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Somerville promotes urban agriculture, even chickens

Krysti Smyth (left) of Somerville, who runs Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, discusses keeping chickens with City Hall summer intern Emily Monea.

City of Somerville

Krysti Smyth (left) of Somerville, who runs Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, discusses keeping chickens with City Hall summer intern Emily Monea.

As the most densely populated city in New England, Somerville would hardly seem a place for farming to flourish. But the city has adopted new rules that officials hope will move it in that direction.

The Board of Aldermen has approved what the city is touting as the first urban agriculture ordinance in the state.

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The measure, coupled with new regulations adopted Sept. 20 by the Board of Health, establishes formal rules for farming in the city, including the cultivation of produce for sale, and keeping chickens and honey bees.

The rules do not apply to home gardens in which people grow vegetables and fruit for their own consumption.

“It really grew out of a desire to encourage urban agriculture, to encourage healthy local food consumption and a local food network in Somerville,” said Luisa Oliveira, the city’s senior planner for landscape design.

She said it is also seeks to ensure that farming is conducted in a way that is safe and healthy, and that minimizes the chance of neighborhood conflicts.

The new rules, for example, allow residents to raise chickens, but cap the number at six per household and prohibit roosters. Chicken owners also must clean their coops at least once a week and compost the manure. Residents can keep bees, but are limited to two hives. Permits are now required for chicken and bee keeping. The cost to keep chickens or bees is $50 the first year and $25 every year afterward.

Residents can now sell their crops, including at farm stands, but must have their soil tested each year for lead and other contaminants and post the results.

People have long kept chickens and bees in the city, and some may have sold vegetables. But until now, there have been no specific regulations to guide city inspectors, according to Paulette Renault-Caragianes, Somerville’s director of public health. With growing interest in urban agriculture, she said it makes sense to put rules in place.

Although inspectors can close any farming operation that violates the rules, Renault-Caragianes said the emphasis will be on educating the public about good farming practices, including through videos that those seeking chicken or bee permits will be required to view.

Renault-Caragianes said it is important, for example, that people who keep chickens understand the time and labor commitment it entails, that “they can’t go away for the weekend on the spur of the moment, because they need to be around for the hens.”

Gregory C. Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources, said that Somerville’s ordinance “could send a positive message that cities don’t have to be just consumers, we can also be really meaningful producers in meeting some of our basic needs. I applaud them. I think it’s a very important, meaningful step to take.”

Watson said at least one other city — Boston — is developing an urban agricultural ordinance.

“I think it’s a very healthy and very encouraging sign that people are understanding and doing something about the importance of knowing where your food comes from,” he said.

The new rules, spearheaded by Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, are part of a larger urban agricultural initiative .

The city has devoted a section of its website to the initiative that includes “The ABC’s of Urban Agriculture,” a summary of the new ordinance and health regulations, related state regulations, and recommendations for farming practices.

The city also has established a community agricultural blog, “Somerville Urban Ag,” a Facebook group, “Somerville Loves Urban Gardening,” and “Let’s Grow Somerville,” a series of workshops on topics such as composting and keeping chickens in the city.

Somerville also helps sponsor nine farmers markets, maintains community gardens, and is working with the nonprofit Groundwork Somerville and the private Green City Growers  to develop a vegetable farm on a vacant South Street lot.

The urban agriculture initiative is linked to Shape Up Somerville, a nine-year-old effort to promote healthy lifestyles in the city with a focus on ending childhood obesity. When the city announced the ordinance’s passage, “we saw tweets . . . from as close as Boston and as far as California, Montana, Arizona, Vancouver, Ireland, England, and Sydney,” she said. “[Last week], a group from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, called Citizens for the Legalization of Urban Chickens, was on Facebook discussing Somerville’s ordinance as inspiration for their own.”

City officials said an indication of the growing popularity of urban agriculture is the widespread online reaction Somerville has received about the new ordinance.

As it was developing the legislation, the city posted updates on its Twitter site and “re-tweets have shot the news around the country and globe, and blogs from Canada to Portugal picked up the story,” according to Denise Taylor, the city’s new media manager and coordinator of its ResiStat civic engagement program.

Taylor said the ordinance appears to have generated a good deal of interest in the city itself.

“There is a good portion of the community that is committed to the local food movement and the idea of supporting agriculture, whether small-scale gardening or perhaps large-scale aquaculture. . . . That interests them because it means we can . . . produce some of our own food.”

Somerville received some help in developing the ordinance from Doug Kress, a former Minneapolis city official who has been working at City Hall the last few months as part of a fellowship from a private foundation.

“I think it is forward-thinking,” Kress said of the ordinance. “And it gives a voice for a lot of people who are doing these things,” he said, pointing, for example, to Portuguese and Italian immigrant families who have “been growing their tomatoes in their [yards] for years. . . . That’s part of urban farming, knowing where your food is produced.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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