Photo of Kathleen O’Keefe by Jeanine Santucci
Photo of Kathleen O’Keefe by Jeanine Santucci

Three years after founding an urban agriculture business with two friends from high school, Kathleen O’Keefe reflects on the expansion of their company Up Top Acres. She and her partners are trying to change the way D.C. looks at urban food production, and their business just landed on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for social entrepreneurs. 

In 2014, O’Keefe, Kristof Grina, and Jeff Prost-Green ran with an idea they had to combine their passion for sustainability with their love for their home city. All D.C.-area natives, the trio had a vision: rooftop farms towering above the city. They started the first company of its kind in the District and were later joined by Up Top Acres farm manager Nick Berini.

Rooftop fruit and vegetable gardens maximize what limited space there is in cities like the District. Urban farmers take otherwise underutilized rooftops and transform them into havens for plant life. Dan Guilbeault, the chief of sustainability and equity for the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment, says they also help with stormwater collection, habitat protection, and energy preservation.

Up Top Acres’ specializes in rooftop farms that produce crops to be sold locally. In the years since its first farm opened in 2015, the company has established five urban farms, each with different production capabilities and specialties.

“Ideally, we’d love the next time you fly into Reagan over there, you fly over and you see rooftops covered in green instead of gray and white and black,” O’Keefe says.

More and more, that vision is coming to life. Data collected and reported by the DOEE shows that the construction of green roofs is on the rise, with more than three million square feet of green rooftop space throughout the city to date, and it’s not just commercial farms that make up the urban farming landscape. The French Embassy, the Coast Guard headquarters, and city homeowners have all installed variations on the green roof. 

Bridging a Grocery Gap

In neighborhoods where access to fresh food is scarce, urban agriculture has the potential to connect people with fruits and vegetables. Bread for the City is a local nonprofit organization dedicated to serving low-income communities by providing food, legal services, medical care, and social resources. It has a green roof on its Northwest, D.C. location and grows produce to feed those in need.

Bread for the City offers agricultural classes for residents on its green roof and gives participants seedlings to take home and grow themselves. The organization works to combat food insecurity through numerous food programs, which include monthly food pantries and twice-monthly farmers markets. 

In food-insecure areas in the District, including parts of Wards 7 and 8, the nearest grocery store might be miles away.

Proving That Urban Agriculture Is Good Business

Guilbeault says landowners who build green roofs qualify for a rebate as part of the DOEE’s initiative to reduce rainwater runoff that causes pollution. “The real thing we’re really seeing is just increasing levels of healthy and clean water in our waterways,” Guilbeault says. “Green roofs [are] just one part of that, but it’s an important part of that.”

Up Top Acres utilizes various available government incentives to cut back on the costs of operating a commercial farm. But the farms are also helping conserve energy, improving the quality of produce Washingtonians eat, and shrinking the distance food travels from farm to table.

At 55 M St. SE, Up Top Acres has a 15,000-square-foot farm perched above offices where they grow herbs, cucumbers, watermelons, and other delights. It doubles as an event space with a seating area where Core Power yoga classes, pop-up dinners, and private parties are held. The captivating view of the Washington Monument and Capitol dome is a bonus. You can even catch a glimpse of another of the company’s farms a few rooftops over on an apartment building.

All of Up Top Acres’ locations participate in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. After crops from the farms are harvested each month, they are distributed from a central location to members who buy “shares” of the crops. They also sell at farmers markets and to 10 restaurants across the city.

In 2015, Up Top Acres partnered with Chef José Andrés and ThinkFoodGroup to deliver produce, micro greens, and herbs toOyamel, where the first farm is housed. Andres’ other restaurants also utilize produce from Up Top Acres.

“We ended up deciding to be a for-profit because we really want to establish agriculture as a viable industry,” O’Keefe says. “We think by doing that, we can change the way people think about urban agriculture. So instead of having it be like a cute little project, it’s a viable industry. We’re creating jobs in D.C., producing food in D.C.”

Thousands of people throughout the city walk by green roof structures every day, perhaps without even noticing. They exist on schools, businesses, and residences, but their full potential has yet to be realized.

O’Keefe says Up Top Acres is expanding with locations in Maryland. Right now, the farm cluster in the Navy Yard neighborhood creates a thriving network of sustainable food growth, and she envisions similar networks in neighborhoods throughout the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area.

“We may not ever produce enough food to feed the city, but we’re going to change the way that people are thinking about food,” O’Keefe says. “If we can use the rooftops to grow food, how would that change this city—just the way the whole city functions. And so that’s really the big thing is it’s like changing the way that people think about buildings.”

O’Keefe continues to say that she’s trying to “create this beautiful, functioning living experience instead of like a concrete jungle.”