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Urbanites combat climate change with rooftop farms

President Obama brought the issue of climate change out of exile during his State of the Union address by issuing a demand for Congress: if they don't act
Rendering by Recover Green Roofs, original imagery by Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm.(Image by Recover Green Roofs, via Kickstarter)
Rendering by Recover Green Roofs, original imagery by Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm.

President Obama brought the issue of climate change out of exile during his State of the Union address by issuing a demand for Congress: if they don't act swiftly, he will. But as Congress continues to lightly mull a plan of action, urban visionaries John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessey of Higher Ground Farm are cultivating their own solution to environmental problems.

"In our vision we've got this amazing green roof that produces food and then also has these great environmental benefits, one of which...mitigating climate change," said Stoddard.

Higher Ground Farm in Boston is in production to be the second-largest rooftop farm in the world, following New York City's Brooklyn Grange flagship farm. "There are acres of rooftops in cities," explained Stoddard when he described the process of utilizing unused space to create productive resources. Recover Green Roofs is the Massachusetts-based company set to build the Higher Ground Farm roof, which will be their largest green project to date.

Hennessey compares the process of urban farming to any other commercial-scale food production company or farm. "There are always challenges, but instead of groundhogs and gophers, our problems will be seagulls and wind," she explained.

The development of city farms comes at a critical legislative time for the United States. Last year, the 112th Congress failed to pass a new farm bill that would in part help fund more healthy crop subsidies and assist farmers with growing major commodity crops. Instead, the existing bill was extended and is now scheduled to expire at the end of September 2013.

Regardless of whatever policy changes are made at the end of this year’s crop season, Hennessey expects to have plenty of farmed products by then. "We'll hope to grow about 100,000 pounds of produce in our 2013 season," she projected.

The city of Boston and surrounding areas should also expect reduced pollution in addition to an abundance of fresh produce. "When we get heavy rain--which happens frequently--the combined sewage overflow goes into the bay," said Hennessey. "The green roof system will slow the flow of water off the roof, and also retain some of the water that the plants will use."

Positive effects on the environment would not be the only result of large-scale urban farming. As the plants on the farm would naturally absorb the sunlight, they would be combating the heat island effect that so commonly afflicts large cities. Consequently, electricity and cooling costs would be reduced for companies that invest in a green roof for their buildings.

In the Jan. 6 edition of Melissa Harris-Perry, Just Food executive director Jacquie Berger spoke about the lack of access of healthy food options in lower-income and urban areas. “If you have access to fresh healthy food there’s so much more you can do in terms of nourishing yourself and your family,” Berger explained.

Hennessey and Stoddard both entered their partnership with firsthand knowledge on how food access affects what is consumed. "Growing food closer to city centers where people live is an important step to creating a better food system," Hennessey said. She mentioned the relationship Higher Ground Farm has with Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, an organization that subsidizes food and brings produce to neighborhoods that have a noticeable lack fresh and affordable options.

Altruism will remain a priority with Higher Ground Farm, but engaging local restaurants will also be a major part of the green farm project. Stoddard and Hennessey both have experience working in restaurants as well a background in farming and agriculture. The two rely on the direct correlation between locally grown produce and a booming economy as part of their business plan. "There's definitely a difference and distinction in the taste, flavor, and texture," Hennessey said as she discussed selling food from Higher Ground Farm. "Restaurant owners prefer food picked that day and served that night instead of food that's been in a warehouse for possibly up to a week." Better food will bring more customers, stimulating the local economy.

As far as the rooftop-farming trend catching on in the rest of the country, Hennessey hopes that the process is at least considered. "I hope that we move away from what is really a broken system of food production in our country [with] monocropping and genetically modified food. I don't think cities will be able to sustain their entire population with urban farms, but it's an important thing to look at."

Speaking of the environment, please join host Melissa Harris-Perry Sunday at 10 a.m. EST on msnbc when she looks at the Keystone XL pipeline controversy. Find out more about Higher Ground Farm on Facebook and Kickstarter, and in the video below.