Around the corner from the abandoned, gutted building, behind the corrugated metal walls of the tennis club, within earshot of traffic rumbling down Blue Hill Avenue, farmers are working the land. Some sift compost, while others tug weeds from around tender green shoots of lettuce. On a picnic table at the far end of the quarter-acre lot, plastic bags of spring greens and pea shoots await delivery to area restaurants.
“Once you are in this field, doing this work, it changes you,” says Bobby Walker, a Roxbury native who is there on this tiny farm in Dorchester to teach aspiring farmers about the ins and outs of growing food in the city. “I can’t see a better job.” Walker and his trainees are part of an urban farming scene many believe is on the cusp of unprecedented growth.
As the popularity of local food has exploded over the past several years, advocates have started pushing to bring the movement to urban areas, where, they say, small-scale farming can create jobs, strengthen communities, and improve access to and education about fresh, healthy foods.
Change is already budding in Boston and its immediate neighbors: In 2012, there were 20 farms in Suffolk County, up from just seven in 2007, according to the Department of Agriculture. In December, these efforts got a boost with the passage of Article 89, a package of zoning changes that lowered the barriers for establishing commercial farms in Boston. And the city has identified three parcels of land it is targeting for development into urban agriculture projects under these new, more farming-friendly rules.
“There is this sort of creativity and entrepreneurship that’s being unleashed when we start to think about what the potential for growing in cities could be,” says Gregory C. Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources. Urban agriculture projects, he says, can spark entrepreneurship and even improve the environment, as city farmers reclaim and rehabilitate contaminated brownfield lots, turning them into productive growing spaces.
“We’re looking at how to increase our ability to grow more and give folks more access,” Watson says.
The land where Walker is training new farmers is one of four plots operated in Dorchester and Roxbury by City Growers, a business launched in 2010 by food entrepreneur Glynn Lloyd and public health advocate Margaret Connors. The project hatched when Connors, then the wellness coordinator for the Boston public schools, realized how many students weren’t getting fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets.
The business targets vacant lots — many of which are trash-strewn or contaminated — cleans them up, and converts them into productive, sustainable minifarms. A small staff, along with trainees and about 400 volunteers per year, tends to the land, growing greens and herbs, harvesting and packing the crops, and delivering the food to area restaurants. In addition, the farms will be selling at the Roslindale Village Main Street Farmers Market this summer, Connors says, and workers also take home some of the extra harvest.
While most of the food is sold commercially, urban farms serve educational and community-building roles in their neighborhoods, Walker says. As neighbors see the fields come to life, they ask questions, visit the site, and maybe even try their own hand at growing food.
“It changes people,” Walker says. “People want to be more involved.”
By design, the farm’s workers and board members generally come from the neighborhoods in which the farms are located, Lloyd says. “Most of the land that is vacant is in communities of color,” he says. “If that’s where we are, then let’s make sure the people who are nearby are not just at the table but driving this movement.”
City Growers’s trainees are part of a program operated by the Boston Urban Farming Institute and the Tufts New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which has been educating new farmers since 2002. The training includes a classroom component — in which novice farmers learn how to choose crops, do market research, and create a business plan — and 30 weeks of field experience. The goal is to create fully trained farmers who will be able to launch agricultural projects in their communities.
“It makes a lot of sense to help people get the skills they want in their community, when that’s where they want to farm,” says project director Jennifer Hashley.
In Dorchester, Victory Programs, a nonprofit focused on helping the homeless and those with substance abuse problems, runs ReVision Urban Farms. The greens, tomatoes, squash, and peppers grown on the operation’s two plots are sold at farmers markets and through a community-supported agriculture program, says farm manager Shani Fletcher. Discounted community-supported agriculture shares are available to Mattapan and Dorchester residents, and both of the markets the farm participates in accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and Bounty Bucks, a city program that matches SNAP spending up to $10. Residents in the ReVision shelter are eligible for free produce from the farm and receive nutrition education to help them make the most of the food they receive, Fletcher says. “Our priority is access,” she says.
Also operating in Dorchester and Roxbury is the Food Project, perhaps the oldest urban agriculture group in the city. The nonprofit runs two farms in Boston — over a total of 2½ acres — along with other locations in Lynn, Lincoln, and Beverly.
These operations are staffed by 150 young men and women per year from these communities, who learn about the importance of fresh local food along with leadership, teamwork, and civic engagement, says Greater Boston regional director Sutton Kiplinger.
Food Project also runs a greenhouse in Roxbury, where half the space is dedicated to growing for restaurants and the other half is available to community gardeners. These growers raise produce for themselves and their families, and provide services for the community, such as supplying vegetables to local food pantries or offering educational opportunities to neighborhood children.
In Greater Boston, the Food Project grew more than 200,000 pounds of produce last year. The harvest is sold mostly at the Dudley Town Commons Farmers Market — one of the first markets in the state to accept SNAP benefits — and through community-supported agriculture subscriptions in the areas where the farms are located. Some shares are reserved for community members with children in the Head Start program, who receive weekly produce deliveries at sharply discounted prices.
“The idea there was to bring produce into the regular orbit of a family’s life,” Kiplinger says.
Urban agriculture is still finding its footing in Boston, as the city’s farmers try to figure out how best to balance the goals of running a financially sustainable farm and providing affordable foods to those who need it. But this growing field is moving in the right direction, Kiplinger says. “It just makes fresh food a reality for people in this neighborhood,” she says. “They see it grown; they can participate in the growing of it.”