The Growth of Rooftop Farming

How Rooftop Farming Can Add to Both Commercial and Residential Spaces

There’s one thing we know for sure – people need to eat. From the beginning of time, people would hunt wild animals and search for plants, then we gradually learned how to farm our own produce, meats and dairy to survive. With colonization, the American economy eventually became a huge farming economy, exporting crops to support the country and the world.

Today, while farmers in many areas are still claiming unused land for cultivation, in larger cities like New York and Chicago, land comes at a much higher premium. That’s why farmers there are increasingly eyeing spaces that they might not have to wrestle from developers: rooftops.

The city of Chicago, for example, boasts 509 roofs, equaling 5,564,412 square feet, that are now partially or fully covered with vegetation, which provides all kinds of benefits – from reducing the buildings’ energy costs to cleaning the air. In 2013, Chicago turned a green roof into its first major rooftop farm – a 20,000 square foot soil-based space sitting atop McCormick Place, the largest convention center in America. The goal is for it to supply the center’s own food service company with more than 10,000 servings of food each year.

New York, on the other hand, has its own history of finding ways to bring farming into the city. Eric Haley and Viraj Puri, for example, were college best friends living and working in New York. While they were both on different paths – Haley in finance and Puri in clean energy – both were foodies and of entrepreneurial spirit. They realized that much of the produce they had access to was coming from places like California, Arizona and even Israel, and therefore, things like greens and herbs were not sustainable because they were traveling long distances and were about a week old by the time they reached the city. Together, they entered a competition with an idea for a rooftop farm in mind – and they won. They opened the first Gotham Greens in 2011 with the goal of becoming a local produce brand, creating local jobs and cutting back on the environmental footprint.

“No one else was even trying to do what they were doing,” explained Nicole Baum, Senior Marketing and Partnerships Manager at Gotham Greens. “And we’ve only grown since then – we now have three locations in New York City and one in Chicago, which opened at the end of 2015 on top of the Method Factory on the south side, and is now the world’s largest rooftop farm at two acres.”

The majority of Gotham Greens’ product stays within the New York and Chicagoland areas. They partner with stores, restaurants and retailers such as Whole Foods, feeding into the increasingly popular farm to fork movement as well as consumers’ demand for fresher, more nutritious product.

“There’s an important role for urban farms in that they’re connecting people in the city who want to know where their food comes from,” said Baum. “Our goal is to continue expanding our business but to stay a local brand. We don’t want to grow food in New York then sell it in California. Instead, we want to continue offering ways for people to get that freshly grown crop right in their own city.”

While Gotham Greens focuses on the commercial side of urban rooftop farms, you don’t have to go as big as a factory or convention center to take advantage of the space and sunlight on a roof to grow food. People have been container-gardening on rooftops for a long time, and thanks to DIYers sharing innovative ideas, people are becoming more inspired to grow their own food.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, micro-gardens are located on small spaces, such as balconies, patios and rooftops, and rely on containers such as plastic-lined wooden boxes, trash cans and even old tires to grow food. FAO research shows that a well-tended micro-garden of 11 square feet can produce as much as 200 tomatoes a year, 36 heads of lettuce every 60 days, 10 cabbages every 90 days and 100 onions every 120 days. And, thanks to people like Anne Gibson, who runs The Micro Gardener website, there are many creative ways out there to DIY your way into your own rooftop or patio farm.

New Yorkers and Chicagoans are great at utilizing every inch of space in a building, and rooftop farming has only become an extension of that mindset. There are many ways you can incorporate farms into an urban area, even starting off small, and you’ll be surprised at just home many people are eager to become involved.