John Stoddard – A Sky Farmer

Taking the world by storm all within a ten-minute ride from his office, co-founder of Higher Ground Farm John Stoddard, combines his passion for urban agriculture with rooftop farming to deliver fabulously fresh food to a community in Boston.

By Gabrielle Martinovich

By 2050 the United Nations estimates that two out of every three people will live in a city (today that figure stands at one in two). Growing awareness of this trend has sparked an urban gardening movement around the world. With predictions of food shortages in mind, architects and gardeners alike are exploring ways of growing food in metropolitan areas.

Proposals have ranged from creating a second layer of greenery on rooftops for aesthetic to community gardens and potted plants on urban balconies, to vertical farms bringing crops and gardens inside high-rise buildings.

Thriving in major cities around the world from Brooklyn to Montreal and Berlin, rooftop farming has taken the higher ground converting unused spaces into vibrant, sustainable ecosystems. Co-founder John Stoddard, along with his partner Courtney Hennessey established their rooftop farm in 2013, embarking on a mission to transform the unused roof top of the Boston Design Centre into a productive urban oasis. This sustainable set-up produces herbs and vegetables for local residents and restaurants and is a model for future city farms as the world continues to urbanise.

The Higher Ground Farm, a 55,000-square-foot farm on top of the Boston Design Centre in the Seaport district of Boston, is noted as the second-largest open-air rooftop farm in the world, following the sprawling Brooklyn Grange in New York.

A commercial business, this rooftop farm inspires even the most reluctant green thumbs to channel their inner gardeners to reconnect with nature as well as reduce their carbon footprint.

For the past 30 years, the Boston Design Centre had mixed uses and wasted rooftop space. Through a connection via good design and the right roof structure, a partnership with Higher Ground Farm was formed. And just as the Nightingale Model advocates architect-led mixed-use apartment developments that aim to deliver environmentally, socially and financially sustainable dwellings, the rooftop farm also aims to deliver these triple bottom line benefits.

urban agriculture, John Stoddard, Higher Ground Farm

For building tenants, creation of these rooftop veggie gardens brings the community garden off the street and into the block. Image courtesy of Higher Ground Farm. Cover image courtesy of Boston Globe.

The garden is an open-air farm housing a series of one by one planter boxes of 30 centimetres (1 foot) of soil in depth, lining the roof with thriving small seedlings, and heads of lettuce and ripe tomatoes almost ready to be picked. Providing access to fresh, healthy food, the farm harvests, delivers, bags and washes produce before loading it into ice coolers on bicycles which deliver the goods within a 10-minute ride from the farm.

“What’s unique about roof farms is you produce food and environmental benefits,” says Stoddard.

An environmentalist and food lover, Stoddard combines his passion for agriculture, food and the environment in his work at the farm which has brought attention to the way urban agriculture can change the food systems in our cities.

“Urban agriculture is about food production, it creates a healthy and robust food system, and is fast becoming a vibrant and viable sector,” says Stoddard.

Rooftop farming involves the cultivation of plants on flat or slightly slanted roofs. With nearly eighty per cent of the population in most Western countries living in or around metropolitan areas, turning rooftops into productive growing spaces providing fresh food makes good business sense. Part of the system’s appeal is that it advocates for the utilisation of these unused, wasted rooftop spaces which can contribute to minimising environmental challenges such as the urban heat effect and air quality.

The urban heat effect, where black roofs absorb heat during the day and radiate heat out at night, make cities hotter than surrounding areas thereby creating a heat island, which increases cooling costs and energy usage. By developing this green space, the farm creates a habitat for a diversity of insects and birds, which together reduces the temperature of the roof and the surrounding air. Increasing scale through multiple roof farms would have an even greater impact on energy usage across cityscapes.

Due to urbanisation, we have seen incremental growth in mixed uses for buildings. Residential apartment blocks around the world have become self-managed one stop shops with a local shopping precinct providing all the basic amenities, and a shared rooftop laundry, veggie garden, bee hives and clothesline to meet residents’ daily needs, all within a short walk. For building tenants, creation of these rooftop veggie gardens brings the community garden off the street and into the block.

However, people who live in these high-rise building blocks often don’t have any connection to agriculture. “People are disconnected with where food comes from and how it grows. Higher Ground Farm provides a reality check, it builds understanding, and creates thriving sustainable communities,” says Stoddard.

As consumer appetite for high-quality, nutritious and reliable produce from trusted sources increases, the Higher Ground Farm provides this access to fresh, healthy food as a local farm. Season-by-season the volunteers harvest herbs and vegetables during the farm’s peak season from May to October, with crop planning occurring from February to April in preparation for re-opening in May.

Throughout the season, maintaining a healthy soil is extremely important for the plants.  This meansconstantly adjusting the soil to ensure healthy produce. As a result, exploration of different resource combinations is underway. So too are education programs.

“Education around food is valuable, people are curious about food and what plants look like as there is growing recognition that food doesn’t just appear in a grocery store,” says Stoddard.

More recently, Stoddard has advised property owners, hospitals, corporate cafeterias and schools on how to develop their own onsite gardens. However, as a business proposition, rooftop farming in retrofit unused spaces is not the most lucrative business model. Getting everything to the roof can be expensive as it requires annual crane hire, tonnes of soil for upkeep and regular access to the roof during the season.

Higher ground farm

Rooftop farms come in two main forms: open-air and greenhouse – each with its own unique advantages.  Higher Ground Farm is an open-air farm growing in containers with one foot of soil depth.  Image courtesy of Farm Aid.

As the Higher Ground Farm continues to increase awareness of urban agriculture and the ways in which it can change food systems in our cities, we find more ways to reduce the carbon footprint, build vibrant ecosystems and communities, and meet the growing demand for convenient, nutritious healthy food.

“This year we focused on restaurants and retailers. Our next step will be to extend production to higher value produce such as mushrooms and honey. Further down the track we will look at introducing greenhouse production to the mix,” says Stoddard.
By turning a rooftop into a productive growing space, the Higher Ground Farm continues to pay dividends on decreasing storm water pollution, reducing energy usage and improving air quality.

“I’m lucky to live in a city where I farm. My hope is that Higher Ground Farm becomes a leading food production system for Boston and continues to provide sustainable growth for the future,” says Stoddard.

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