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First Certified Organic Rooftop Farm in Chicago

(Beyond Pesticides, July 21, 2009) Last week, Uncommon Ground, an eco-conscious restaurant in Chicago, opened the first certified organic rooftop farm. Receiving certification through Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA) in October of 2008, the 250 square foot space includes approximately 640 square feet of soil which is used to grow a variety of high-yield crops. The plants are rotated in containers throughout the season and are served to diners in the restaurant below. The fresh produce featured on the menu includes sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, lettuces, heirloom tomatoes, greens, radishes, beets, okra, spinach, fennel, mustard, edamame, beans, shallots, garlic as well as plenty of herbs to keep diners happy. The farm is stocked by plants raised by local organic farmers Jenny Borchardt and Harvest Moon Farm, and by seeds that were purchased from Seed Savers, Johnny’s and Seeds of Change, as well as those that have been cultivated from successful plants.

In 2007, the same year that Beyond Pesticides toured the Chicago City Hall Green Roof at our 25th National Pesticide forum Changing Course in a Changing Climate, Uncommon Ground restaurant owners Helen and Michael Cameron decided to find a second home to expand their business, making it as environmentally efficient as possible. Extensive remodeling of the new building took extra steps to assure that the building could support a green roof, such as digging an extra five feet into the basement to accommodate heavy-duty steel beams. Aside from employing an organic production garden however, the building uses solar panels to heat up to 70% of the water in the restaurant, and has two beehives that produce over 40 pounds of honey. Though it’s not open to the public, there are ‘rooftop tours’ during the farmer’s markets that the restaurant hosts every Friday in its parking lot, and classes are held for 3rd graders at the local Waldorf school where kids can learn about urban agriculture. “Our mission is to stand as a working model for other restaurants, businesses and home owners,” Ms. Cameron says, “to show what is possible within an urban environment.”

While organic rooftop gardening requires a lot more planning and investment than other typical forms of urban agriculture, a unique benefit is that there is virtually no transition period for becoming certified. Whereas city soils are often contaminated with harmful chemicals such as pesticides used on lawns and lead, inputs for rooftop and container gardens are completely controlled by the gardener or farmer, so there is a lot less room for contamination, and there is no amendment period needed for already contaminated soil. Rooftop gardening has other built in perks too, as it acts as an insulator, keeping the building cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and as with all container gardens, weeds are lot easier to control. For more information on starting your own organic garden, read our factsheets: “Planning an Organic Garden” and “Organic Gardening: The Basics.”

Urban agriculture has increased tremendously in popularity in recent years, including with the Obama family, and it’s no surprise why. Organic agriculture is healthier for our environment as well as our bodies. It has been shown to reduce dietary pesticide exposure, and produces healthier food. For many reasons, Beyond Pesticides advocates eating organic, locally grown and fairly traded products whenever possible. For more information on how to incorporate these foods into your diet, see “Buying Organic Products (on a budget).”


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