Urban Farming on a Rooftop Near You

Chris Hildreth has been literally planting the seeds for a new business — an urban rooftop farm — for the past two years. Douglas caught up with Hildreth and his business mentor Kimball Ketsa as they near the end of their business pilot and begin to prepare for new growth.

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Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Almost every day since June, Chris Hildreth has been planting and harvesting his 500-square-foot roof garden atop a one-storey building in the Fort Street Common District. He diligently measures soil pH, temperatures, rainfall, water use and production yields as well as the key indicators of business growth. He knows that costs came in below projections and that production was 10 times higher than anticipated. It’s all part of a pilot project Hildreth launched in the spring to determine exactly how much he could produce per square foot of rooftop space and to figure out if his commercial rooftop food production business, Topsoil, is really a viable idea.

Topsoil began one day in 2013 when Hildreth, a University of Victoria business, environmental studies and sociology grad was sitting in class and looked out a window at barren rooftops. Within a couple days, his idea for commercial rooftop agriculture took root. In February 2014, he entered the University of Victoria’s PlanIt business competition, winning $1,500 in the social venture category. The budding idea grew into a full-fledged business plan, which Hildreth re-entered in PlanIt’s galaxy of ideas in April 2015, this time winning first place and $6,000. That sum, in effect, became Hildreth’s seed money for Topsoil, along with a loan from his family.

Laying the Groundwork
Commercial rooftop gardens, and even rooftop greenhouses, have been around for several years, thriving in Montreal and catching on in Toronto but they’re rare in the rest of Canada. Chicago, New York City and Boston have embraced the concept and Holland is a hot spot.

In Vancouver, a business with rooftop greenhouses, where lettuce was produced in vertically-stacked, hydroponics trays, went bankrupt in 2014. After being in operation for just over a year, there was a $4 million debt. From Hildreth’s perspective, if a business is going to put millions into a rooftop agriculture business, the financial, marketing and business plans must be airtight.

The sentiment is shared by Kimball Ketsa, a business instructor at UVic and a certified management accountant, who taught Hildreth in fall 2014. That year, Hildreth approached Ketsa with his idea, and since then Ketsa has been guiding the green entrepreneur.

“A lot of businesses have an idea but don’t have a long-term plan,” Ketsa says. They start with a concept they think is great, and sometimes it’s grander than feasible. Starting small and doing the research are crucial.

In January, the pair rolled up their sleeves and got serious about their first challenge: finding a building owner who would make their roof available. After contacting a number of landlords, Hildreth secured, rent-free, the Fort Properties space on 1001 Blanshard Street.

Fort Properties’ co-owner Suzanne Bradbury, says her company gladly participated because it supports the community-minded, environmentally beneficial principles behind Topsoil. Vacant space is being used to produce healthy food, she adds. As well, the groundbreaking nature of Topsoil appeals to her. “Chris is starting a new industry,” she says, “and it could be a signature industry for Victoria, one more piece of our economic engine.”

Proving the Concept
After securing the space, logistics had to be addressed. “This is where the process engine started in regards to how do we get a garden up on a roof,” Ketsa notes. “What were the obstacles from a building, engineering, insurance and structural perspective?”

The need to liaise with a myriad of agencies slowed the pilot’s take off. Architects, engineers, City of Victoria officials and WorkSafeBC were some of the parties who had to be contacted. A commercial rooftop garden was uncharted territory for all involved.

“Because this is such a new industry there is no manual that I could follow to satisfy all of the requirements,” Hildreth says. And because Topsoil would be depositing almost 2,000 pounds of soil on the roof, Hildreth had to get an engineer to certify the structural integrity of the roof.

“Risk management is very real in today’s business world,” Ketsa says.

As well, the budget for the pilot project was kept small. Fiamo Italian Kitchen got the produce for free during the pilot, so there was no revenue. Hildreth did all the work and collected no salary. And there was much planning about what had to be purchased.

“To really understand the mechanics behind gardening, rooftop gardening challenges, costs that may be incurred that were not expected — this was the driver for a pilot project rather than jumping in and hoping for the best,” Ketsa says.

One nice-to-have challenge was that too much produce was grown, says Hildreth who also delivered the produce, on foot, to Fiamo. From June to October, Hildreth grew tomatoes, peppers, kale, arugula and other salad greens, and basil and other herbs, in a deer and weed-free environment.

“Chris gets random calls from [Fiamo] diners who tell him the kale tasted amazing,” Ketsa says.

Beyond high-quality produce grown without pesticides, foot delivery eliminates CO2 emissions, packaging is reduced and consumers know exactly where their mouthfuls of flavour originate. As well, rooftop gardens absorb rainwater (which eliminates runoff), purify the air and help to control the temperature inside the building by absorbing heat. 

“If we’re going to live in cities, we have to make a more sustainable food system. My passion is to create a tangible solution,” says Hildreth, a Vancouver native who has a decade of restaurant industry experience.

As the pilot project finishes, the growing equipment and raised beds will be disassembled for winter. Hildreth is now seeking four to five restaurant customers, who by spring 2016 will buy Topsoil’s products, which he plans to customize and rotate depending on demand. And he needs to secure 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of rooftop space, close to the restaurants.

Acting as CEO, Hildreth plans to hire a production manager (the “farmer”), a financial manager and a marketing/branding manager.

“In five years I would like to have two acres of rooftop space and be producing at least 100,000 pounds of produce each year for the city of Victoria,” Hildreth adds. “I want Topsoil to be a tangible and realistic alternative to our current industrial food system.”

Hildreth has also been planning a pitch to Dragons’ Den and, further along, he may offer franchises. There might even be other rooftop products such as honey-producing beehives.

Sustainable Growth
Ketsa cautions that quick growth should not be the goal because it doesn’t always equate to instant success. “There will be bumps on the way but to reach success one should really ensure that growth is heavily controlled,” he says. “Understand your operations, capture your real costs, not costs that are assumed, manage your risk factors, market, and ensure you have a quality product that people not only want but need.”

This is serious business. “We’re not a bunch of hippies up here,” Hildreth says with a laugh.