On a 91-degree day recently, Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman worked inside a shipping container in a mostly empty parking lot. They were preparing to install plastic-and-foam growing channels on the walls, a drip irrigation system on the ceiling, and LED lights that would transform the 40-foot-long steel box, bought used on Craigslist, into a greenhouse where lettuces, tomatoes, and peppers can grow year-round.
By fall, they hope, local restaurants may add to their menus an extremely local salad, one grown almost entirely within the city limits.
Their venture, Freight Farms, is one of several seeking to bring food production into the heart of the city, to parking lots and rooftops. While a handful of Boston-area restaurants already use their roofs to grow some of what they serve, these companies plan to lease space to operate on a commercial scale, selling to distributors, restaurants, and consumers. But they have obstacles to overcome, including unclear zoning laws and opposition from neighbors.
There are plenty of benefits to producing food closer to where it’s consumed, says Kurt Lynn, cofounder of Lufa Farms, a Montreal company scouting locations in Boston. They include lower transportation costs, less pollution, and less waste, since up to 60 percent of food is damaged when shipped long distances from places like California and South America, says Lynn.
In addition, Lynn says, a greenhouse in the middle of a city can be more productive per square foot than one in the country, thanks to a higher concentration of carbon dioxide. His company already has one 31,000-square-foot greenhouse on the roof of a two-story office building in Montreal. Since late 2010, it has produced about 75 tons of eggplant, chard, herbs, and bok choy.
Lufa hopes to find a Boston location in the next few months — a strong rooftop is a prerequisite — and have a greenhouse built by next year. The company, like many in this new niche, is in the midst of raising money. Lufa estimates that it will cost between $1.5 million and $2 million to build a 50,000-square-foot greenhouse.
Trish Karter, the founder of Dancing Deer Baking Co., says she has searched for a site for a rooftop greenhouse for about a year-and-a-half now. “I am tired of talking about it, and I’m ready to be doing it,” says Karter, now chief executive of LightEffect Farms. “Any site is going to have the same challenges: engineering, safety, and zoning issues. But once we’ve cleared through some of the unknowns and built a demonstration site, I think it will get considerably easier to build others.”
A location atop a car wash on Route 9 in Natick fell through after neighbors complained it would increase traffic, alter their views, and reduce real estate values. LightEffect spent more than $40,000 to try to get that project going.
“They loved the greenhouse idea in principle, but hated it in their backyard,” says Karter. “We lost six months there.”
But Karter says the company is pursuing leases for several other sites, including the Signature Breads bakery in Chelsea, where heat from the ovens could help keep the greenhouse warm in winter, and The Boston Globe building on Morrissey Boulevard. Neither Signature nor The New York Times Co., which owns the Globe, responded to requests for comment.
Buying local food “has become the biggest preference phenomenon ever to hit the consumer marketplace,” Karter says. “It’s huge.”
That interest in locally grown foods helped Freight Farms raise $30,000 from individual donors, using the funding site Kickstarter. After the proof-of-concept greenhouse is finished, McNamara says, he’d like to sell others to schools, restaurants, or food distributors.
The pricing will start at $40,000, with Freight Farms providing a remote monitoring service and growing advice from gardening experts — “kind of like having tech support,” Friedman says.
Another local company, Higher Ground Farm, plans to build greenhouses on rooftops and inside shipping containers. The company plans to set up a shipping container first, in Charlestown, and then a rooftop growing operation next year, perhaps in Boston’s Fort Point Channel.
“Rooftops are nice because you can invite school kids to visit them and learn about farming,” says cofounder John Stoddard, adding that his company also likes shipping containers because they can be positioned around the city to supply restaurants and farmers markets, with deliveries made via bicycle.
Earlier this year, the Boston Redevelopment Authority set up a working group to advise it on zoning and permitting changes that would make it easier for urban farmers to set up shop on rooftops. The committee, which is also examining farming on the ground, as well as raising livestock and keeping bees in the city, will meet through early fall.
After that, the BRA will take the recommendations to neighborhood meetings. More NIMBY-ism is almost guaranteed to sprout up.
John Read of the BRA observes that rooftop farming isn’t addressed in the building code — and if something isn’t addressed, it requires a variance. “That’s a high bar,” he says.
In other places, city government has been more activist: New York is soliciting proposals for a 200,000-square-foot farm atop a city-owned building in the Bronx. Cities like Chicago and Toronto have incentives that prod builders to create some kind of rooftop garden or growing area, to improve air quality and reduce runoff.
Boston’s would-be agricultural entrepreneurs say that so far, they’ve pursued their vision in a “big gray area,” to use the words of Mark Winterer of Recover Green Roofs, a Somerville consultancy. It’s time to turn gray to green — ideally before another growing season passes.
Follow him on Twitter @Scott.Kirsner.