Up Top Acres: Rooftop farms to feed DC

By: Ami Freeberg, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

As part of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership program’s immersive week in Washington DC, our cohort visited one of Up Top Acres rooftop farms. Kathleen O’Keefe, a co-founder of the business, shared their story, strategies, successes, and challenges with our class.

Since 2014, Up Top Acres has grown food, flowers, and herbs on building roofs throughout the DC area. The company came together by recognizing the need for developers to manage stormwater through green infrastructure (EPA consent decree), an increasing demand for locally grown food, and interest in sustainable building practices. Today, Up Top Acres manages 17 rooftop farm and garden sites, totaling four acres of growing space.

Kathleen O’Keefe co-founded Up Top Acres in 2014, along with Kristof Grina, an organic farmer with a background in green roof installation and plant and soil science, and Nick Berini, a green building engineer turned farmer. Prior to starting Up Top Acres, Kathleen worked in the Sustainability Department at the Downtown DC Business Improvement District. In her role, she worked closely with building managers to help implement green best practices and helped to develop place making programs throughout downtown. This trio brought together a dynamic combination of skills, knowledge, and passion to bring Up Top Acres to life.

Up Top Acres began as an urban farming business, with primary income earned from produce and flower sales through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, at farmers markets, and to restaurants. Some revenue came through contracts with buildings and events, but the primary focus was growing crops to sell. Kathleen was thrilled to share that this year, for the first time, all the produce Up Top Acres grows will be donated to Dreaming Out Loud to be part of CSA shares for families with low incomes. Up Top Acres has been able to make this shift by restructuring their business to enter landscaping contracts with commercial buildings, so they are paid to build and manage the farms and gardens and don’t need to rely on unpredictable produce sales to operate the business.

Kathleen mentioned two policy tools that have been instrumental in developing their business. The first is the EPA consent decree that identifies rooftop greening as a stormwater control practice for commercial buildings. Most buildings that have installed green roofs planted sedum, a low-maintenance and attractive crop that doesn’t do much for ecosystem services. The co-founders saw an opportunity to reimagine these mandatory green spaces to be more functional, productive, and beautiful by growing food. They are currently working with the University of Maryland on a study to compare and measure the differences in stormwater retention between a sedum roof and a rooftop urban farm.

Second, Kathleen put her planning background to work to help advocate for a tax abatement for buildings and land that produce food. After four years of advocacy, the abatement passed, and property owners can now receive a tax abatement of up to $20,000 annually for urban agriculture. Up Top Acres has positioned themselves to help developers and commercial real estate companies apply for these tax abatements, as well as to manage the rooftop farms and donate the food they produce. They hope to package all the components of this model to share with other cities.

Another aspect of the business is hosting events at their rooftop farms, an area that they are just beginning to develop more fully in partnership with the building owners and managers. Kathleen imagines this could be up to one third of their income in the future. In the meantime, they are balancing how to sustainably handle growing the business and thinking about how and when to bring on additional staff to help meet the demand they have created for their services and farms.

Up Top Acres is an impressive model of putting the together the complicated puzzle pieces of economic development, policy solutions, and urban agriculture to address many needs and create beautiful, productive spaces in the DC area.

his blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.