BYT + The Awesome Foundation: Up Top Acres
BYT Staff | Oct 20, 2016 | 9:30AM |

By Amy Morse

The Awesome Foundation awards monthly, no-strings-attached grants of $1,000 for “awesome” projects. This series profiles grantees of the Awesome Foundation DC Chapter.

Urban Agriculture – D.C. Edition

Up Top Acres is a Millennial-led startup, founded by three D.C. natives who are tackling big social and environmental problems through a business model of doing well by doing good.

Up Top Acres is a rooftop farming company that grows food on roofs – converting neglected spaces into viable sources of income and green space. Green rooftops absorb heat, pollution, prevent stormwater runoff, and beautify the built environment. Rooftop gardens are the “pimp my roof” enhancement to a green roof – with all the benefits of a green roof – plus the added bonus of edible, healthy foods. The farm-to-fork carbon footprint for the average American is considerable (often cited at 1,500 miles), Up Top Acres is a flight of stairs. The idea of this commercial enterprise is to do well by doing good. So far they have opened 45,000 sq ft of greater D.C. regional rooftop gardens, and are in the process of opening many more. The Awesome Foundation granted Up Top Acres $1,000 to expand their awesome enterprise.

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ICYMI, D.C.’s ambitious Sustainable DC Plan aspires to make D.C. the “healthiest, greenest and most liveable city in the world,” and offers tons of amazing data and indicators for the numerically inclined. A component of these 143 action items, are policies incentivizing green roof conversions, which have inspired community-level change and the growth new businesses — like Up Top Acres. From an aerial perspective, D.C. was covered in concrete – parking lots, roofs, sidewalks just 15 years ago – but the city is greening. Since 2002 the city has changed dramatically, with thousands of additional trees planted (with exceptional leadership from Casey Trees), and 2.3 million square feet of green roofs and hopes to see much more. D.C. offers progressive rebate incentives for the installation of green roofs (more info for businesses and residents), in part to reduce the Urban Heat Index and reduce storm water runoff (a significant contributor to water pollution).

A Vision of Change

As a fundamental design challenge, cities house larger numbers of people than local food systems can support. Jeff Prost-Greene, Kathleen O’Keefe, and Kristof Grina launched Up Top Acres, in part to answer big questions:

  • How to create local food systems in communities?
  • How can D.C. lead with farms to support local food systems, education platforms, and create a connection to food and build communities while doing so?
  • How can we create more accessible green space in the urban, built environment?
  • How to build a replicable model to scale urban agriculture and rooftop farming around the world?

Up Top Acres started with a 10,000 square foot rooftop at the Farm at Elm and Woodmont. Since then, they have installed a microgreen and herb rooftop farm on top of Oyamel in partnership with ThinkFood Group, supplying restaurants throughout Penn Quarter and producing 1,000 lbs of microgreens a year. The Garden at Greene Place is Up Top’s first experiment in transforming residential home agriculture. Their produce is distributed by vehicle, bicycle or foot and rarely travels more than 5 miles to get from the roof to the table. Instead of miles driven, they measure the distance their produce travels in flights of stairs —  vastly reducing carbon footprint and enhancing the nutrient quality and shelf life of the produce at the point of consumption. They grow dozens of varieties of herbs, edible flowers, tomatoes and other produce (more here).

About the Founders

Kathleen, Kristof and Jeff share a passion for urban agriculture, but differ in in professional disciplines. They met while attending D.C. public schools, pursued academic studies and global travel, and came back to apply their experiences and expertise to their home city.

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Kathleen O’Keefe worked at the DowntownDC Business Improvement District in the Infrastructure and Sustainability Department, where she helped to manage a sustainability program to help buildings implement smart sustainable business practices that improve their bottom line and reduce energy, water, waste and transportation costs. Kathleen graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies with a focus on Urban Development and the Built Environment. She saw that D.C. was implementing some great incentives and knew that the time was right to start something awesome.

Kristof Grina studied agriculture at the University of Vermont and applies his expertise on plant and soil science daily on the roofs. Kristof spends his mornings farming, and on the rare occasion dancing at the DC Daybreaker morning raves (you gotta check them out). Since studying agriculture, he sees major flaws in our industrial food system and believes that local food economies have the power to fuel change for healthier communities, a more sustainable environment, and happier people.

Jeff Prost-Greene served as a Sustainable D.C. Ambassador and worked installing green roofs while managing an urban farm prior to joining Up Top Acres. He draws inspiration from his time living, and working in South Africa, and Studying Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town. Jeff spent the majority of his time abroad developing social entrepreneurship programs for residents in impoverished communities — developing best-practice, replicable models that could span throughout South Africa. His time in South Africa, studying business as an undergrad and working in the green industry has empowered him to use business as a positive potential source for social change, especially when measuring success through a triple bottom line.

They all believe in using business as a tool to solve significant issues facing society.

Sources of Inspiration

Brooklyn Grange is an urban agriculture game changer. Brooklyn Grange farms rooftops, builds green spaces, and promotes sustainable living and local ecology through food, education, and events – and they literally wrote the book on rooftop farming, The Farm on the Roof. These social entrepreneurs have built a new world of yoga, weddings, and workshops in newly cultivated, nourishing urban spaces.

Living in the Real World for start-ups at the Halcyon House

Jeff, Kristof and Kathleen recently completed a live-in residency program at the Halcyon Incubator, sharing space with musicians, artists and social entrepreneurs selected by the S&R Foundation. They participated in interactive sessions with mentors, funders and fellows in the program at the residence – a restored historic Georgetown mansion. Damn.

What Next?

Jeff, Kristof and Kathleen want to create networks of rooftop farms in cities throughout the country. In addition to building local food systems, they hope to increase accessible green space and jobs in urban environments, educate city residents about where their food comes from and address storm water runoff (a major issue facing cities today). For now, they plan to expand their CSA program, start selling at Fresh Farm Pop up markets, and develop more relationships with restaurants and developers. In the coming weeks, they’ll start to host rooftop yoga and farm dinners and tastings on their roofs — turning their vision into a reality.

I Love this – how do I learn more?

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Optional Reading list

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