Omni Ecosystems is making amber waves in Chicago's urban agriculture scene by cultivating fields of grain on rooftops. The wheat grown on the roofs of Studio Gang, a progressive architectural firm founded by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, demonstrates how even cereal crops can be sourced locally in the city. This unique urban harvest was serendipitously grown when a late start to the growing season left the Studio Gang rooftop thoroughly planted with winter wheat, a hardy cover crop.
The would-be wheat farm is atop a landmark building that once housed the Polish National Alliance but now serves as Studio Gang’s headquarters. The rooftop was originally intended to be a wildflower meadow filled with many varieties of pollinator-friendly plants such as butterfly weed, black-eyed susan, and milkweed. Omni Ecosystems were hired late in the year for this project, which limited their sowing abilities. “We knew it would be a mixed bag for establishment, so we threw down this annual that would get us through the winter,” said Molly Meyer, CEO and Founder of Omni Ecosystems. “As it turned out, the wheat did really well.”
This surprisingly robust wheat crop was delicately harvested and turned into flour by students in an after-school program. Students were involved in the process of winnowing the grains by removing the chaff and separating the wheat berries from the wheat grain. It was a novel experience for them.
“The kids didn’t know flour was part of wheat,” says Tracy Boychuk of Omni’s sister company, The Roof Crop. This processed wheat was then turned into flour by Baker Miller, though not without some initial skepticism. “Just because you grow the wheat doesn’t mean you can eat it,” said Dave Miller, co-owner of Baker Miller. “I was thinking we were going to have ‘feed’ grade,” which is appropriate for animals but not people. This was as good as anything I’ve gotten from a farmer.”