What began as a student project over a year ago has now flourished into one of Brandeis’ most successful sustainability projects. Located on the roof of Gerstenzang, the Brandeis Rooftop Community Farm started as a project in Professor Laura Goldin’s (AMS) experiential learning course, “Greening the Ivory Tower: Improving Environmental Sustainability of Brandeis and Community.”
Funded by a $30,000 grant from the university’s sustainability fund, it has been maintained through a combined effort on the part of Brandeis’ Farmers Club, Students for Environmental Action, The Waltham Group, and the Department of Community Living’s Common Cause “Sustainability Suite.” The rooftop garden has been featured in an article for The Boston Globe, and has attracted the attention of other sustainability organizations and the Brandeis community.
The rooftop farm is made out of about 850 irrigated milk crates in which fruits and vegetables are grown and sold around campus to assist with the farm’s upkeep, or donated to local food banks. Jay Feinstein, ’18, President of the Brandeis Farmers Club, was involved with the farm from the very start in Professor Goldin’s course.
“We decided to think big: we decided we wanted to establish a farm on campus. It took a lot of work,” Feinstein said. He and the other students in Goldin’s course had to thoroughly plan out how the farm would be built and explain how it would benefit Brandeis before they saw any of the grant money. Before this project, Feinstein, who is now majoring in Environmental Studies, had no farming experience.
“We found a structural engineer who checked out the space pro bono. We convinced administrators that this would be a good thing for Brandeis. We talked to the leaders of successful college farms from across the country,” said Feinstein.
Nina Sayles ’17, a summer coordinator at the farm, got involved with the project when it was first being built. That summer she volunteered on the farm while it was being maintained by Green City Growers, an organization that specializes in turning unused areas into sustainable farming space.
“I have been managing and distributing farm shares to staff and students who have bought into the [Community Supported Agriculture] program,” said Sayles. In the CSA program, shareholders invest in the farm at the beginning of the season, putting down a lump sum of money to help finance its operating cost. At the end of each week, shareholders take their harvested share. Depending on the success of the season shareholders can walk away with fruit and vegetables valued more than they originally paid for in the beginning of the season.
“The list of people who want to buy a share has been much longer than we can accommodate. So far, the feedback has been mostly positive and more and more people have asked about the program,” Sayles added. There are currently about 12 people enlisted in the CSA program.
The rooftop farm has also allowed the Waltham community to gain easier access to their nutritional crops. Produce not used through the CSA program has been sold at the various farmers’ markets hosted by the Farmer’s Club and the other members of the rooftop farm in the previous year. These markets, open to students and other members of the community, raise the proceeds necessary to care for the farm. The first farmers market of the upcoming semester will be held on August 26, on the Great Lawn.
“Strawberries were definitely the most popular crop so far this season, but I was surprised and excited to see that sugar snap peas were also very high on the list,” said Sayles, who enjoys planting less common crops to introduce them to members of CSA. “There’s a huge variety in what we grow. We even grow catnip. Last year we donated it all to the Gifford Cat Shelter in Brighton, Massachusetts,” said Feinstein.
Growing and maintaining these crops often present challenges like keeping weeds at bay, an obstacle made even more incessant by the low summer time staffing of the farm. Sayles said that despite the growing popularity of the farm, “Sometimes it is hard to attract volunteers to help because during the summer, obviously prime growing time, campus is pretty quiet, and a lot of people still don’t know about the farm or how to get involved.”
As the rooftop farm enters its second growing season, Feinstein hopes it becomes more than a place where students and faculty go to grow crops. “I hope people see the farm and start to think about food justice issues,” he stated. While the farm has helped local food banks and charities, provided fresh fruits and vegetables to the local communities, and raised money to help continue and develop the project, Feinstein also wants people to focus on the larger issues.
“I hope people think about the almost 400,000 food insecure households in Massachusetts. We want local, sustainable food to be accessible to everyone. Of course our donations are part of the equation. But another huge part is education,” Feinstein said.