Looking up from the sidewalk, you can’t miss which building has the urban farm on top. The rosemary cascades over the roof’s edges, the buckwheat blooms with bushy abandon, and the hedgerows are an unmistakably lush, green beacon against the blue Berkeley skies.
“There’s a lot of life up here,” observes Joanna Letz, founder of Bluma Farms, as she looks out onto the sparkling San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge from her rooftop perch. Her farm is a remarkably verdant quarter-acre in downtown Berkeley, and she’s right about the amount of life: her midcity high-rise rooftop farm is attracting beneficial bees and hummingbirds with its hedgerows, ever-changing array of organic cut flowers, and culinary herbs that wind up on the tables at local restaurants.
Sitting at multiple heights, her farm is perched atop the sixth and seventh floor rooftops of this mixed-use residential building, providing eye candy whether you’re looking up from the street, standing in the middle of a patch of vibrant zinnias and night-fragrant nicotiana, or flying above with a drone for that bird’s-eye view.
Letz has been in agriculture for 15 years, first apprenticing with the late and truly great “Amigo” Bob Cantisano, an organic pioneer. After growing for four years on acreage in Sunol, Letz began hearing the call to commute less and provide her labor of love closer to her hometown of Berkeley. She also keeps organic principles close to her heart: “I learned how to farm with organic practices as the foundation, so it's always been a core part of my farming career and a core value. As far as [organic for] marketing—truth is, people don't care as much when it comes to flowers. I personally think it's important, so I've been committed to farming organically and being certified.”
As the steward of the largest rooftop farm on the West Coast, Letz has ambition to match her deeper purpose around connecting people with organic products. And since the United States imports 80 percent of its cut flowers, her rallying cry is “buy local flowers!” She asks us all to rethink what we could do with the many empty rooftops.
She adds with reverence: “We need to be moving in this direction. We are able to grow so much up here in this small space. It kind of blows my mind. There is no compelling reason not to do it.”
This article was written and photographed by Liz Birnbaum of The Curated Feast.