A Taste of Urban Agriculture

by Renee Ciulla

The trend of eating healthy, local food and knowing the farmer who produced your food has moved far beyond the UrbanAg3countryside. City residents play a significant role in the local food movement as well. In fact, when researching urban agriculture it’s incredible to realize that cities not only produce impressive vegetables and are home to legitimate farmers, but they also grow large amounts of farm-based education.

Even the United States Department of Agriculture has noted the importance of city gardens. Secretary Vilsack began the People's Garden Initiative in 2009 as an “effort to challenge employees to create gardens at USDA facilities. It has since grown into a collaborative effort of over 700 local and national organizations all working together to establish community and school gardens across the country.” They believe that the simple act of planting a garden can help unite neighborhoods in a common effort and inspire locally-led solutions to challenges facing our country. As of November 2014, there were 2,116 People's Gardens in all 50 states, three U.S. territories and eight foreign countries with 3.9 million pounds of produce donated. Recipients range from Homer, Alaska on the Southern Kenai Peninsula to San Carlos, Arizona on the Apache Reservation working with Youth and Family Gardens.

Interestingly, the Trust for Public Land, a U.S. national, nonprofit organization that conserves land for parks, gardens and open space, has also taken interest in the urban agriculture movement. For example, in Boston TPL has partnered with the organization, Green City Growers. Soon after the 1st urban agriculture zoning law went into effect in Boston, the TPL noted that the city owned over 2,000 vacant lots totaling around 500 acres. By working with urban ag groups, they are able to assist with water connections which can cost around $20K. The TPL currently hopes to get a total of 3 acres in production while working with Green City Growers. Of course having political leaders in place who support urban agriculture is also an important key to the puzzle. According to Karen Washington, President of the NYC Community Garden Coalition, “Land tenure in a city is always a political issue. Your land tenure is only as good as the current administration.” Washington works tirelessly in New York City neighborhoods to bring fresh food to local residents. She stressed that, “Urban agriculture isn’t just about preservation. You’ve also got to look at job creation, economical development and ownership. We need to talk to urban developers about keeping some open space. This is necessary for future generations.” Fortunately, there are now several American cities with urban agriculture ordinances such as Portland, OR, Minneapolis, MN, Seattle, WA, Detroit, MI and Cleveland, OH.

An extraordinary urban agriculture site that shouldn’t be overlooked is The Food Project, producing on over 70 acres in Boston, Lincoln, Lynn, Beverly, and Wenham, Massachusetts. Heather Hammel, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator, stated that they work with approximately 2,700 untrained volunteers every year. Many come on a regular basis, but others come as part of corporate, community, and school groups. The Food Project has CSA programs in Metro Boston, Lincoln, Beverly, and Lynn and sell at three farmers markets. There are 404 households who are a part of the market-rate CSAs and another 161 households who participate in a subsidized CSA program called the Farm to Family Program. According to Hammel, their priority is, “…establishing an urban farming enterprise that suits the needs of the community and also can incorporate fluctuating numbers of youth and adult volunteers and staff. The Food Project gauges its success by the experience of their youth and adult volunteers and reactions and purchases of local customers.”

UrbanAg1Danielle Andrews, the farm manager of The Food Project, emphasized the significance of the City of Boston creating urban agriculture zoning in December 2013. Furthermore, they were fortunate to have had former Mayor Menino who supported urban agriculture and youth development work. “These new laws for zoning were a result of private individuals and businesses wanting to be involved in urban agriculture work,” explained Andrews, “and the City seeing the need for zoning in order to shape the movement and ensure safety and fairness.” An important tip for those who are pursuing urban agriculture enterprises is to look up when a Town’s Comprehensive Plan is due to be updated, so efforts can be made to rewrite the zoning codes.

In recent years, The Food Project has turned to high end markets (mostly selling salad greens, pea and radish shoots) to bolster their income. Andrews has found that the mixed vegetable sales to the local community does not generate much income and requires a lot more work than the salad greens and shoots. One of the more unique crops they have grown in the past is okra, and their most profitable are: salad mix, arugula, baby spinach, pea and radish shoots and tomatoes. Customer favorites include: salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, collards, garlic, habaneros, shishito peppers and kale. Andrews’ final contemplative thoughts carry a broader message; “I worry a lot that people are turning to urban agriculture for food access, but I think it is quite limited from that perspective. It is best used as an educational and social change tool because by engaging consumers in the act of agriculture we have a unique opportunity to engage them in food system change. This is the true worth of urban agriculture.”

Another urban agriculture example also in the city of Boston is Green City Growers. Augusta Nichols-Even, the Marketing Director, walked me through their dizzying array of farm projects. Although the farms aren’t certified organic, they all employ organic methods. The largest farm is ½ acre, atop Whole Foods Market in Lynnfield, MA. According to Nichols-Even, “The land/rooftops we farm on are generally privately owned by residential or corporate clients, and we also farm at schools and other municipal locations. We are in talks to lease municipal lots in Somerville and East Boston.” Many of their clients are residential; they’ve installed over 450 raised beds and continue to maintain about 150 every year. Additionally, they have a dozen corporate gardens at sites like Google, Verizon, National Grid and Athena health. These sites donate half or all of their produce to the food bank, Food for Free, in Cambridge. Proudly, Augusta shared that in 2014 over 1,000 pounds of organically grown produce was donated from the corporate gardens. Green City Growers does not have a CSA or sell at markets, but plans to have farmstands at many of the municipal lots established this year to serve the immediate community. Tomatoes have been their most profitable and popular crop. The Urban Agriculture ordinances that have passed in Somerville and Boston have minimized any conflicts related to growing food in the city. To reduce soil contamination they grow in raised beds instead of directly in the soil. As for urban chickens, each municipality still has their own rules which require the staff to be vigilant about understanding the differences.

