You are the owner of this article.

St. Louis' First Rooftop Farm Grows Food and Opportunity Downtown

Fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t the only things taking root at Urban Harvest STL’s rooftop farm in Downtown St. Louis

  • 8 min to read

Up close, it looks like any other farm.

Rows of greens sprout in plots of soil, bright-purple bell peppers hang from stalks in raised garden beds and juicy tomatoes grow on the vine. Leafy green bushels of kale poke their way out of hydroponic towers. A handful of chickens nose around a wire coop. In a small gray greenhouse near the back of the property, arugula, peas, radishes and microgreens bud in neatly organized rows.

The crops are familiar, but the farm is hardly garden-variety.

Look past the rows of leafy greens, and you’ll spot The Dome at America’s Center looming in the distance; just beyond the rows of purple peppers, the City Museum’s rooftop Ferris wheel catches your eye. Located on top of the two-story W-Ave Storage building at the corner of 14th Street and Convention Plaza in Downtown St. Louis, Urban Harvest STL’s Food Roof is the city’s first urban rooftop farm. But up on the roof, there’s a lot more than just fresh vegetables growing.

The Food Roof is a years-in-the-making project from Urban Harvest STL’s executive director, Mary Ostafi, who moved to St. Louis in early 2010 to work at global architecture firm HOK. As part of leading a sustainable lifestyle, Ostafi wanted to be able to walk to work – HOK’s headquarters are just two blocks from The Gateway Arch – so she moved right into the heart of Downtown. She soon realized, though, that there wasn’t much green space available in the neighborhood to grow her own fruits or vegetables.

“I had this desire to start growing food in this neighborhood,” Ostafi says. “I started talking to people and found out a lot of people had a similar interest – soon, I found myself leading this initiative to start growing food Downtown.”

Ostafi’s plans soon blossomed into developing a community garden Downtown. In 2011, she set up a community meeting to gauge interest – 60 people showed up just from seeing the lone flyer in Culinaria, A Schnucks Market. During the meeting, residents tossed around even grander ideas about urban food production, and the group decided to incorporate into a nonprofit. Urban Harvest STL was then formed around a common goal: establishing a Downtown community garden where residents could grow their own fresh produce, with the hope to expand on that idea in the future.

Over the next year, the waiting list for Urban Harvest’s community garden plots grew just as fast as the garden itself. But because green space is hard to come by Downtown, the group struggled to find a long-term lease, bouncing around to several different locations including the Koken Manufacturing Co. property and a temporary stint on the top deck of the Railway Exchange Building’s parking garage. In 2012, they decided to look up.

“We’ve concentrated on Downtown because that’s where we see the opportunity,” Ostafi says. “We’re reimagining the urban landscape to leverage the millions of square feet of unused roof space for local food production, which feeds our community.”

The Food Roof was the first of its kind Downtown – Ostafi initially became interested in integrated urban agriculture while studying for a master’s degree in strategic leadership toward sustainability in Sweden. At the time, rooftop farming was gaining traction in larger cities across the nation, and she saw how the unconventional approach could promote sustainability in addition to creating jobs and better access to fresh food in often-neglected neighborhoods. She sought advice from rooftop farmers around the country, including a few in New York and Chicago.

It took a while for Urban Harvest to find the right rooftop: The farm needed a flat roof with full sun exposure and easy access. Ostafi also needed to analyze the structure of the building to be sure it could withstand an added 40 tons of soil onto its rooftop. A structural engineer analyzed the pounds per square foot, and a green roofer and agronomist developed a special soil blend that would meet that specification (the blend also has a nutrient content that allows food to grow on a green roof system).

Ostafi says the structural analysis was the biggest deciding factor: As a trained architect, she knew that reinforcing the structure of an existing building isn’t exactly a viable economic option. In 2014, Urban Harvest lucked out with the storage facility at the corner of Convention Plaza/Delmar Boulevard and 14th Street – the building was designed to be four stories higher than the actual build out.

Equally important is the building’s location. The Food Roof lies just north of the “Delmar Divide,” the invisible north-south dividing line that runs along Delmar and has historically split St. Louis socioeconomically and racially. Ostafi hopes the Food Roof can be a catalyst for revitalization in the neighborhood by providing hands-on education for growing food, as well as direct access to affordable fresh produce through a pay-what-you-can model for its community garden plots.

“Some people pay nothing at all due to their economic situation and others pay more than expected so it all evens out,” Ostafi says. “In the end we find this is a fair approach and enables anyone in the neighborhood to participate in the community garden and learn how to grow food in a collaborative environment for themselves and their families.”

Once the building was secured, construction started on the 9,000-square-foot roof immediately, wrapping up last June. At that point, Ostafi and her team – Urban Harvest is entirely made up of volunteers, aside from Ostafi and the farm manager – started planting crops. Because of the limitations of a rooftop farm, Urban Harvest has to grow food in a more efficient way, using several farming methods in addition to just simple rows. Fruits and vegetables are grown primarily in fields on top of a green roof system, as well as in several hydroponic towers, raised beds, Smart Pot planters and multiple types of containers.

The green roof system itself is made up of several different layers, including a retention board that allows the farm to capture up to 2½ inches of stormwater across the entire rooftop. The roof mitigates up to 17,000 gallons of water per storm event, which not only diverts it from Downtown’s sewer system but also cuts the farm’s irrigation use nearly in half. Compared to a traditional farm with access to rich and abundant soil, the Food Roof has to take water efficiency and storm management more seriously. It also promotes other environmental benefits such as reducing energy costs and the “urban heat island effect,” where hardscapes and human activity increase the temperature of metropolitan areas.

