A year ago, Erik Lindberg rented a boom lift with a bucket and hoisted 15 cubic yards of dirt to the roof of his north side remodeling business. In the process, he planted himself firmly in the middle of a growing urban agriculture movement.
Lindberg, owner of Community Building & Restoration, turned to rooftop gardening in the belief that his actions might encourage people to grow their own food or buy locally grown produce.
And by selling the vegetables he grows to subscribers and a nearby Outpost Natural Foods store, he may have become Milwaukee’s first commercial rooftop farmer.
“It’s an experiment,” said Lindberg, 42. “Can you develop a business plan out of something like this? The answer is, I don’t know yet.”
Rooftop farming is in its infancy, but the potential is enormous, said Steven Peck, founder and president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a 10-year-old Toronto-based association that claims more than 5,000 members.
“We have probably a handful of projects. A lot of the rooftop gardening we do may have a commercial or selling component, but it’s often set up because of the social benefits it provides,” Peck said. Those benefits include improved health, less stress, a sense of community among tenants of a building, better caretakers and lower crime rates, he said.
Restaurants such as Frontera Grill and Uncommon Ground in Chicago were among the pioneers of rooftop gardening.
Milwaukee is an evolving “green roof” community, Peck said. Still, not many farmers till the soil atop Milwaukee’s skyline.
“That young man (Lindberg) came out of the chute running like (Kentucky Derby winner) Mine That Bird,” said Martha Davis Kipcak, director of the Kitchen Table Project, a local effort to create a sustainable food system. “He came up with this idea, and the next thing I heard he was supplying his produce to Outpost,” a grocery store specializing in organic foods.
Lindberg’s primary business is restoring and remodeling older homes, so he had an idea about what his building could bear. After getting clearance from a structural engineer, he began by constructing wooden boxes for his crops. The boxes cover about half of the roof on his Palmer Street business, which at 2,800 square feet covers about as much space as a higher-end ranch house.
He hooks a hose up to a second-floor faucet to water his kohlrabi, rutabagas, lettuce and other vegetables. Potatoes and onions have been among the best growers, while sweet corn has gotten the boot because it took up too much space last year.
Lindberg spent a lot of his time and about $8,000 on the lumber, soil, seeds and other materials he needed to get started. He’s recouping some of the cost from seven people who signed up for $800 subscriptions that should give them produce from early April through October – and maybe November or even December. Hoop houses, made from plastic stretched over PVC pipe that’s attached to the wooden boxes, give Lindberg a longer growing season.
While Ron Doetch doesn’t dismiss the idea of rooftop gardening, he’d like to see more of the area’s 3,000 vacant lots get farmed first.
“Going up on the roof is a great idea, but you’ve got to get water up there,” said Doetch, executive director of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, which works with cities and other entities to develop a food system that can sustain the land and its resources.
But many of Milwaukee’s vacant lots are either unavailable or have problems with soil contaminated by lead paint or asbestos, said Ann Beier, the city’s director of environmental sustainability. She says the city wants to promote any reasonable urban agriculture projects.
Other rooftop farmers are following Lindberg up the ladder.
The owners of Future Green had been researching the possibility of growing vegetables on the roof of their eco-store. An introduction to Lindberg and a trip to his upper-level farm one cold March day solidified the plan, said Lisa Sim, who owns the Bay View store with her husband, Swee.
The Sims found some 50-gallon spice drums, cut them in half and put feet on them. A volunteer bucket brigade carried the drums and some organic mushroom compost to the 1,800-square-foot roof, Lisa Sim said.
Now, the turn of a faucet sends water to all 14 containers through PVC pipe with strategically placed holes. The Sims are considering a solar panel to fuel a water pump.
“We’re mainly doing this to show we have all these flat roofs we should use, and hopefully we’ll get other businesses or residents excited about this,” Sim said.
Already, the owner of Bella’s Fat Cat, a Milwaukee burger and frozen custard restaurant with two locations, is considering a rooftop garden to supply the restaurants, Sim said.
Lindberg, with a full growing season under his belt, is further along. But he says that can only help Future Green – which just put in its broccoli and cauliflower – and anyone else who dreams of taking a trowel to the roof.