We’ve all likely heard of rooftop bars, but have you heard of the more elusive rooftop garden or farm? Food Roof Farm is the first of such a concept to pop up in St. Louis, and Mary Ostafi is the woman behind this project. Building a greater sense of community, providing healthy foods to those who lack the resources, educating people on how to grow their own foods and augmenting the city’s economy and environment are just some of its many beneficial objectives.
Food Roof’s farmers achieve these goals through experimentation rather than conventional agricultural practices, enabling them to detect what approach works best with the city’s climate. The farmers have found that if one growing method does not work, they can combine different approaches to produce better crops. For instance, the company utilizes their own lightweight blend of soil and uses cranes to get large sacks of the fresh soil onto the roof. The company’s refusal to use pesticides has done wonders for biodiversity as well, evidenced by the variety of birds and insects that have made Food Roof Farm their habitat. The 8,500-square-foot farm space comprises a green wall, chicken coop, greenhouse and a tower garden that helps cultivate fruits and vegetables at a faster rate. As part of its decor, a wall of tags displaying names of sponsors who have donated to the company can be found when first walking to the rooftop.
Sitting atop the W-Ave Self Storage business on Convention Plaza, Food Roof Farm is a branch of the Urban Harvest STL organization. Urban Harvest STL’s subsidiaries share a common goal to supply food deserts — areas that lack the resources for nutritious foods — in the St. Louis area with the healthy items that everyone needs to flourish. Some of Urban Harvest’s other projects include a school garden at the Flance Early Learning Center, hydroponic towers at Busch Stadium and a second rooftop farm nestled above the William A. Kerr Foundation. Food Roof Farm was a result of Ostafi’s vision for uniting and nourishing the community. Ostafi originally moved to St. Louis for a job at an architecture firm and, shortly thereafter, developed an interest in growing her own food and caring for the community. It took a long time for Ostafi to get the farm established; nearly a year elapsed before she found a building whose owner agreed to have the farm on the roof and secure a lease.
Drawing much of her inspiration from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and Brooklyn Grange, two similar farms in Brooklyn, New York, Ostafi credits the farmers at those establishments with teaching her a great deal about growing methods as well as the best types of plants and soil to use in agricultural production. That knowledge is now passed on to those who work in the farm, and Ostafi finds that to be almost as fulfilling as distributing organic food to poor neighborhoods.
The results of Urban Harvest’s work have proven to be highly successful. As much as 17,000 gallons of water are collected by its retention system during each storm, preventing rainwater from going to waste in the sewers and possible floods; that water is then given to the plants. Last year alone, as many as 377 people in the community volunteered to provide the Food Roof Farm with $97,251 worth of labor. An average of four to eight people work in this agricultural mecca each weekday. Food Roof Farm’s innovative approach to farming has garnered attention worldwide. The organization receives calls from college students as far away as Amsterdam, and Ostafi will also speak during an international conference in Berlin, Germany.
Aside from harvesting, the Food Roof Farm frequently hosts special events to promote its cause and build a stronger community. Among some of these gatherings are monthly one-hour yoga sessions, fundraisers with live music and harvest dinners. The view of downtown St. Louis from the rooftop is an intriguing perk that the organization often emphasizes to encourage involvement and participation.
To volunteer, donate or find out more about Food Roof Farm’s upcoming events, visit urbanharveststl.com/donate. M