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Up on the roof at Dorchester’s Ledge Kitchen & Drinks, tomato plants are popping buds, and the Japanese eggplants are cautiously beginning to elongate, like skinny purple balloons inflating in slow motion. The tarragon is back from last year, and the thyme and rosemary are thriving; lavender is the new kid on the block. Ledge’s rooftop isn’t a place for you and your buddies to have a few rounds of mango mojitos. It’s a productive kitchen garden, the largest in the city, built by structural engineers from Recover Green Roofs, maintained by professional farmers from Green City Growers, and joyfully harvested by chefs, managers, and servers who hover lovingly over each tomato. (They should — the home-grown green tomatoes are the central ingredient in their yummy Garden Goblet cocktail.)
This year, the garden’s third, will be the “best yet,” says assistant general manager John Comeau. “We started with too many varieties — watermelon, squash, beans — but now we’ve figured out what’s functional and what is just exotic,” he says with the surety of a sunburned farmer, an unusual attitude for a guy who spends his days and nights worrying more about tables turning than seasons. Like a potent pinch of a fresh herb, urban agriculture is infusing its way into Boston’s culinary scene.
Urban ag, the concept that every horizontal surface with any reasonable amount of sun exposure could and should be a source of sustenance, is suddenly hotter than a summer Sunday afternoon. Rooftops, parking lots, planters, and pots are the newest professional kitchen accessories. It’s the latest sign of an astonishing transformation in the way we think about food. Just two deep breaths ago, the objects of maximal culinary lust were edibles zapped in from far-flung locales; in summer 2012, the most swoon-worthy foodstuffs travel 10 yards or less from the garden to your fork. Okay, it’s only herbs and habaneros in restaurant gardens today, but we are guessing it will be chickens and baby goats in the parking lots tomorrow, if trend incubators like Brooklyn and Portland are any indication.
It’s the next logical step of locavorism: the idea that not only are chefs supposed to buy from local farmers, but that a good, responsible chef needs to become a farmer, too. That every restaurant could and should have its own kitchen garden, stocked with edibles so fresh that the rosemary sprigs and bronze fennel can practically hop into the pan. The concept of getting that close to the source is like catnip for a sustainably oriented chef.
Take chef-owner Steve Johnson of Rendezvous in Cambridge; he was on the vanguard, snipping chives on his rooftop before anyone else knew how to spell Perlite. Now he has more company. Chef-owner Erwin Ramos of Inman Square’s Olé Mexican Grill is in year two of his garden, tucked into a sunny alleyway next to the restaurant. Last year, Ramos planted 20 varieties of vegetables in his alleyway farm. “We tried everything — tomatoes, eggplants, herbs. But we learned that we weren’t able to grow enough of anything to make a difference,” says Ramos. “So this summer we are planting things we can really use, items that would cost us a lot more if we shipped them from California. Just a few varieties: epazote, an herb that is essential for the Mexican kitchen, cilantro, habanero and jalapeño peppers, and a certain variety of tomatoes.” The epazote crop is so potent that Ramos can freeze the harvest and supply his restaurant for the entire year.
Executive chef Richard Rayment of the Seaport Hotel got his garden up and running years ago, working with an outside farm — but it was only when he found Green City Growers, one of several new businesses devoted to urban-garden installation, that he started growing on site. Like Ramos, Rayment tried many varieties before settling on a handful of reliable crops that could make a difference in his cooking. “The early years, we grew lots of different vegetables. We had these great, luscious tomatoes. And that was wonderful — for the one night we served them before the harvest was gone. We’ve learned that herbs work really well for us — thyme, purple basil, bronze fennel, mint, parsley, oregano, sage . . . our garlic chives are in their 10th year.” Why does a 500-seat hotel venue bother with a little herb garden? “It matters to the chefs,” explains Rayment. “It’s a good education to have chefs get their hands dirty. We have good cooks who think herbs and vegetables grow in plastic bags. A garden that we use daily keeps all of us in the kitchen connected to the value of food.” Robert Tobin, the new chef at the hotel’s Aura restaurant and TAMO bar, agrees. “Think of the difference between picking an apple off a tree in October versus getting one from the grocery store,” he says. “I love our garden; you go out and pick the herbs, and they are still warm from the summer day.”
Such fans are feeding a new mini-industry populated by entrepreneurial young men and women like 28-year-old Jessie Banhazl, arguably the queen of Boston’s urban-ag visionaries. She started Green City Growers four years ago after an unsatisfying stint in reality-TV production. “I was working on all these shows, and I realized that I didn’t want to put my heart and soul into something so irrelevant as reality TV,” says Banhazl. Like many recent grads, the Smith alum was living “in poverty” in a food desert, so she decided to move home to Boston. But first she paid a visit to a friend in California who was planting fruit trees, becoming a backyard farmer. She said to herself, “I want to do this.”
