could yield 3,500 pounds of fresh food this year and will provide boxes of food for more than a dozen Brandeis faculty, staff and students through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Plans are in the works to bring academic classes into the farm to supplement their learning—think biology students at the farm studying the evolution of domesticated plants, or health classes conducting soil tests.

The best part? All of it—from the idea to the campus approvals to the fundraising—was orchestrated by 18- and 19-year-olds.

The plan was hatched in Professor Lori Goldin’s class, “Greening the Ivory Tower: Improving Environmental Sustainability of Brandeis and Community.” After reading Michael Pollan’s work and studying examples of urban agriculture around the country, one student group set out to improve the campus’ food system through a rooftop farm that would feed and teach the campus community.

Early on, the students realized their plan had become much more than a class project, so they started a campus-wide Farmers Club, created an executive board, and started to test the feasibility of their idea. The students reached out first to Green City Growers, who walked them through the questions they’d need to ask. A local structural engineering firm—Simpson Gumpertz and Heger—donated its services to make sure the roof could withstand the rows and rows of soil-filled milk crates. It could.

The students then took their idea to administrators, and even applied for a $30,000 sustainability grant through the school. It wasn’t an easy sell.

“We convinced them that this is a big sustainability issue—food justice—that affects the students, the staff, and the community, and that [the farm] would be a beneficial part of the school,” says junior Jay Feinstein, who is president of the Farmers Club and helped spearhead the rooftop farm campaign. “We’re so lucky they agreed. They couldn’t be more supportive now.”

The campus community has already shown its support for the initiative. More than 500 people attended an on-campus farmers market in April, and 100 students, faculty and staff volunteered to help install the farm in May—during Finals Week. Feinstein says the farm is producing enough food to fill 12 CSA shares this summer, and hopes to add a social justice component in the fall by donating shares to people in need. Green City Growers helped maintain the farm over the summer and runs the CSA, with the help of several students and faculty, and Banhazl says the club was able to recoup the maintenance costs with money made through the CSA.

At the end of the day, though, the farm, for Feinstein and his fellow food activists, isn’t about making money, but impacting the Brandeis community’s food culture by showing that delicious, fresh food can be grown anywhere—even a roof.

Fenway Farms, Fenway Park

Fenway Farms is, to date, the most ambitious ballpark farm anywhere, bucking the stereotype that the game experience is solely about feasting on the unhealthy. And for Green City Growers’ urban farmers, Fenway Park may be the only place where the list of occupational hazards includes getting thumped by a foul ball while harvesting broccoli rabe.

Linda Pizzuti Henry, philanthropist and wife of Red Sox co-owner John Henry, has for years been passionate about food systems and greening up Fenway. So when Green City Growers and Recover Green Roofs stepped forward and pitched a plan to design, build and maintain a ballpark farm, she was sold.

So was Banhazl. Where a project of this magnitude—a farm visible to millions of ballpark visitors annually—might have intimidated the founder and CEO a few years earlier, she says she had no doubt that Green City Growers was the right pick for the job.

“From pitching this to being here, I’ve been completely and utterly confident that we can give them what we wanted,” she says.

Fenway Farms is a modular farm, planted in milk crates and able to be moved if needed. Post-harvest, most of the produce from the farm (which sits atop the front office behind the third base side of the EMC Level) is walked 25 feet to the EMC Club’s kitchen, where it is served to fans alongside gourmet offerings like New Bedford scallops, grass-fed filet mignon, and Semolina gnocchi. Some of the food grown in the park is also sold at a healthy concession stand on Yawkee Way.

Banhazl says Fenway Farms is a prototype for the kind of large-scale rooftop projects she wants Green City Growers to take on moving forward—“individual projects being able to reach more people at one location.”

“Those are the kinds of projects where you start to see a change in mentality and a natural impact on Greater Boston.”

Could Boston’s Green Revolution Be Top-Down?

The work of Green City Growers, Recover Green Roofs, and so many other companies and nonprofits is definitely impacting Bostonians’ mentality toward urban agriculture, the food system, and rooftop farms in particular. But with Boston’s and other local cities’ high priority on the construction of new housing on most available land, Banhazl believes rooftops may hold the most promise for increasing urban agriculture yields. There just needs to be a tipping point where developers and the public buy into the previously foreign concept.

If Green City Growers’ success is any indication, that tipping point has arrived, and the potential is sky-high.

Ask These Questions Before Growing Food On Your Roof

Brendan Shea, director of field operations with Recover Green Roofs, shares his process for discovering whether a building is a good fit for rooftop agriculture.

Can my roof hold the weight? Your roof should be able to support the weight of your garden, with soil and vegetables, usually in the ballpark of 50 pounds per square foot above the snow load. Hire a structural engineer to test your roof before planting anything.

Is my roof completely waterproof? Along with weight-bearing capacity, the quality of your roof’s waterproofing membrane is a crucial component to any successful rooftop farming project. “Roofs that leak, no matter how beautiful and productive a garden is, will lead to failure,” Shea says.

Is my roof safe? A rooftop must have adequate railing and a level walking surface to keep you and other gardeners safe. If these don’t exist, they can be some of the bigger expenses for a rooftop agriculture project.

 

STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.