Urban Farming Reaches New Heights At Levi’s Stadium
By ISHA SALIAN | PUBLISHED: June 10, 2017 at 7:00 am | UPDATED: June 12, 2017 at 11:11 am
SANTA CLARA — Five varieties of kale. Fresh arugula, lettuces and herbs arranged in neat rows. It’s a typical Californian vegetable garden — except it’s nine stories off the ground. The patch of greens and morning sunlight are juxtaposed against the industrial metals, bright billboard display and giant corporate logo in the backdrop. Levi’s Stadium, the sign proclaims.
This well-manicured garden, planted last year, is the first to top an NFL stadium. The Atlanta Falcons are following suit with a raised-bed garden of their own, and baseball stadiums are already in on the game: Boston’s Fenway Park set up a rooftop garden in 2015, and San Francisco’s AT&T Park boasts a vegetable garden behind center field.
Taken together, the unexpected confluence of professional sports and organic gardening signals just how far the sustainability conversation reaches — but also accentuates the role corporate patronage plays in enabling green urban design. Authentic local food production and energy savings aside, these gourmet, microgreen-rich enterprises are a far cry from the gritty, empty lot urban farms that defined the urban agriculture movement for the last two generations.
Christened “Faithful Farm,” Levi’s Stadium’s rooftop garden opened in July 2016 as a subsection of the stadium’s 27,000-square-foot green roof. As spring planting season nears, Faithful Farm produces 500 pounds of produce per month, on average.
“Originally, this roof was designed just as an ornamental perennial space,” said Emily Saeger, Faithful Farm’s full-time gardener. “It was all grasses and succulents.”
This much lower-maintenance green roof was incorporated into the stadium’s design early on, said Jim Mercurio, vice president of operations and general manager at Levi’s Stadium. Green roofs save energy by keeping the stadium cooler, reducing air conditioning costs. It earned the stadium points for LEED certification (a third-party accreditation for green building design), allowed them to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and also just looked good.
But then Danielle York, wife of San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York, had an idea. She had hired urban farming venture Farmscape Gardens to landscape her backyard in Los Altos Hills, and asked Farmscape’s co-owner if she could develop a farm on the roof of Levi’s Stadium. The stadium’s operations team green-lighted the project on May 15, 2016. Just six weeks later, the garden was planted.
“When we looked at what we wanted at first, which was to have a natural garden of sorts, we didn’t take it to the next level,” Mercurio said, looking out over the greenery. “This is taking it to the next level.”
The garden has been expanded twice since it opened in July, and now occupies 6,500 square feet, about one and a half times the size of an NFL endzone—not counting pathways. Food grown in the garden (primarily leafy greens and herbs during the winter months) takes a short elevator ride each day down to the stadium kitchens, where it is used in dishes served at the stadium’s restaurants and private events. “It’s the whole farm-to-fork concept coming to life,” said Mercurio.
A rooftop lettuce supply is only the tip of the iceberg for Levi’s sustainability efforts. The stadium uses 85 percent recycled water, has a solar panel canopy and has received multiple sustainability awards. It’s the first stadium to open with LEED Gold certification, and last year achieved LEED Gold for operations and maintenance too. LEED recognition is a sustainability stamp of approval for the San Francisco 49ers, and can in turn attract more business for the stadium. A 2014 Nielsen survey found more than half of respondents were willing to spend more on products and services from eco-friendly companies. But Mercurio says the stadium’s owners have more in mind than positive publicity.
“Titles are great, being the first to do this or that it’s okay, it’s fine,” Mercurio said. “But it’s part of a greater movement. If someone does it bigger and better than us, we’d encourage that. If we had a role in making the environmental and the sustainability conversation bigger, that’s awesome.”
Farmscape also manages the garden at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park. The company was started nine years ago in Los Angeles, and its Bay Area branch focuses primarily on gardens for corporate buildings and multifamily residences.
“We’d never gotten a project like this; it was so exciting,” Farmscape co-owner Lara Hermanson said. “They have a weather station down here for the roof. This place is the coolest.”
The funding and support from the stadium let Farmscape find its way in the relatively new space of rooftop gardening. “There are plenty of examples of people putting a planter on a roof,” said Hermanson. But gardens set directly onto a standard aluminum roof are much rarer — a 5-year-old East Coast urban farming company is the oldest she can think of. “Really no one has the expertise yet.”
Green roofs, whether or not they include edible plants, have several benefits. They reduce the cost of heating and cooling a building by decreasing the temperature of the roof. They also mitigate the urban heat island effect, which occurs when asphalt roads and concrete pavement and roofs soak up and reflect sunlight as heat, resulting in a higher air temperature in urban centers than suburban and rural areas. If the green roofs grow produce, they also diminish the cost of transporting fresh produce from rural areas to urban centers.
But can a rooftop farm actually grow enough produce to turn a profit? Finding an economically sustainable model for urban agriculture isn’t as easy as reaping the environmental benefits. Getting urban agriculture to support itself solely on the value of its produce is difficult, particularly in places like the Bay Area where land values are high.
Top Leaf Farms, another rooftop farming venture on a residential complex in Berkeley, aims to produce as high a rooftop crop yield as possible, selling the produce grown to high-end restaurants in Berkeley and the building’s residents. These upscale restaurants pay a premium for the hyper-local produce, allowing Top Leaf to sell to locals at lower prices through their website — a pound of beet greens, for example, was priced at three dollars this week.
Co-owner Benjamin Fahrer points out that with Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers paid for the farm’s installation and continue to pay for its maintenance by Farmscape. As part of a much larger system, it doesn’t really matter whether Faithful Farm as an entity is profitable. He says there’s an opportunity cost to having walkways and flowers, as Faithful Farm does — something he must be conscious of as the owner of a for-profit farming company. “As soon as you want to make it look better, your costs go up,” he said.
Green infrastructure expert Elizabeth Fassman-Beck agreed, “If you’re looking for a cost-effective system, you don’t want to waste water on the roof for specific plants because they look good.”
Having less pressure to be turn a profit has perks beyond the ability to plant a row of flowers instead of edible greens. Nonprofit, community-based urbanfarms “are producing a yield of social equity, while we’re trying to get yield that is productively and financially viable,” Fahrer said. These socially productive farms engage the community, save energy and raise sustainability awareness even if they don’t actually net a profit for the owners.
“The environmental impact of urban development is enormous,” said Fassman-Beck, an associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Anytime we can encourage leading by example and champion this sort of technology, that’s going to have widespread positive impacts.”
Whether the primary mission of a rooftop farm is to be profitable and environmental friendly, the sustainability benefits remain the same. And though Levi’s Stadium is the first NFL stadium to take this step, major construction projects from all kinds of industries seem certain to follow suit.
“It’s not a surprise to me that the team in Northern California was the first in the nation to be like ‘Let’s do an organic farm,’” Hermanson said. “It’s almost expected now that a world-class venue like this would have their own vegetable garden—their own herb production at least.”