During the roof’s first harvest season, the farm yielded around 62 different varieties of plants – mostly vegetables, as well as a few fruits, herbs and some flowers to attract pollinators and insects. Ostafi and crew compared which vegetables grew best in which application – because the Food Roof has a limited soil depth of 8 inches, plants with a deep tap root like kale didn’t do well in soil but thrived in tower gardens. Other leafy greens did well in tower gardens, too, with access to a constant source of water for steady hydration. The Food Roof is a pilot program of sorts; Ostafi sees it as a model to learn what works to inform future growing seasons for Urban Harvest as well as other future rooftop farms.

This spring’s harvest began with root vegetables including radishes, beets, carrots and turnips. The Food Roof’s greenhouse bloomed seedlings in the spring until they could be transplanted onto the farm. This month, Urban Harvest started transitioning to heat-loving plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and squash. Throughout the year, its farmers also grow a variety of greens, from lettuce to mustard to kale and collards. In all, the Food Roof almost doubled last year’s numbers, with around 100 varieties of plants growing this season.

Urban Harvest dug even deeper this year, introducing 20,000 honeybees in May and a chicken coop in April – and not just for fresh honey and eggs. The chickens eat harmful insects and pests, scraps and compost, and also produce fertilizer for the farm. And with the growing worldwide concern that pesticides and herbicides are causing honeybees to die out, Urban Harvest wanted to create a safe, healthy habitat for the pollinators.

“We’re building a resilient ecosystem and enhancing biodiversity on our rooftop in Downtown St. Louis,” Ostafi says. “In order to do that, we need to grow a variety of plants, and we need to focus plants on attracting beneficial insects and pollinators like bees. At the same time, we are creating safe spaces for them to live and thrive. It’s kind of a full-circle approach to farming: We’re trying to integrate and leverage nature as much as possible so it’s a mutually beneficial situation for all of us.”

That philosophy extends throughout the entire growing process. The majority of the food grown on the roof travels just a few blocks over to St. Patrick Center, one of the state’s largest providers of employment, housing and health services for the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless. The donated produce is used on the menu at McMurphy’s Café at St. Patrick Center, the lunch spot that opened inside the center in 2014 to give its clients hands-on food-service experience. Any leftover produce is donated to St. Patrick’s multifaceted food-service program, which feeds more than 400 people a day.

“It’s exciting to be able to keep everything in the neighborhood,” says Karen Leverenz, president of the board of directors at St. Patrick Center and one of Urban Harvest’s initial community gardeners. “At the farm, you’re working side by side with your neighbors and getting to know them. Plus, we can turn around and sell that fresh produce that’s grown right Downtown to help with the buying power at the café, and it’s also a great training tool for our clients.”

The community garden is still an integral part of Urban Harvest, too – around 15 percent of the food on the rooftop is grown and consumed by people who live in the neighborhood. The remaining food is sourced by local restaurants, including Hiro Asian Kitchen, Mango Peruvian Cuisine and A² The GFCF Cafe & Restaurant, all Downtown, as well as Retreat Gastropub in the Central West End.

Bernie Lee of Hiro Asian Kitchen was the first chef to source the Food Roof’s produce, and in May, he hosted the farm’s first rooftop-to-table dinner. Diners sat just feet from where most of the ingredients were grown. Menu items included beet hummus with fresh and pickled farm vegetables and a spring microgreen spread; edamame risotto with a tea-smoked five-minute farm egg; and tuna tataki with radish salad and citrus ponzu. Next month, Salt + Smoke pitmaster Haley Riley will pair brisket, pulled pork and ribs with seasonal vegetables from the farm for a summer harvest dinner on the roof.

“In Downtown St. Louis, it’s rare to have the opportunity to see where your food originates,” Lee says. “When I heard about Mary’s endeavor, she caught my attention immediately. I appreciate her passion and the principles she stands by with her work.”

The dinners are designed to highlight the Food Roof’s produce, of course, but also its role as a community hub. In addition to providing fresh produce to those who need it the most, Ostafi sees the Food Roof as a platform to educate and empower community members to get engaged with the local food system. Urban Harvest frequently invites residents to visit the roof, whether through attending a dinner, educational workshop, sunset or sunrise yoga class, or even just dropping in for a tour. This year, the group is partnering with the University of Missouri Extension to provide nutrition and gardening education during field trips for students, as well.

The success of the Food Roof has allowed Urban Harvest to invest in a second rooftop. The new farm is located at 21 O’Fallon Street atop the Wm. A. Kerr Foundation building, also Downtown.

At 6,000 square feet, the new space is smaller than the first and was previously home to a garden of sedum, a large flowering plant. Produce was transferred onto the roof this spring, and the farm has been up and running since May. Ostafi hopes this will be the first of many satellite food roofs.

“We hope to be able to inspire people through our farm and our different growing systems to start growing their own food, to think about where their food comes from and hopefully become more engaged in the local food system,” Ostafi says. “If you can grow food on a rooftop in Downtown St. Louis, you can grow it anywhere.”

Urban Harvest STL Food Roof, 1335 Convention Plaza, Downtown, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.810.6770, urbanharveststl.org

Heather Riske is the digital editor at Feast.

More Features articles.