These days, rooftops are used for more than just smoke breaks and stargazing. In fact, they are quickly becoming some of the most productive parcels of land in the U.S. thanks to rooftop farming. All across the country, urban farmers are leaving the solid earth behind and taking their crops to the sky, growing everything from kale to pumpkins on top of apartment buildings, old factories, restaurants and even convention centers.

This modern-day agricultural revolution is partly driven by demand for local, organic food sources in large urban areas. Produce shipped long-distance is usually not as fresh or nor as sustainable as food grown from local farms that can pick fresh vegetables in the morning and have them delivered to markets, restaurants and stores in a matter of minutes. And with the additional space afforded by rooftops, urban farms are no longer confined to the increasingly scarce real estate on the ground.

Growing Food and Community

One such farm, appropriately named the “Food Roof Farm”, maintained by Urban Harvest STL, grows over 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers atop a storage facility built in 1927. The farm’s co-founders, Mary and Joseph Ostafi, had previously built a number of community gardens on good old terra firma, hopping from one space to another as leases and landowners allowed.
By 2014, the duo had already begun planning the first ever rooftop farm in St. Louis. “I founded Urban Harvest STL with the intention to start growing food in downtown St Louis where I live,” says Mary. “This passion transpired into the FOOD ROOF Farm, a rooftop farm where we grow healthy food for people who need it most in our community.”

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60% of the food grown at Urban Harvest STL’s Food Roof Farm is donated to charity. Image Courtesy of Urban Harvest STL.

Community is the central focus of Urban Harvest STL. In the past year, 60% of the food grown at the Food Roof Farm has been donated to the St. Patrick Center, a local charity focused on reducing homelessness. The rest of the food is either sold to local restaurants to help offset donations, or taken home by locals who lease their own little plot of land from the farm.

Apart from providing food for the community, the farm also has numerous benefits for the local environment. 17,000 gallons of stormwater runoff is diverted by the farm during a single storm event, preventing pollution from seeping into waterways. The layers of soil also act as an insulator, lowering building energy costs and reducing the local heat island effect. Rooftop farms have a very real, very tangible impact on local communities. “Imagine if all the underutilized rooftops in my city, and yours, were transformed into thriving green roofs producing healthy food, enhancing biodiversity, mitigating stormwater runoff, creating resiliency in the local food system, and providing green space for the community!”

Small Farms, Big City

Outside of St. Louis, the concept of rooftop farming has become an established part of the local food system, particularly in New York City where the movement first gained a foothold. In 2010, Gwen Schantz of Brooklyn Grange spearheaded the creation of one of the world’s largest rooftop farms. The one-acre farm, built atop a sprawling rooftop in Queens, ultimately led to the creation of a second farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, covering an additional 1.5 acres of New York skyline in vegetation. Between the two farms, Brooklyn Grange now produces over 50,000 pounds of organically-grown vegetables every year, most of which are sold to restaurants and small grocers.

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The Brooklyn Navy Yard is home to Brooklyn Grange’s massive 1.5 acre farm, one of the largest rooftop farms in the world. Image Courtesy of Brooklyn Grange.

Though Gwen grew up gardening and composting at her parents’ home in Massachusetts, she could never have imagined it becoming a full-time job. “I’ve always loved growing plants, cooking, and promoting sustainable food, but I didn’t really expect to make a career out of it,” says Gwen. “After working for an educational non-profit that focused on food and environmental issues, I realized that my dream job would be running a green business. It wasn’t until I met my partners at Brooklyn Grange, Ben and Anastasia, that I knew just what that business would look like.”

Today, Gwen oversees the design and installation of farms and gardens throughout the city, attracting a diverse range of clients from local schools to large companies, including Vice Media, whose rooftop “Munchies Garden” was designed by Brooklyn Grange. Yet even though Brooklyn Grange is busier than ever, the process of citing and creating farms remains a challenge. “You need to get just the right combination of strong engineering, good location and access, size, and a landlord who believes in your business,” says Gwen. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

These challenges are common to every rooftop farm, requiring a tremendous amount of patience and a sustained effort to make them a reality. But for those who are dedicated, the effort is more than worth it. “It takes patience, deliberation, planning and a lot of perseverance to complete, not so different than cultivating a harvest,” says Joseph Ostafi. “There are risks, obstacles, and challenges along the way, but the payoff is in the bountiful harvest and sharing it with others.”

Want to learn more about rooftop farming? Visit Urban Harvest STL and Brooklyn Grange‘s websites to learn about upcoming events and educational opportunities.

Main image courtesy of Urban Harvest STL.