Within months, Banhazl had developed a viable business model for Green City Growers, built a website, and signed up her first clients for residential and commercial edible gardens. One of her first big projects was for Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare; she helped the insurance company build an employee-tended garden in the parking lot, where all the food produced would be donated to people in need. Banhazl was all of 24. She went on to work with elder-care facilities, hospitals, churches and synagogues, camps, Boys & Girls Clubs, and schools, encouraging her clients to stop using green space for “ornamental purposes” and dedicate significant portions of “pointless grass lawns” to edible acreage.
Banhazl now has a full-time staff of five, plus interns and seasonal contractors. And she’s collaborated with Brendan Shea of Recover Green Roofs, an engineering and structural specialty company, to take her street-level farming concept up a few stories. “In the Boston area, we have significant space limitations; our urban footprint is small,” Banhazl explains. “But we also have a lot of older buildings with flat roofs with great access to sunlight and terrific potential for growing things we can eat. Brendan understands the challenge of weight and irrigation.” And there are a lot of other logistical considerations for those looking to go green. Banhazl estimates that the cost of installing an edible garden on a rooftop is $25 per square foot. She says that chefs should have at least 100 square feet of sunny space, on the ground or on the roof, to really make it worthwhile. And a new, thoughtfully designed space works best. “The best way for urban ag to grow is, plan for edible gardens into all new construction,” Banhazl says. “We could feed ourselves if we decided to.”
John Stoddard has a different model for urban ag. He and his partner at Higher Ground Farm, Courtney Hennessey, have been working for almost two years on a concept for a decentralized urban farm, spread across several locations in Boston. Hennessey, a restaurant vet and the former CSA manager of the Food Project in Lincoln, brings plenty of growing knowhow; Stoddard studied models for sustainable farming at Tufts and wrote his thesis on how young entrepreneurs in Detroit are reinventing industrial space for food production. “We can do this here in Boston. If I were the president of a local university, I would be looking at how we can transform our cities by using vacant space as a way to answer food-security issues,” Stoddard says.
The Higher Ground partners are seeking unconventional spaces for farming — rooftops, back alleys, vacant lots, and even storage containers, where they will grow hydroponically. The idea is that Higher Ground will pay rent to owners, produce year-round, and sell directly to chefs, retailers, CSAs, and farmers’ markets. “We see it as a green business that will also be financially viable,” says Stoddard. So far, the pair have a business plan and restaurant partners in Toro and Coppa, but they haven’t hired an engineer, raised any real cash, or signed a space, though they may be close to a deal for a spot in South Boston.
The reality is this: there’s no money in urban agriculture yet. Not for the gardening and farming entrepreneurs, not for the chefs. The $64 tomato is no joke, and at best a thriving urban restaurant can address only a small fraction of its total produce needs with four-by-four-foot container beds and tomato plants in plastic kiddy pools. As of now, only fistfuls of restaurants — like Abigail’s, b.good, Ula Café, the Lenox Hotel, and the aforementioned Rendezvous, Olé, Aura, and Ledge –– have actually built an on-premises kitchen garden.
But there is still something seductive about the idea that, even in a dense city like Boston, we can bring forth the tiny miracle of food in the middle of bricks and cinder blocks. And when a magical idea begins to percolate, the bubbles start small, but they don’t stop. Veteran food visionaries are getting involved, like Dancing Deer Baking Co. cofounder Trish Karter, who is raising money for her LightEffect Farms venture and has an active bid to turn the roof of the Boston Globe building on Morrissey Boulevard into a commercial, year-round indoor farm for salad micro-greens. Former server and restaurant executive Richard Brackett, an alum of the Capital Grille, Towne Stove & Spirits, and Rialto, has launched Sky Vegetables, a wholesale hydroponic-farming company. His enclosed rooftop farm in Brockton is slated to go operational later this year, supplying vegetables from farm to plate in under 48 hours. From his research farm in Amherst, Brackett is already selling whole-head artisanal lettuces and tomatoes to restaurants like Legal Harborside, Radius, and Davio’s.
All these urban-agriculture trailblazers are in love with the idea of playing in the dirt — and they have high hopes for hitting pay dirt in the process. It may seem like a pipe dream now, but there are reasons for optimism. Green City Growers is rumored to have signed a deal with Whole Foods Market to plant a 10,000-square-foot-plus garden on the roof of the new Lynnfield store planned for 2013. They hope to grow more than 12,000 pounds of produce from that site alone. A major new development in Kendall Square is drawing up hush-hush plans for a large rooftop garden that will support several planned new restaurants. And the City of Boston, personified by the green-minded (if not green-thumbed) Mayah Menino and his director of food initiatives, Edith Murnane, are supportive of urban-agriculture ventures.
It’s true that today urban agriculture is still an idea, a mission, not yet a business model. But in the right climate, there’s plenty of room to grow.