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Occasionally, chefs are ambitious enough to build a rooftop garden, but a new company called Up Top Acres, the first commercial rooftop farming business in D.C., is looking to vastly expand the city’s urban agriculture.
Up Top Acres comes from three D.C. natives who went to Wilson High School together. Kristof Grina studied agriculture at the University of Vermont and spent the past few years managing an organic farm in Maryland, Kathleen O’Keefe majored in urban planning at Yale and works for the Downtown BID, and Jeffrey Prost-Greene is a business major from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
For its pilot farm, Up Top Acres is working with ThinkFoodGroup to grow microgreens, herbs, and edible flowers on the rooftop of the building that houses Oyamel. Everything they grow will be used on the menus of José Andrés‘ downtown restaurants, including Jaleo, Zaytinya, Minibar, and China Chilcano. Grina got connected with Andrés after helping the restaurateur with a garden at his house.
The 7,000-square-foot plot has only four inches of soil, so they’re focusing on shallow-rooted crops, including “harder to find, higher value stuff that doesn’t stay fresh as long,” says Grina. Among the plants they’re growing: micro-beets, micro-parsley, micro-kale, nasturtiums, borage, marigolds, epazote, dill, and basil. Future rooftop farms will be able to bear more weight, so they’ll be able support bigger crops like tomatoes or carrots. They’d also like to have an apiary to supply honey.
Up Top Acres is working on two more potential rooftop farms—one in a mixed-use building in downtown Bethesda and another in residential building in the Palisades. By 2016, they also plan to open a flagship rooftop farm that would encompass an entire acre. Although they’re still working on securing a location, they envision the flagship farm will have an event space with yoga classes or beer tastings as well as educational tours for schools or anyone interested in learning more about gardening.
The company plans lease rooftop space from building owners at reduced rates, and then sell their produce to area restaurants, at farmers markets, or through community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.
O’Keefe says they decided to focus on rooftops, because, well, land in D.C. is difficult to acquire, expensive, and often contaminated with pollutants. Plus, rooftop farms have a number of environmental benefits: They help capture storm water and reduce buildings’ energy use. “D.C. is really behind that right now, so there’s a lot of financial incentives to put a green roof on your building,” O’Keefe says. “We take it one step further and make it an agricultural green roof.”
The venture is part-time for now, but the trio anticipate that it will become full-time as the expand their rooftop farmland. “By 2020, we want to have 150,000 square-feet,” Grina says.
Photo of Kristof Grina and Kathleen O’Keefe by Jessica Sidman