Indy’s Sky Farm a hint of riverfront’s future

November 13th, 2018

By Dave Gong | The Journal Gazette

In summer, The Sky Farm at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis is green and flush with vegetables.

The Sky Farm produces between 2,700 and 3,700 pounds of food a year on 5,000 square feet of growing space, all while offering a unique view of the Indianapolis skyline. The space was designed by a team led by Land Collective, the Philadelphia firm that was contracted last month to design and plan phases 2 and 3 of Fort Wayne's downtown riverfront. Eskenazi Health uses the produce generated by The Sky Farm for educational purposes, the hospital's Sky Farmer Rachel White said last week. 

White selects and plants all of the farm's produce.

The Sky Farm, now devoid of most plants as winter rapidly approaches, organizes planters into rows and features benches where the public can sit and rest. When the growing season is in full swing, The Sky Farm has unique beauty, White said. The Sky Farm opened in spring 2014, about a year after Eskenazi Health opened.

Working at The Sky Farm at Indianapolis' Eskenazi Health is a challenge White embraces.

She doesn't have a greenhouse, but uses a set of lights in her office to start seeds and prepare for planting. The seedlings are transferred to large planters arranged in rows around the rooftop. Once the harvest is complete, she cleans and packages the produce, which includes leeks, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, fennel, red cabbage and more.

“When I first got here, I came from a farm that was growing produce for high-end restaurants, so I had a steep learning curve back to things that can be used in a class,” White said.

The wind was probably the biggest challenge.

“Everything you stake to the ground has to be double-staked up here,” White said. “I went from staking four tomatoes in a weave to up here it's every two tomatoes.” 

In all, about 60 varieties of food are grown at The Sky Farm. 

All of the food produced by The Sky Farm is used by the hospital for educational purposes, White said. Because of the size of the hospital, it's impractical to use much of the produce in meals prepared by the kitchen to feed patients and visitors. The food produced by The Sky Farm would get lost in the mix, White said. 

“We decided that including education along with the produce is actually a better way to get it to our patients,” White said. “That has been very successful. Those are usually at our clinics.” 

However, since the farm opened, the hospital has begun buying more local produce, Tom Surber, the hospital's media relations coordinator said. 

“We went from like 4 percent to 40 percent of all our food service food, whether it's for patients or in our retail food operations, 40 percent of all of that is from Indiana,” Surber said, noting that the hospital works with a group called Grow Indiana. 

Sky Farmer Rachel White said the waterfall at The Commonground, located just outside the hospital's main doors, is one of her favorite places at Eskenazi Health. During warmer months, the hospital holds a farmer's market there, with live music and other events. White said the location of the different amenities is what makes them work together.

“The outpatient area is where all the cool stuff is,” White said. “Whether they intended that or not, it to me emphasizes, please come and enjoy yourself while you see the doctor and do it on a regular basis in hopes that maybe you won't find yourself in the ER as often, making it a space that does feel welcoming for those types of visits.”

The Sky Farm works with Eskenazi Health Food & Nutrition Services to offer classes and engage the community, including Fresh Veggie Fridays, which ran from May to September this year. 

Now ending her fifth year running The Sky Farm, White said she better understands what works and what doesn't. This is the first year, White said, where she has planned out all of her planting for next season.

“Usually that takes me all of the winter months to do,” White said. “We've gotten into a pattern now.” 

Farming atop an urban hospital is not without some difficulty, however. White said the wind is a constant concern and the public nature of the park means she works extra hard to keep everything looking nice. Staffing is also a challenge. White typically hires one part-time seasonal assistant each year and otherwise relies on volunteers. Sometimes those volunteers are fellow hospital staff members or community residents; other times they're students from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. 

“I recently had the entire men's soccer team come over here and help me bring up 600 bags of compost,” White said, laughing. “They had so much fun. The thing I really like about IUPUI is not only are they close, but they're really joyous to be around.”

Categories Quality of Life