One of their most significant achievements will hopefully be mirrored by other urban ag groups across the country. They have partnered with Whole Foods to create the largest rooftop farm in New England and the first rooftop farm on a grocery store. Equally incredible is that they created raised bed gardens and educational programming at all 5 elementary schools across the City of Beverly. Nichols-Even highlighted exactly what this means; “…every third grader in all of Beverly learns how to grow their own food over the course of the school year, and classroom curriculum is woven into garden lessons to enhance their learning.” Another exciting development for Green City Growers is working with one of the largest real estate companies, Boston Properties, who regularly includes GCG on new construction projects to incorporate edible green space. “The challenge,” says Nichols-Even, “has been to shift the mindset of municipalities and corporations. Urban farming isn't just something cute for retirees who listen to NPR to fill their days with; it's an increasingly important element of urban life that should be included in every urban planning discussion and project.”UrbanAg2

Jennifer Hashley, Director of New Entry Sustainable Agriculture Project, feels that with all future urban and non-urban ag projects, the issue of leases must be incorporated and given top priority. Located in Massachusetts, this non-profit manages semi-urban incubator farms for future farmers to try out farming without a huge investment. From Hashley’s experience leasing land for New Entry, she has come to believe that, “A 5-10 year lease just isn’t long to fully feel ownership. Building soil and infrastructure takes time… 99 yrs would be more appropriate!” When considering elements of a good land lease, please check out examples provided by Land For Good and Equity Trust, whose contacts are listed in the Resources section at the end of this article.

Land trusts can also play a prominent role in urban agriculture and are familiar with the importance of effective leases. In the opinion of Margaret DeVos, Executive Director of Southside Community Land Trust located in the city of Providence, RI, “Rhode Island is incredibly progressive when it comes to agriculture. Rhode Islanders don’t worry about zoning laws because plant production and raising chickens are both ‘legal’.” Interestingly, RI is the second most expensive state to buy agricultural land ($11,800/acre), so Southside is working hard to make farming possible. Urban Edge Farm, one of the many Southside farms, is 15 acres and has a land easement placed through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy. The land is leased to 7 farmers who can stay as long as they want. When they are ready to leave, Southside will help them search for land.

Moving west across the country to the state of Kentucky is Louisville Grows, founded in 2009 by Mason Roberts. Their mission is “to grow a just and sustainable community in Louisville, Kentucky, through urban agriculture, urban forestry, and environmental education.” Programs include community gardens, Love Louisville Trees, the Seeds and Starts Garden Resource Program, and the Urban Growers Cooperative. Louisville Grows coordinates the Cooperative by organizing a time and tool bank, assisting in land access, coordinating sales and delivery with retailers and growers, and by providing low-cost seeds and plants. Louisville Grows offers an impressive assortment of services include educational opportunities related to sustainability and social justice, free or subsidized plants and seeds for home and community gardeners, community space to garden and education for beginning gardeners, increasing Louisville’s tree canopy through coordinated volunteer training and plantings and coordinating and distributing produce from urban farmers to neighborhoods with limited access to fresh food. Staff at Louisville Grows directs residents of Louisville to the VAP STAT website, which provides users with a wide list of properties governed by the Louisville Metro Government and other city wide agencies. Their motto is “from vacant spaces to productive places,” and they recently awarded several groups with land parcels through the Lots of Possibility competition. VAP STAT is a necessary link for successful urban agriculture initiatives.

On the West coast in the city of Seattle, visitors are often struck by the large plots of verdant, organized raised beds in substantial numbers appearing in every neighborhood. These food-producing beds are a part of the P-Patch Program, a community gardening program of the City of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, open to Seattle residents. For the past 40 years, staff have partnered with volunteers, local non-profit organizations, Seattle Housing Authority and other agencies to support, develop and manage community gardening in Seattle. In total, there are now 88 P-Patches distributed throughout the city, with plot size ranging from 40 and 400 ft². The community gardeners are producing food on almost 15 acres of land and in addition steward 18.8 acres for the public. The name, P-Patch, originated from its first community garden, Picardo Farm. The gardeners are required to complete a minimum of 8 hours of community work per year in order to take part in the program. Furthermore, there are plot rental fees including a $27 application fee and $13 for each 100 ft² of garden space.

In 2013 Seattle P-Patch Market Gardens provided produce for approximately 57 households over 20 weeks. There are two community supported agriculture (CSA) gardens located in and worked by residents in Southeast and Southwest Seattle. Each garden also sells produce on site at a weekly farm stand. The P-Patches are a stellar example of an open space resource for all members of the community. Hopefully they motivate other cities in the USA to provide green places to share love of gardening, cultivate friendships, strengthen neighborhoods, increase self-sufficiency, create wildlife habitat, relieve hunger, improve nutrition and enjoy the recreational and therapeutic benefits.


Green City Growers: www.growmycitygreen.com

The Food Project: www.thefoodproject.org

Boston Urban Agriculture Zoning: http://www.cityofboston.gov/food/urbanag

Southside Community Land Trust: http://www.southsideclt.org/about

Urban Edge Farm, a Southside farm: http://www.southsideclt.org/urbanedge

New Entry Sustainable Agriculture Project: www.nesfp.org/

NYC Community Garden Coalition: www.nyccgc.org

Trust for Public Land: www.tpl.org

Land For Good: www.landforgood.org

Equity Trust: www.equitytrust.org/

Louisville Grows: http://www.louisvillegrows.org/

USDA’s The People’s Garden: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=PEOPLES_GARDEN

P-Patch Community Gardens Seattle: http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch/

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