Jay Feinstein #63

Urban Farmer

Rooftop Garden Initiative

Brandeis University

It's not attractive at all. It's probably one of the least attractive places on campus. Our goal was to make it productive.



Interview by Heidi Legg

Real food and farming have become an integral part of the millennial voice as a collective. I heard ones sales pitch that Modern Farmer magazine is the new Wired. Cool. GenX peers have been pushing this movement from craft food, to beer, to organic produce, to a return to farmer’s markets when it seemed very alternative (remember the first Whole Foods natural grocers?) and the movement grows stronger every day. Jay Feinstein is not surprised as he points out that we were the first generations to grow up in suburbs with very green lawns. Farming? Barely. And at least a few of us, at any age, likely have a friend who has given up urbanity to live off the land. I might add that many holiday cards last year boasted chicken coops and homemade everything.  

So why? The answers are endless and feel free to weigh in with a comment at the end of the interview. One thing we are seeing, from our vantage point at TheEditorial.com, is that visionaries in food are hot topics and continue to be suggested to us as visionary and necessary and their is definitely a social justice component to it brought in by the millennials. (See our other young visionary interview with Josh Trautwein with Fresh Trucks here.)

Feinstein, from Newton, is a Junior at Brandeis University and an Environmental Studies and Economics Major who received along with his peers a $30,000 grant from the school’s sustainable projects fund. Together with his classmates they have created a 1,500 square foot milk-crate rooftop garden and will harvest over 3,500 pounds of produce from this, the first rooftop garden on a campus in the country. They call themselves the Brandeis Farmers Club and with seven student board members, they say they have only just begun.

Why did you initiate a rooftop garden at Brandeis?

Fall semester last year, I took a class called "Greening the Ivory Tower" with Professor Laura Goldin all about sustainability and the different ways that you can be sustainable on a college campus in your community. One of our subjects was sustainable agriculture, and after reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a group of us were inspired to ask 'how can we make change on campus?'

Describe Brandeis' architecture and physical layout for us.

It’s a suburban campus and a small liberal arts school right outside of Boston in Waltham, and everyone on campus is very passionate about social justice.

It's actually a very small campus. There isn't a lot of room but there's a rooftop, and we're trying to utilize a space that hasn't been productive in the past. There are a lot of old concrete buildings from probably around the '60s. It’s not too old of a school but there is a lot of concrete around here. 

Why did you choose this rooftop?

The first spot that we looked at was the Shapiro Science Center, which is one of the newer buildings on campus, but we would need to build railings and that would be $70,000. We figured it would be a better use of our funding to take a place that didn't have the need for railings. Although this is a roof, it's accessible and it's pretty central to the campus, but there's nothing really going on here. It looks like one of those extended patios. It's not attractive at all. It's probably one of the least attractive places on campus. Not only making it productive, but making it beautiful also became part of our goal.

Have students started to come around because of the garden?

We started the garden at the very, very end of the year so it’s mostly been in production during the summer. Our 'build days' were during finals’ week and we had over a hundred people volunteer who took breaks from studying for their finals and it was incredible. We've seen student support and students stop by and look and take a few pictures with their phones.  

How does one start an urban rooftop garden?

We actually partnered with the organization Green City Growers, based in Somerville, and they helped consult and lead the installation. They have actually helped to supervise the maintenance this summer, too. We are growing all of the vegetables in milk crates and they are 1 foot x 1 foot x 1 foot and that's actually deep enough to grow a lot of the vegetables that we wanted.

Green City Growers is pretty visionary themselves! What are you growing?

A little bit of everything. We have tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, a lot of different herbs – we were growing greens earlier in the summer. We are growing about anything you can think of. We're even growing one milk crate's worth of catnip. Apparently catnip tea is the thing right now in urban gardening.

Who'll get the produce?

