Rooftop to Tabletop Urban Farming Spreads Roots OnEarth Magazine

Rooftop to Tabletop Urban Farming Spreads Roots OnEarth Magazine

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Rooftop farming is expanding into larger-scale operations.

Eighteen feet above Chicago’s honking city traffic, Mike Repkin stands in a plot of buckwheat, delicate white flowers waving about his waist as an elevated train clatters past at eye level. From this unusual spot, Repkin is farming.

He grows great leafy bunches of kale and chard, stalks of wheat and oats, chubby potatoes, sweet strawberries, and even deep-rooted rhubarb. He grows Jerusalem artichokes for diabetics at the nearby community center and basil to sell at the farmer’s market across the street.

All told, his food travels less than 50 feet from farm to market — and much of that distance is vertical.

City dwellers have been growing food on rooftops for decades, either to fulfill a craving for the cuisine of their homeland, or for the simple love of gardening. But in recent years, efforts to turn rooftops into growing space have become larger and more ambitious — more the province of farmers than of gardeners. Spurred by consumer demand for fresh, local produce, and aided by new technology, entrepreneurs across the country are leasing rooftop space for commercial agricultural operations in the heart of bustling cities.

Repkin has spent much of his life trying to grow things. He started as a city kid, helping his aunt weed her garden, and continued through his years in the Army, where he grew corn and black-eyed peas in the barracks. Repkin looks like he’s just been pulled out of the ground himself, sturdy and round like a root vegetable, flecks of soil on his skin.

Rooftop potential

Repkin’s farm on the roof of True Nature, a natural foods co-op, covers about 1,000 square feet with a scrubby meadow of plant life. This is no orderly vegetable garden — it’s more like an overgrown backyard, a flatland terrarium where dandelions jockey for space with a prickly rhubarb bush, a carpet of clover, and tufts of burdock, all in a scant four inches of soil. The wind gusts, the sun is strong, and the El rattles by every few minutes.

You’ll find similar sights in New York City, where Brooklyn Grange runs a 1-acre farm on an industrial rooftop in Long Island City, Queens. The company installed a multilayered green roof system, which prevents plant roots from growing into the building, and hired a crane to haul one million pounds of lightweight soil up to the roof. One borough over, Gotham Greens. winner of last year’s New York Green Business Competition, is constructing a partially solar-powered greenhouse on a rooftop in Brooklyn. It plans to grow about 30 tons of produce to sell at Whole Foods stores, restaurants, and farmer’s markets by 2011.

Gotham Greens estimates that New York City imports $1 billion worth of vegetables every year. Urban farms cut down on transportation costs and pollution, and help make a city’s food supply more secure, which is just one reason that officials are encouraging the trend. Green roofs also help cool buildings, filter stormwater, and provide jobs.

It’s a trend catching on around the country. Seattle declared 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture. San Francisco is auditing unused city land to examine its potential for growing food, and Detroit is looking at urban farming as one way to extract revenue from the city’s vacant lots. In Minnesota, a real estate company called The Cornerstone Group launched Cornerstone Rooftop Farm in Richfield, just south of Minneapolis, as a demonstration project last year.

“We see a solution to a lot of problems by creating agricultural opportunities in urban environments,” says Ben Hertz, director for innovation and sustainability at The Cornerstone Group. “You’ve got people that need jobs and want healthy food, and a tremendous amount of underutilized built environment. And the research we have shows that current sustainable local agricultural production can only support 20 percent of the growing demand for local foods in the Twin Cities.”

Cornerstone joined forces with Ecological Gardens, a landscape design company, to grow food in modular, self-watering planters, a system that allows the farm to be moved if necessary. Produce is sold exclusively to Lucia’s restaurant, a Minneapolis institution where chef Lucia Watson specialized in local, sustainable foods. Cornerstone Farm is much smaller than the New York ventures, but it’s helped define a new direction for its parent real estate company. “Any development we would do right now would incorporate urban farming,” Hertz says.

Food benefits, green benefits

Repkin started his farm in 2006 with Urban Habitat Chicago, a nonprofit group he helped found. The plants and soil sit atop a green roof system made of multiple layers of filtering and insulating materials. Repkin uses no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and chooses each plant carefully to benefit the rooftop ecosystem. The cover crop of white clover, for example, produces a fibrous root system that defends against invaders and fixes nitrogen to help fertilize the soil. He’s got native prairie plants to bring in beneficial insects. Herbs like basil fetch a good price at the market — a profit incentive for urban farmers and building owners.

“But basil doesn’t keep people alive,” Repkin says. That’s why you’ll find him growing hard red winter wheat on his latest rooftop project, leased from a residential building owner who has agreed to donate some of the produce to the needy, in addition to selling at farmer’s markets. “Our wheat can’t compete on price with 50-pound sacks from Kansas, but it’s critical from a self-sufficiency perspective,” Repkins says. “We could easily make enough rooftop bread to feed someone for a year.”

Rooftop to Tabletop Urban Farming Spreads Roots OnEarth Magazine

Repkin has studied the load-bearing strength of other rooftops near True Nature, on either side of the El’s Red Line tracks, and found about 65 acres of potential rooftop farmland. (His lightweight growing system is suitable for most Chicago buildings.) This little slice of urban farms alone could provide about 1,000 jobs, Repkin estimates, and bring in revenues of about $1 per square foot each month – the equivalent of a highly productive organic farm on land.

While Repkin’s roofs are focused on food production, they have numerous environmental benefits. Like a typical green roof, his farm filters and retains stormwater, sequesters carbon dioxide, removes particulate pollution from the air, and insulates and cools the building. It also creates wildlife habitat. Butterflies, birds and honeybees are frequent visitors on this rooftop. Some birds even nest among the clover, plucking straw from the nearby buckwheat and oats to build their nests.

Urban Habitat Chicago’s latest project is a rooftop garden on a building that houses a food pantry and people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. The garden will provide fresh produce, and community residents will be trained to maintain it. “We have lines of people going around the block at food pantries in Chicago,” Repkin says. “Giving people the opportunity to produce their own food, wherever it is, helps empower them.”

Growing opportunities

In the future, urban food production could take on any number of forms. At a technology conference in Denmark this year, researchers presented a concept called Agropolis. a combined farm and grocery store that sells hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic produce grown on its roof.

In Chicago, developers working on an industrial reuse project called The Plant are planning to turn part of a former meat-packing plant into a multistory indoor farm, using waste from aquaculture to fertilize hydroponically-grown produce in a closed, waste-free loop.

“We can grow plenty of food on this planet,” Repkin says. “We just have to connect people to it.”

From the roof of True Nature, he gazes out at the massive Dominic’s grocery store across the avenue, where cars tootle in and out of a vast parking lot and the tar-blackened rooftop, five times this size, is devoid of life. Repkin envisions hundreds of rooftop farms in this neighborhood, providing fresh food, clean air, jobs, and a bit of greenery for El riders to admire on their commute.

“Instead of crusty tar roofs,” he says, “why not give them fields of buckwheat to look at?”

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