Califonia Bountiful

On the field and in the field

September/October 2019 California Bountiful magazine

San Francisco 49ers Faithful Farm is NFL's first stadium rooftop garden

Lara Hermanson, left, and Matt Sandoval of Farmscape worked with the San Francisco 49ers to create the Faithful Farm, home to vegetables (including these flowering onions), fruits, herbs and the occasional hummingbird. Photo: © 2019 Paolo Vescia

As the elevator rises nine floors to the top of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, it's a given you'll be met with an extraordinary view. But the sight that presents itself atop the home of the San Francisco 49ers is unexpected: stalks of corn, mounded rows of strawberries, bushy tomato vines and a scattering of fresh herbs.

Lara Hermanson grabs a leaf from a plant, rubs her fingers together and inhales the invigorating scent of peppermint geranium.

"We're marooned inside of a parking lot here, so it's nice to have a way to get in touch with nature in the middle of the workday," said Hermanson, co-founder of the urban farming company Farmscape. "This place becomes the oasis not just for people, but for birds and insects. We have pretty fantastic biodiversity, which is incredible considering how artificial of an environment it is."

The vision for this quarter-acre—named the Faithful Farm after the 49ers' loyal following—came from team CEO Jed York and his wife. Danielle York, a former middle school science teacher, was particularly interested in a dedicated space that could help the building achieve some of its goals for sustainability.

When the Yorks and the construction team evaluated what to do with space on the stadium's roof, the first idea was to grow sod, providing an on-site resource for the grounds crew to replace pieces of the field damaged during games and events. Ultimately, the challenge of bringing all the necessary equipment up and down the elevators frequently was deemed too much.

The next plan was to plant native succulents across the roof. Today, many of those original succulents present on the stadium's opening day in July 2014 remain, but they are slowly being replaced with herbs, fruits and vegetables, plus flowers for pollination and decoration.

"The Yorks' biggest concern was: How can we do something with the space that tells a great story, gives people an opportunity to think outside the box and be everything they say they are and want to be?" asked Jim Mercurio, vice president of stadium operations and Levi's Stadium general manager. "To me, that is a perfect example of them putting their money where their mouth is—no pun intended."

Mercurio gives credit not only to the Yorks for having the vision of the NFL's first rooftop garden, but to Hermanson for bringing the vision to reality: "She and her team are part of the family now."

The Faithful Farm, which produces about 10,000 pounds of produce, flowers and herbs each year, was named after the 49ers' loyal following. Photo: © 2019 Paolo Vescia

From rooftop builder to rooftop farmer

An integral member of that family is Matt Sandoval, the primary farmer at the Faithful Farm. Sandoval leads a team of three employees who spend about 40 hours a week planning, planting, pruning and harvesting.

Each year, Sandoval and his colleagues harvest about 10,000 pounds of produce, flowers and herbs, most of which end up in the stadium's restaurants Bourbon Steak and Bourbon Pub, as well as catering for special events.

They rotate crops twice a year, and some of the most frequently requested plants include green garlic, basil, strawberries and peppers—mostly poblanos, Anaheims and habaneros. Some of the more unusual plants grown on the farm include yellow and red pepino melons and a golden zucchini called "49ers squash."

Sandoval said growing food has been a lifelong interest, but he finds irony in his particular setting: He is the son of a roofing contractor.

"I told myself I wouldn't end up on a roof, and here I am on several roofs throughout the Bay Area," he said, referring to his other projects in downtown San Jose.

Several years ago, Sandoval was working in a warehouse, but took a leap and left his job to return to school, studying horticulture at Cabrillo College in Aptos. After graduation, he joined the Farmscape team and now manages 25,000 square feet of rooftop gardens and urban farms.

There is no offseason for this team. Pollinators such as birds, honeybees and other insects work alongside Hermanson, above, and Sandoval, below, to keep the garden thriving.  Photo: © 2019 Paolo Vescia

Lessons in problem-solving

The Faithful Farm in particular has taught Sandoval and his team a lot about being resourceful and creative, sometimes in the midst of challenges that growers in more traditional settings may not face.

Take the wind, for example. At 150 feet above the ground, the Faithful Farm gets more than its share. Sandoval has planted nopales cacti to serve as a windbreak, but is looking into additional options to protect the plants.

The rooftop is sloped to help with rain collection. In the shallowest section, the soil is just 4 inches deep; at its deepest, it is 9 inches.

"Most fruits and vegetables need at least 1 to 2 feet of root space," Hermanson said. "We've realized that the lifespan of some plants isn't as long (here). With squash and some plants, they will hit the sub-roof and start to die back."

To help the plants thrive in the limited soil conditions, Sandoval and his team have introduced biochar—charred coconut husks—to the soil, giving it a fine, inky texture. The biochar is able to hold moisture and nutrients without weighing down the roof too much.

The landscaping at Levi's Stadium, and much of the city around it, is irrigated with recycled water from a nearby treatment plant. The water, originally from storm drains, showers and household faucets, is purified many times before reaching the Faithful Farm.

"When we do get rain, or when we get irrigation, we're able to hold onto the water longer up here because of the biochar," Hermanson explained.

Crops are rotated twice per year, and any excess food is donated to local food banks so the community can enjoy the garden's bounty as well. Photo: © 2019 Paolo Vescia

Favorite moments on the farm

Mercurio said he isn't able to visit the Faithful Farm as often as he'd like, but his favorite moments are just before sunset, when he can look out over the rows of plants to the San Jose city skyline or over the pristine grass of the playing field far below.

For Hermanson and Sandoval, their favorite moments come when something unexpected happens. Hermanson recalls having a flash of panic just after the garden was first planted in July 2016, wondering how pollinators such as bees, butterflies and birds would find the plants.

"Matt and I have both been working in food production for 20 years," she said. "There's a fair amount of this that we know why it's working, and there are some components of it that are working and we don't know why. That's the part of it that's really exciting—seeing the success of nature even in an artificial environment."

As she speaks, a hummingbird races by, landing on a tomato plant.

Megan Alpers-Raschefsky


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