Edmund Snodgrass points to the photographs that line a wall of his office, aerial views of jobs he’s done. There’s the roof of a Wal-Mart; another, the forestry department building on the campus of Penn State University; a third, the headquarters of Dansko, a footwear company.
But the most striking photo is of Chicago’s City Hall, a building shared by the city and Cook County, Illinois. Its roof is split in half visually. The city side has a pattern of plants; the county side, a bare surface.
“The buildings that overlook the city roof get higher rents than those on the county side because of the view,” says Snodgrass, founder and president of Emory Knoll Farms, located in the town of Street, in Harford County.
In 1998, with the launch of Green Roof Plants, Snodgrass began selling—what else?—green roof plants. Although he now has a handful of competitors, his nursery was the first in the country devoted exclusively to “green” roofs, a sustainable building practice. In 2004, he incorporated Emory Knoll Farms and took on a partner, John Shepley.
Green roofs are intended to mitigate storm-water runoff. Usually installed on a flat surface underlaid with a drainage system and no more than four inches of soil, the plants absorb half of the annual rainfall and release the rest slowly into the atmosphere.
Snodgrass is a fifth-generation farmer and proud of it. Emory Knoll has been in his family since the 1830s, varying in size from a high of 365 acres to its current 135 acres. Originally a dairy farm, in the 1970s, it became a corn and soybean operation.
But family farms are no longer economically feasible.
“I couldn’t control my expenses or the prices I got, which are set on the Chicago Commodity Board,” says Snodgrass, 59. “You are locked into a methodology.”
The result was that, in 1983, much to his regret, the lanky husband and father stopped farming altogether.
“I spent 15 years wandering in the desert,” Snodgrass says of his time as, variously, an educator, management consultant, and nursery worker.
But he sought a way to return to farming and, after research and networking, found it in Green Roof Plants.
“The design community was playing around with green roofs, but there was no supply chain for soil and plants,” says Snodgrass, who saw a business opportunity that combined his longstanding interest in the environment with an emerging technology.
“I wanted a new market so I could develop expertise in the field,” he says.
By all accounts, he has.
Now the author of three authoritative books and a pioneer in plant propagation, Snodgrass’ name is instantly recognizable in the industry. As a consultant, he has been hired, for example, to evaluate the feasibility of installing green roofs on American embassies around the world.
While the green-roof industry is well known in Europe, the American version is barely a decade old, spurred by state and municipal legislation and tax incentives. Snodgrass estimates its current value at about $1 billion. Emory Knoll Farms has 10 employees and does $800,000 in annual sales.
The work is done on 10 acres of the family farm. The cow barn has been converted into the office, computers and file cabinets filling the area where heifers once stood for milking. There are 16 greenhouses—plastic sheets over metal frames—for the plants.
Snodgrass’ customers are typically roofing companies, civil engineers, or landscape designers. They send him a “plant schedule” specifying how many plants and which species they need. He does not sell the soil, design the roofs, or do the installation.
About 200 varieties can serve as roof plants, the workhorse being sedum. The plants’ success depends on variables like climate, wind, soil depth, aesthetics, maintenance budget, and what the roof is intended to do besides storm-water management (e.g., cooling an urban building or promoting insect pollination).