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Taking Root with an urban farming revolution in Boston

Martin Desmarais
Taking Root with an urban farming revolution in Boston
The Food Project youth work on one of the organization's urban farms in Roxbury. (Photo: Photo courtesy The Food Project)

There was a time in Boston when seeing vegetable gardens meant that some neighbor had a green thumb or others were looking for a way to transform the eyesore of a vacant lot. Today, the rise of the urban farming revolution is rooted in the demand for local, sustainable food, as well as the economic potential of urban agricultural small businesses.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has been tracking the increase of urban farming around the world with current data that shows 800 million people take part. The practice is supported by the UN as a means for low-income urban residents to save money on food purchases. In many countries, urban agriculture is very informal and sometimes illegal, so the UN is also promoting policies that recognize urban food production as a legitimate land use and economic activity.

In the U.S., urban farming activities more often fall under the purview of state or local government, and overall statistics are scarce. But if you look around the country, you can find examples where urban farming is taking root.

In Detroit, for example, there are more than a thousand community gardens. Portland, Ore., has 22 acres of community gardens. Community gardens in Austin, Texas, produce more than 100,000 pounds of local fresh food annually. Cleveland, Ohio, is ramping up its urban farming efforts — it has about 200 community gardens so far, but the city has identified more than 1,000 more potential sites.

Urban farming embraces creativity as individuals, groups or small businesses look to maximize land use and meet local needs with food being grown on rooftops, in abandoned buildings and on deteriorating plots of open land.

Author: Photo courtesy City GrowersMagenta beets and rainbow carrots.

A number of U.S. colleges, including the Pennsylvania State University, are in the midst of multi-year studies to examine the urban farming landscape in the U.S. and provide relevant data and statistics that may be able to help seed the continual growth of urban agriculture.

For now, assertions from the UN sum up the driving reasons behind the urban agriculture movement — namely that urban farming can actually be more efficient than rural farming — up to 15 times more so. Urban farming can add jobs at the rate of one per every 300-square-foot garden, and it can produce over 40 pounds of food a year per one square-foot of land.

While the farming industry as a whole is a far cry from a high-growth business sector, urban farming does have viability as a small business with approximately $6 worth of vegetables produced by every $1 invested into gardens.

Generally, the economic benefits of urban farming are touted as generating jobs where there were none, as well as keeping local money circulating locally by growing and selling within the neighborhood.

Urban farming is not without its challenges — namely soil pollution and quality, nutrient scarcity and challenges in reaching a large enough customer base — but those involved strongly believe the benefits far outweigh the risks.

In Boston, Dorchester’s City Growers is the benchmark for urban farming as a small business venture. Started in 2009, the company’s mission is to transform vacant lots in Boston into urban farms that can make enough money to support operations.

While City Growers co-founder Glynn Lloyd is quick to extoll the environment and health benefits of urban farming — and also its role in the sustainable food movement — he is first and foremost a businessman and he wants urban farmers to be able to make a living at it.

“This is about the job creation side and creating a decent wage,” said Lloyd, who also founded the Roxbury-based City Fresh Foods, a $9 million-a-year business that provides healthy meals to child-care organizations, schools and elder-care facilities.

In the bigger picture, he sees City Growers addressing food security issues by increasing local agricultural production capacity and increasing local access to affordable, healthy foods.

It can work

What City Growers also offers is some proof that urban farming can work.

The company farms on about one acre of land in Boston with Dorchester plots on Blue Hill Avenue, Lucerne Street and Balsam Street, Glenway Street and Bradshaw Street and in Roxbury at the Shirley Eustis House and on Harold Street.

According to Lloyd, last year, City Growers generate about $50,000 from selling produce from about half-an-acre of that land. In the farming business that is a strong return for the land farmed.

“What we do on one acre the average Massachusetts farm is doing on seven acres,” Lloyd said.

Author: Photo courtesy City GrowersSalad mix and cherry radishes.

Most of what City Growers produces — lettuce, mustard greens, carrots, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, collards, kale, and seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables — goes to local farmers markets, but City Fresh Foods also buys some of the food for its operations.

City Growers has a staff of four, with three operators in the field and one employee doing administrative work.

With City Growers on its way, Lloyd said that he, and co-founder Margaret Connors, are in the process of turning the business over to the farmers who own and work the land. To Lloyd, that is the model that makes the most sense and fits into the vision of urban farming as an economic generator.

Even if City Growers sets the framework for what works, the City of Boston’s adoption of Article 89 into its zoning code in late 2013 was the real game changer for urban farming efforts. This zoning amendment allows for ground-level and roof-top farming, as well as farm stands and farmers markets.

Prior to Article 89, urban farming had no legal ground to stand on as a business activity. The city wasn’t doing a lot to stop it, but technically urban farming wasn’t really allowed.

The groundswell from within caused the city to act.

“We literally pressured the city into dealing with it,” Lloyd said. “Entrepreneurs from the community just started doing it. That led to Article 89 and it also lead to a lot of conversations about how to make urban farming work.”

City support is crucial because any discussion of urban farming is not complete without considering the challenges of obtaining land to do it. While vacant land that has sat dormant for years may look unwanted, that is rarely the case. And even when the city owns the land, approves its use for urban farming and the neighbors want a garden there, the paper trail still needs to make it so.

To this end, organizations such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative have served as a savior to the urban farming movement. Using power over land granted to it by the city three decades ago and the establishment of a community land trust, DSNI has developed gardens and a community greenhouse, in addition to hundreds of affordable homes.

DSNI’s efforts are what allow organizations such as The Food Project to carry on urban farming activities in Boston. The Food Project leases the community greenhouse in Roxbury and other parcels of land to farm from DSNI. It also farms on some city-owned land.

Youth programs

Started in Lincoln in 1991, the organization runs volunteer programs that put teenagers to work farming 70 acres of land in Boston, Beverly, Lincoln and Lynn. It also helps people grow their own food through community training programs.

Author: Photo courtesy City GrowersCollard greens, green Boston head lettuce, French Breakfast radishes, sage and green tomatoes.

The Food Project has been active in Boston since 1995 when it started farming a plot in Dudley Square. Now, it farms 2.5 acres in Boston and manages the community greenhouse in Roxbury. Food grown in Boston is sold at city farmers markets.

Sutton Kiplinger, The Food Project regional director for Greater Boston, stressed that the exposure local Boston youth and residents get to farming in their neighborhoods encourages participation in the food system in a way many would not likely have considered otherwise. It is literally and figuratively planting the seeds for urban farming’s future in Boston.

“What we hear from people is an interest in shifting from that corporate-controlled food system that works at the expense of the people and the land to a community-controlled system that works for the people and with land that is sustainable,” Kiplinger said.

She sees a neighborhood such as Dudley Square as a great example to other parts of Boston as a place full of residents that care deeply about food and can offer expertise about growing and distributing local food.

It is a good example because, even with gaining momentum, the urban farming revolution in Boston is only just budding.

As City Grower’s Lloyd points out — there are still 800 acres of vacant land in Boston. “We are only scratching the surface of what can be,” Lloyd said.

This article appears in our July issue of Banner Biz. Click here to view full issue.

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