Isenberg Graduate Brings Roof-Top Farming to Nation’s Capital
March 15, 2017
Marketing graduate Jeff Prost-Greene ’12, it turns out, is the second Isenberg alumnus honored by Forbes this year in its 30 Under 30 Class of Social Entrepreneurs. Jeff and his two partners*—all native to D.C.—are founders of Up Top Acres, which owns and operates an acre of growing space across four roof-top “farms” in the Nation’s Capital. To date, the 2 ½ year-old business has harvested 60,000 pounds of organic microgreens, greens mixes, root vegetables, and herbs (basil, arugula, kale, cilantro, cress, etc.) on its four rooftop sites.
Food, on average, travels 1,500 miles from farm to table, notes Jeff. Instead of miles driven, Up Top Acres measures the distance its produce travels in flights of stairs. It distributes that produce to tenants in “its” buildings, at farmers markets through a community-supported agriculture program, and to the surrounding community. “Our farms also create more accessible urban green space as sites for events such as yoga, pop up dinners, and educational programming that connects people back to nature and food,” he continues. That is integral, he emphasizes, to Up Top’s advocacy of a sustainable urban food system. The young business’s aim is to foster fresh, high-quality produce while minimizing waste (including underutilized space) and negative externalities like stormwater runoff. The latter, he observes, is a major culprit in the contamination of urban water supplies.
Operations, Community, Advocacy
Since Up Top’s beginning, Jeff has excelled as it director of operations. In that role, he has managed all aspects of farm operations—building out the farms themselves to identifying farmable rooftops and diversifying their revenue streams. “I focus on developer relationships and convincing them of regulatory, financial, social, and environmental benefits of rooftop farming,” he remarks. That includes taking measure of Up Top’s triple-bottom line agenda--both for developers and internally—which accounts separately for the company’s social, environmental, and financial planning and performance.
Is Up Top Acres a predominantly warm-weather enterprise? Absolutely not. “We grow outside for about ten months and during winter months we build out new farms for the growing season and shift production into green houses,” Jeff observes.
“We just hired a full-time farm manager,” the Isenberg grad continues. That should give the partners a modicum of breathing room in pursuing Up Top’s aspirations for dynamic expansion and its political advocacy of tax credits and “green” rebates with the D.C. government. (The young entrepreneurs are also proponents of a prospective 2018 USDA Farm Bill that would create a new urban agriculture office within the agency and expand loan programs to benefit city farmers.) Ultimately, he says, Up Top’s aim is to “reimagine agriculture in the built environment by creating a community network of farms” that brings together producers, consumers, and other stakeholders. That calls for sustained advocacy.
Making the Most of Isenberg
As a student at Isenberg, Jeff gleaned inspiration in marketing classes with Delancy Bennett and Cynthia Barstow. Bennett, who was completing his PhD in marketing and is now an assistant professor at Clemson, offered an ethnographic approach to teaching and research that emphasized branding, health market concerns, and public policy. Barstow, a senior lecturer and herself a social entrepreneur, is founder of the initiatives Protect Our Breasts and Seed to Shelf.
“Cynthia’s course focused on sustainability. It was very hands-on,” Jeff recalls. “We each had to come up with a green product and develop accompanying business and marketing plans, including price points. The course helped me to connect the dots. Down the road, the experience informed Up Top Acres’ own business plan.”
During his junior year, Jeff spent a semester focusing on social entrepreneurship at the University of Capetown in South Africa. Staying on for several months after the semester, he continued parallel work as a project manager with a nonprofit initiative dedicated to sustainable development in economically challenged communities. Working in township programs, he helped foster community gardens, English language training, and higher education access. “It was truly life-changing,” he remarks.
After graduating from Isenberg, Jeff moved back to D.C., where he worked with a leading green roof installer and on one of the District’s larger urban farms. After founding Up Top Acres, Jeff and his partners gained acceleration through their participation in the Halcyon incubator, a rich resource in Washington’s Georgetown District for social entrepreneurs. Now, Up Top Acres is poised for sustainable growth. That, Jeff says, is a strong bet, given the city’s untapped roof capacity and the seeds of community that its founders have so diligently planted.
*Kristof Grina, Farm Director and Kathleen O’Keefe, Director of Events