We climb narrow metal steps from the top floor of the Boston Design Center, set out through a heavy, metal door, and over a final raised ledge at the bottom of the door that can only be intended to discourage entrance onto the roof. Even before my eyes adjust to the brilliant sunlight, with my first breath, I can feel the farm in my lungs. It is not exactly just the smell of things growing; more the feeling of being given pure, new oxygen, in even exchange for the CO2 I am offering. When, still squinting, I first see the careful rows of vibrant life, I have that feeling of gazing at a mirage – it seems a bit of that visible, liquidy heat shimmers up into the air just beyond the edge of the rooftop, slightly obscuring the Boston skyline, at eye-level, off in the distance.
Rows of carefully placed, repurposed milk crates open up before me, filled with rich, warm, nutrient soil, brimming over with green accented by bits of red from ripening tomatoes, orange from squash blossoms, and purple from a special variety of basil, peaking through. I almost don’t believe Courtney, when she later explains that of the 1700 milk crates, 500 were filled with soil, and carried up those narrow metal steps by hand – 200 by Courtney and John on their own, and 300 in one morning (10,000 pounds of soil!) with a crew of nine. I walk with Courtney through the raised fields and she gently shows me each species of plant, picking a few tastes for me – the sweet burst of sunshine of a cherry tomato; the striking contrast between the bright citrus of lemon basil, and the soft spice of opal basil; the delicate pepper of perfect arugula. I recognize then, that the deep love and dedication she and John put into their farm every day extend far beyond the sweat and muscle-power they would have expended to lug those first crates up the steep stairs (The remaining 1200 crates lifted over the side of the building with the assistance of a massive crane, and Courtney and John did concede to outsource the crane operation!)
Courtney and John had been carrying around the seeds of Higher Ground in suspended animation for years, since they first met in college and acknowledged shared passions for sustainable food, farming, and agriculture. Finally, in July of 2013, following months of impassioned conversations with the – supportive – Boston Redevelopment Authority, mountains of permitting paperwork, several failed attempts to find the right rooftop, and finally, a whirlwind Kickstarter campaign, they were able to plant those seeds on the top of the Boston Design Center. With a relatively short window left in the growing season for 2013, Courtney and John still managed to produce a trial crop of tomatoes – some of those hearty plants, Courtney showed me, have been trying to push their way back in on their own this year, in rows of soil intended for – and planted with! – other crops.
2014 has been their first season of full production, supplying some of Boston’s most outstanding restaurants, specialty food stores, and markets with an exceptional variety of organic fare. Hopefully, by now, if you have been by our South End shop this summer, you have tasted their arugula, tomatoes, and fresh basil for yourself. (They were one of the only farms in the area not affected by the basil blight, so if you were fretting the loss of all the pesto you were planning to make and put away for the winter, there is still basil to be had!)
You might ask, why an open-air rooftop farm in New England, rather than the greenhouse model, which could extend the growing season? First and foremost, Courtney explained, she and John simply love being outdoors, and frankly, the possibility of being cooped up inside a greenhouse was never on the table. Moreover, the open-air farm is actually more economical to run – so it was an easy decision. One of the biggest challenges with an open-air farm, however, is keeping the soil fertile and healthy, without readily being able to use many traditional techniques. For example, in order to fertilize with cover crop (green manure), which would be ideal for the plants, they would have to find a way to turn it into the planters by hand. That is one challenge they have not solved yet, but Courtney is hopeful, “Most of my best ideas come to me while I’m trying to fall asleep at night, so I’m sure some kind of answer will pop in my brain.”
I also asked if they had considered getting bees. Courtney explained that their current lease won’t allow for any animals, big or small on the roof, so they aren’t able to keep bees. (Someone should tell that to the feisty band of seagulls who decided to make part of the roof their rookery for the season!) As good fortune – or good ecological planning – would have it, their neighbors at The Seaport Hotel have nine hives, “so their bees are over all the time pollinating and buzzing the day away.”
Hearing this, and looking out again over the Boston skyline, I start to wonder – of all those rooftops, certainly most (or all??) of them could be suitable for some kind of green activity. The quiet purity of the very air at Higher Ground is so dramatically different from anywhere else in and immediately around the city. What would it be like to breathe in a city filled with rooftop gardens and farms?
Courtney and John’s lease covers about twice as much of the space on the roof as they currently are using and (assuming a positive outcome from negotiations with the seagulls) they expect to continue to expand the farm, as well as to develop part of the remaining area into a green event space, which would be open to the wider community, in addition to hosting Higher Ground events. They are encouraged by the successes of their efforts so far and their warm reception by the community to continue growing.
With production volume way up, as late harvest crops are peaking, while summer-long crops are still thriving, volunteers willing to put in a few hours of manual love for the farm are welcome and encouraged – especially on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are harvest days. You can contact Courtney and John through Higher Ground’s website to set up a time for a visit and to lend a hand.
Happily, we will be offering Higher Ground produce through the end of the season – be sure to come in and grab a taste of the end of summer to relish.
Marianne Staniunas is a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.