SOMERVILLE — Under the Elmer Bumpus Bridge, a few blocks from Union Square, is a tiny farm plot belonging to Metro Pedal Power, a bicycle delivery service. Chickens happily scratch up the dirt, flies swarm around bins of compost, and a beekeeper gingerly opens a hive to expose a buzzing colony of honey bees and moves cheerfully among the swarm.
This tour of Metro Pedal Power’s “farm” is courtesy of Relish: Center for Urban Agriculture, an organization that offers classes in everything from beekeeping to beer brewing. Later, at the Union Square farmers’ market, the enthusiastic beekeeper,
Avery Morrison, floats from place to place, helping marketers craft beeswax candles and ushering shoppers inside the SCAT local TV building to see Relish’s pedal-powered honey extractor. There, John Graney explains the process of drawing out honey from each tiny cell of the comb. The novelty honey harvester is doing its job; parents and kids hop behind the bars for a turn, and listen intently to Graney’s explanation.
Relish, established in Union Square last spring, helps locals raise chickens, compost, learn about mushrooms, and can. From its headquarters in a small bay garage behind The Independent restaurant, the organization also sells equipment needed for these projects. During school vacations, kids can take weeklong classes in printmaking, gardening, and felting.
Graney is father to one of Relish’s cofounders, Mimi Graney. When she was a child, the family lived near Interstate 93 next to a golf pro who kept his lawn as green as a fairway. Her dad took a more organic approach, she says, keeping bees and chickens, tapping maple trees, raising pigs. As the daughter tells it, she looked out the window one morning to see a fugitive pig tearing through the neighbor’s impeccable yard. The swine was chased by her shotgun-wielding father, who was chased by her frantic mother yelling, “Don’t shoot it there!”
Mimi Graney, also executive director of the nonprofit community organization Union Square Main Streets, started Relish with MaryCat Chaikin, manager of the Union Square and Somerville winter farmers’ markets. The Relish storefront beckons farmers’ market customers on a warm Saturday morning. A bunny named Harmony attracts curious kids, parents peruse the carefully curated collection of canning supplies, gardening tools, and locally made goat’s milk soap. Behind the storefront is the heart of Relish, a small classroom where workshops are held. Relish’s space serves as headquarters for the Somerville 4-H. The center also holds monthly socials for backyard chicken raisers.
A canning class seems like a good place to start becoming an urban agriculturalist. The teacher is Sam Musher, a pixie-ish, middle school librarian, who brings sly wit and humor to the subject. Flannel-clad, Cuppow-toting 20-somethings from Cambridge and Somerville each take a turn at boiling, sealing, and processing applesauce Musher has made, as she walks us through the basics of water-bath canning. All of this is in books and online, but for $35, this is hands-on practice under the supervision of a pro. “When I started doing this, it wasn’t really cool yet,” says Musher, a little awed by so many people suddenly adopting the hobby.
Musher reminds us not to screw on the lids too tightly (air should escape as the jars jostle in the boiling kettle) and lets us in on a trick: You don’t need a wire canning rack. Instead, you can nestle the jars in inexpensive lid-rings on the bottom of the pot. The take-home message: As long as you don’t mess with the acidity level in a canning recipe, and adhere to the boiling times, you won’t make people sick.
You will also leave the class feeling confident — and meet your neighbors. As the students work, talk turns to hilarious stories about irate callers to the Somerville Journal hot line, nontraditional apple pie recipes (lime and grains of paradise seasoning), and neighborly etiquette, like getting to know the old-timers (anyone over 30).
Relish is still trying to bridge the divide between the generations. It’s been mostly “new Somerville” at the classes, Musher says. But recently, an elderly gentleman came to a class because he was tired of seeing the fruit from his beautiful peach trees go to waste.
That resonates with Musher, an active member of the League of Urban Canners. She sometimes wears the organization’s T-shirt, which reads, “Keeping fruit off the street and safely in jars, where it belongs.”
RELISH Center for Urban Agriculture, 66-70 Union Square, Suite 105, Somerville, email@example.comCatherine Smart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.