Rooftop farm earns urban conservation award

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The new RISE Farm, located on top of the Fidelity Bank car park in downtown Wichita, will supply produce to First Mile Canteen on the first floor and to other Wichta restaurants. The farm earned an urban conservation award at the recent Sedgwick County Conservation District banquet.

By Travis Mounts, TSnews

The new RISE Farm, an urban farm that sits on top of the new Fidelity Bank car park in downtown Wichita, received an urban conservation award at the recent Sedgwick County Conservation District banquet.
Leah Dunnar-Garcia and her husband, Ron Garcia, own and operate Firefly Farm just east of Wichita. The have partnered with Fidelity to create RISE Farm, which Dunnar-Garcia describes as a hybrid operation.
“It’s a cross between an urban farm and green roof technologies,” she said. “They knew they wouldn’t use the top floor right away.”
The farm sits on the fifth floor, and is breaking ground in who it caters to and how the work gets done.
Dunnar-Garcia said the first goal is to sell as much product as possible to First Mile Canteen, which will open soon on the first floor of the car park. It is owned by Nick Korbee, who opened First Mile Kitchen in early 2021 at Bradley Fair in east Wichita. Korbee was a New York City restaurant owner who relocated to Kansas to be closer to his wife’s family.
The “first mile” idea is for your dinner to be as close as possible to its sources. Dunnar-Garcia said the second goal will be to sell as much produce as possible to other Wichita restaurants.
Her Firefly Farm is an organic operation that opened in 2015 with an extensive offering of heirloom tomatoes and a few other summer crops. The farm started with just three restaurant customers. The list of customers now includes Public at the Brickyard, Vora Restaurant European, The Belmot, Napoli Italian Eatery, and First Mile Kitchen.
Firefly Farms opened an online store in 2021 and now has retail offerings, too. Customers purchase online, and there are two pick-up days per week. It is not open to walk-in customers at this time.
Dunnar-Garcia explained the reasoning for targeting restaurants, saying that she would prefer making two sales of 50 pounds of tomatoes versus 50 sales of two pounds each.
“The scale seemed right to me,” she said.
With more than 30 restaurants as customers, it is difficult to argue with the philosophy.
“Wichita is quickly becoming a food town. That is a good thing for the community,” she said. “You’re eating two-deep. I’m a big supporter of local.”
There are challenges to farming on a rooftop. The first consideration is the weight of the soil.
While Dunnar-Garcia signed her contract with Fidelity Bank last October, she has been working with the bank for roughly 1-1/2 years. There was a lot of research plus visits to rooftop farms in St. Louis and Chicago. She worked with the building’s architect and structural engineer.
“We had to take into account rain and snow loads, and soil weight,” Dunnar-Garcia said.
The starting point is Rooflite soil, which is an aggregate blown full of air. That makes up about 70 percent of the soil, and is mixed with 20 percent compost and 10 percent sand. It is a lot different than the clay soil found on regular farms in this area. This type of soil does not have a lot of biological activity, so things high in fungi and bacteria are added in.
“You needed to add in the ‘good stuff,’” Dunnar-Garcia said, adding that it is all organic. The first crops were planted Nov. 1. She was thrilled with the results.
“Everything did beautifully. I was amazed at how well we were able to grow things,” she said. “I feel very honored to have the opportunity to grow there.”
The rooftop farm includes a tall tunnel. It is not quite a greenhouse; it is less permanent, and made of double-walled polycarbonate.
Dunnar-Garcia recently harvested radishes, curry turnips, carrots, beets and more. There also were eight different greens crops.
She believes RISE Farm is one of the largest in the Midwest. The other ones she saw in this part of the country were only a quarter of the size. She said RISE Farm is more similar in size to rooftop farms on the coast, and is nearly the same size as Firefly Farm.
RISE Farm won’t be open to the public, but Firefly Farm is. It added retail sales and a food hub last year, for commercial and retail customers. Ten other vendors take part. They include other farmers, and other products include organic pasta, eggs, bread, local cheeses, canned products like jams, jelly and pickles, and two coffee producers.
Dunnar-Garcia hopes that once the hub reopens in a few weeks, it will stay open year-round. For more information, go to www.fireflyfarmwichita.com and hit the “shop” button. All the vendors will be listed there, along with pick-up dates.

Leah Dunnar-Garcia and Ron Garcia, third and fourth from left, receive their Urban Conservation Award at the recent Sedgwick County Conservation District meeting.