Originally printed in the Sarasota Herald Tribune as “How One Farm Got Off the Ground in Sarasota.”
by Kate Spinner
In an industrial park about a mile from Main Street, mechanics repair cars, cleaners launder draperies and Vincent Dessberg grows crops on the roof of his old glass shop.
Dessberg used to fuse glass into colorful windows. But after the economic downturn he turned from the kiln, seeing better opportunity on his 3,000 square-foot roof.
Nobody needs glass. Everybody needs to eat,” he said.
His lettuce is selling at the Sarasota Downtown Farmer’s Market. Other fruits and vegetables — cauliflower, okra, goji berries — are bound for dinner plates at some of the city’s best restaurants. With about 6,000 plants, this new small farm is by far the most urban in the county. Crops grow vertically in 180 hydroponic planters that stand about six feet tall. Another 114 pots border a shaded chain link fence that keeps people and plants from plunging to the asphalt below.
While big cities such and New York and Montreal embraced rooftop agriculture a few years ago, Dessberg is setting this green trend in Sarasota on a commercial scale. Pipes transport water and fertilizer above a dizzying maze of green. Clusters of ripening strawberries and fat green tomatoes dangle from hearty vines. Heads of lettuce and leaves of broccoli and arugula burst from a soil of coconut husk and perlite.
The list of crops seems endless: cucumbers, broccoli, squash, peppers, mustard greens beans, cauliflower, herbs.
Interest from restaurants is growing, said John Matthews, founder of Suncoast Food Alliance, a business that connects area restaurants with fresh produce from local farmers. “A little bit of it is the novelty,” Matthews said. “Restaurants can use that as an enticement.”
The hydroponic set-up, including plants, cost $25,000. If sales go well, Dessberg plans to expand to other roofs. Already, he said, he has an offer of roof space from a neighboring business.