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Mayor, local activists break ground on new Roxbury farm plot under city’s new commercial farm zoning

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Mayor, local activists break ground on new Roxbury farm plot under city’s new commercial farm zoning
Mayor Walsh joined state and local leaders in announcing the transformation of a plot of land in Roxbury into an urban garden.

Residents of Roxbury’s Garrison-Trotter neighborhood joined with elected officials, city department chiefs, a host of nonprofit and for-profit organizations and a crew of newly-trained urban farmers July 11 to officially break ground at the first urban farm site launched under Article 89, Boston’s new commercial farming zoning statute.

Mayor Martin Walsh, who issued an official proclamation of July 11 as “Urban Agriculture Day” in Boston, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd jammed into a tent erected on 225 Harold Street, a former city-owned vacant lot.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a big day for Roxbury and a big day for Boston,” said Walsh. “This new farm will be productive in more ways than one. It will enable local farmers to become food entrepreneurs; it will increase this community’s access to nutritious food; and it will help give neighborhood children a better understanding of our natural environment and our economy.”

Article 89 was adopted by the City in December, after a process that included 18 Urban Agriculture Working Group meetings, eleven neighborhood meetings and multiple revisions, according to the City of Boston website. The new zoning lifts restrictions on commercial farming within city limits and creates a permitting process for urban farmers.

The Harold Street site is now poised to become productive farmland, thanks to a large network of agencies, individuals and organizations, including a partnership among the Trust for Public Land, Dudley Neighbors Inc. and the Urban Farming Institute to acquire and manage city farmland.

“The Trust for Public Land, an organization whose mission is to preserve land for public use, will purchase city-owned sites and arrange for fencing, new soil, grading and other work to make them farm-ready,” said Kevin Essington, TPL’s Massachusetts state manager. TPL will then transfer ownership of farm-ready sites to Dudley Neighbors Inc., the longstanding community land trust that owns 35 acres in Roxbury and Dorchester.

The Urban Farming Institute will train and select farmers and manage the sites. At the groundbreaking, UFI Executive Director Patricia Spence introduced a crew of trainees and UFI’s Bobby Walker, a neighborhood resident and “farmer trainer extraordinaire” who directs the 22-week training program.

Spence also put the new initiative in a historical context.

“In the 1940s my grandfather grew vegetables and fruit on Howland Street, and canned and pickled the excess,” she said. “Now we have a new wave of urban farmers, creating economic opportunity for local Boston residents.”

In an interview, Spence emphasized that this initiative is not about gardening, but about viable farming businesses. She termed the new breed of urban commercial farmers “agri-preneurs,” who must present a business plan when they apply to lease farm sites managed by UFI.

The Garrison-Trotter Farm is the first of three sites slated to become operational this year, said Essington; the others are on Callender Street in Mattapan and on Akron Street in Roxbury. TPL plans to acquire and prepare 12 farm lots over the next few years, he said, with the help of venture philanthropist funding.

Prior to Article 89, in 2011 the city created an Urban Overlay District that allowed early urban farms to be operated by City Growers and ReVision Urban Farm. UFI trainees are now honing their skills on City Growers plots, where they help grow produce that is sold to area restaurants and retail customers as well as to Camp Harbor View, a summer camp for city youth.

Spence credits City Growers co-founder Glynn Lloyd, who also founded Roxbury-based City Fresh Foods, as an important visionary for Boston urban farming. Lloyd’s frustration at having to buy produce grown 3,000 miles away when land and talent existed locally helped spark the rezoning process.

“I was buying Romaine lettuce from California,” Lloyd said “And I was noticing all these vacant lots nearby, five or six of them on Harold Street alone. I said, ‘what the heck is going on here? This land has been sitting for decades.’”

And so the glimmer of an idea was born, leading all the way to the triumphant July 11 groundbreaking.

One of the many challenges in urban farming is economics, said Lloyd, but with post-recession timing and a growing appreciation of local food, success has come into view.

“It’s a low margin, labor-intensive business,” he said. “But at the same time, the market has its arms open — more and more people want fresh and local. In Boston, you have a huge density of retailers who want this product.”

Department of Neighborhood Development Director Sheila Dillon said the city is looking at sites suitable for not only crop fields, but urban orchards. Though vacant lots are eyed for housing and other development as well, the city views neighborhoods comprehensively, she told the Banner.

“There are lots of benefits to the city,” Dillon said. “[Farms are] good for the environment. They’ll provide fresh food for the neighborhoods. Hopefully, viable businesses will take hold. And it’s really good for children and young adults to see food being produced so close to their homes.”

The Food Project

Hours earlier on Urban Agriculture Day, Walsh spoke to teen workers gathered in Copley Square for The Food Project’s 2014 opening day kickoff celebration. The Dorchester-based nonprofit farms 75 acres in Boston-area suburbs and in Roxbury, employing 100 high school students each summer to grow vegetables and distribute them at hunger relief organizations and farmers’ markets. The growers expect to produce 250,000 pounds of produce this year.

Besides farming skills, the Food Project training emphasizes civic engagement, community education, teamwork and public speaking.

Against the backdrop of the bustling Copley Square Farmers’ Market, returning Food Project farmers who have reached the ranks of “Dirt Crew” and “Root Crew” encouraged this year’s 78 new “Seed Crew” members to practice their team chants. Several teens spoke to the assembled crowd about what they’ve learned at The Food Project.

Kalise, a 16-year-old from Dorchester, recalled her first day of work in summer 2012, when she felt so dirty and exhausted, she didn’t know if she could possibly make it another six weeks. But she persisted, and before long gained a new awareness of the lack of fresh food in her city neighborhood.

“As I walked around my community, I noticed fast food restaurants on every corner,” she said. “At the Food Project, I learned there are healthier choices all around us.”

Eventually, Kalise found herself able to answer questions about fresh greens, share recipes with visitors to the market stand and discuss sustainable agriculture. Now, she said, she is strongly committed to working with organizations that push her community forward.

“Right now in front of me are the future leaders of Boston,” Walsh told the teens. “You guys are awesome.”

The mayor shared his own experience as a youth visiting his grandparents in Ireland and helping them dig up potatoes and turnips, and told them the training they’re getting is far more than a summer job.

“You have no idea how important this program is to you and your future. It helps shape the person you are,” said Walsh. “Being out here in shorts and T-shirts and getting dirty, you’re not only learning about business, but you’re learning about the future of our economy, learning about healthy foods, and healthy living, and doing something extremely important for all of our survival.”

For more information on urban agriculture and farmer training in Boston, see http://www.cityofboston.gov/food/urbanag/ and http://urbanfarminginstitute.wordpress.com