We started a CSA program, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and basically people can buy a share of the farm and in return they get produce. Right now, we have twelve people on our CSA program. A lot of them are faculty and staff. We have a few community members, and in the fall we're going to designate one or two CSA shares to donate to food banks to add to the social justice component of it.

Do you wish you could have made a larger garden?

I think that the garden we made is a pretty good size right now, and maybe we can expand in the future.

Did the university fund you?

We applied for a Brandeis Sustainability Fund and we were so lucky to receive $30,000 from the school. 

Where did you spend most of the money?

The most expensive aspect of the project was the soil. We have 1,500 milk crates and to bring that much soil required a giant dump truck that dumped it all in the parking lot; we had an assembly line of students who filled each milk crate individually.

As a GenXer… milk crates were such a staple of student life. Did you see the irony in using plastic crates?

I never even thought of that.

Do you think other students on campuses will be inspired to build and design student-led rooftop gardens?

On campus, we have seen so much support. Students are asking, 'when do you meet? When can I volunteer? When can I go to the farmer's market?' Obviously, the farmer's market is in the fall. I've heard so many students talking about it. The university has posted about it on its social media account and my friends from high school that I've spoken with think that it's a really exciting project that they could do at their colleges. A lot of different schools have farms, but usually these are schools in much more rural areas like Wesleyan in Connecticut or Carlton College in Minnesota. We're closer to a city so it's harder to find space for farming. My hope is that other urban schools or schools closer to cities are able to see this as an example.

What about those irrigation tubes?

That makes it a lot easier. We have an irrigation system that automatically waters it and we've been trying to find the exact amount of water that is needed. This was part of the grant spend.

You're saying that $30,000 is enough to put a fairly large garden on a roof? 

A big part of our spending was also to pay Green City Growers to help supervise the installation and to help maintain it over the summer. They have actually been leading educational sessions every week of the summer for students, too. They've been teaching students how to farm and helping them harvest. I would say that you are definitely able to have an urban farm for a much smaller budget. We're lucky that we received that amount of money that we did. 

For $30,000, every corporation in downtown Boston could have this on their rooftop.


Are there any other barriers?

I guess you need people to maintain it. And we had 100 people volunteer to bring in the dirt. A lot of that effort involved lining the milk crates as well with fabric.  

How many students are running this with you?

We have seven executive members. That includes the president, on-campus coordinator, off-campus coordinator, treasurer, security, farm manager, market manager, and now students are asking to join us.

Is there a membership fee?

No, you don't have to pay to be a member. You have to pay to go to the school though. (laughs) So, sort of.

Why is your generation so into food?

I think that it's been a trend over the past century that people have actually been less connected with their food. As people moved into cities, they sort of lost a connection with the land and our generation is trying to bring that back and tell people that if you live in a city, you can still be connected with what you eat. Eating is probably one of the most important things that we do. And so, we should know where our food comes from and stay connected with it.  

What motivates you most about this project?

The fact that so many other people are proud about it and that people can walk by on their way back from the science lab (we are sitting near the garden in the science quad), and they can look at it and just think for a second that it's important.

What's next?

This fall, we'll be jumpstarting the club and in addition to maintaining the farm, we're also going to have different educational events to try to connect the farm with the classroom and integrate the academic context of the university with the project. We’re thinking of partnering with many departments to have events related to different aspects of agriculture. I took an evolution class in the fall where we learned about the evolution of farm plants and domestication, so we thought that it would be really interesting to have with one of the professors take this further. We could have an economics professor talk about 'The Economics of Farming' and we could talk about the soil testing with another department.

Who's influencing you?

Definitely Professor Laura Goldin. She's been so instrumental in supporting us this whole way through the farm. She's been so inspirational. She's the first person that really made us think about where our food comes from the beginning.  

Was your family focused on food?

Not really. I grew up right outside of Boston in Newton. I figure a lot of people who live near a city, like me, don't think twice about food being shipped all the way from California when it can so easily be grown here.