Urban Agriculture Blossoms in Boston

The Food Project at Egleston Farmers Market

The Food Project is one of the pioneers in Boston urban agriculture. (Photo by Mike Steinhoff)

A burgeoning urban agriculture movement is blossoming in the middle of winter in Boston, and it’s not because of climate change.

Fresh Truck logo

Fresh Truck logo

From Fresh Truck (a mobile, healthy, affordable grocery store) and farmers building movable raised beds to cutting-edge city, state, and private initiatives, Boston’s urban ag scene is definitely on the move.

One of the key elements propelling this movement is the December 18, 2013 approval of new zoning rules that support the growth of commercial farming in Boston. In addition to making it easier to launch farming initiatives, the policy is designed to increase access to affordable and healthy food, especially for underserved communities.

The culmination of a three-year long process, Article 89 of Boston’s zoning code clarifies what type of commercial agricultural activities will be permitted in each zone. The far-sighted policy, which I consider one of the crowning achievements of our former mayor, Tom Menino, addresses ground-level farms, roof-level farms, roof-level greenhouses, composting, aquaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, freight farming, farmers’ markets, farm stands, and soil safety.

Soil safety is a particularly critical challenge for urban farmers. Article 89 requires that native soil used in Boston’s commercial farms must pass an environmental site assessment or else use raised bed methods with imported soil (which must also be tested).

“Importing soil is less expensive,” than trying to use native soil, according to Edith Murnane, Boston’s Director of Food Initiatives, and one of the key champions of Boston’s local food movement. “If you test the soil and it requires remediation, it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Murnane warned. She explained that once your soil is deemed problematic, you’re required to remediate it, so it’s more cost efficient for Boston’s farmers to avoid that problem by using geotextile barriers and imported soil from the get go.

Murnane also announced that Boston is also planning to sell off seven small plots of land for only $100, well under their commercial value. Bidders must complete an RFP detailing how the land will be used for urban agriculture and how it will be integrated into the local community.

Food Sol logoMurnane was one of several dozen participants at a lively January 16 discussion at Babson College’s Boston campus, convened by Babson’s Food Sol program. Food Sol Director and blogger Rachel Greenberger (another local food champion), already runs a weekly drop-in discussion for food entrepreneurs and students at Babson College’s Wellesley campus. She scheduled the Boston discussion to stimulate collaboration on urban agriculture. “I’ll keep running this as long as there’s interest,” Greenberger told me. The drop-in discussions—come and leave as you need—will continue to meet from 10-11:30am at 253 Summer Street, Boston each Thursday, at least for the next several weeks.

The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture (MDAR) is also supporting urban agriculture in Boston and other parts of the state. MDAR’s Director of Outreach and Events (and Food Day Massachusetts Coordinator) Rose Arruda, is another local food lion who attended the Food Sol gathering in Boston. Arruda announced that the 2nd Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference will take place on Saturday, March 8 (details TBA). In addition, MDAR will shortly be awarding $5,000-$40,000 grants for urban agriculture demonstration projects designed to increase the commercial cultivation, processing, marketing, and distribution of healthy and nutritious food in Boston and other urban communities in Massachusetts.

Other participants at the table included entrepreneurs, leaders, academics, and activists from some of Boston’s leading agriculture, food, and health businesses and organizations. I was there representing Egleston Farmers Market, as well as Good Egg Marketing.  Almost everyone was there, in fact, but actual farmers. While City Growers was present, for example, no one was there from The Food Project or ReVision Urban Farm, two of the pioneering urban agriculture programs in Boston.

Based on the discussion, urban agriculture is taking root in Boston, but faces many obstacles. Hopefully, this convening will generate the collaboration needed to generate a healthy harvest. While Boston will never be able to grow all of its food within city borders, urban agriculture has many benefits.  It creates jobs, it supports the local economy, it’s healthy for the workers and the environment, and, perhaps most importantly, it educates city dwellers of all ages about where our food comes from and teaches us to appreciate the wonder (and flavor) of a fresh pea. Long may it grow!

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