As the demand for locally produced food continues to grow, a proposal gaining traction in the Legislature would provide $20 million to help rejuvenate the University of Massachusetts agriculture extension site in Waltham, which has lacked funding for decades.
State legislators are in the beginning stages of considering a $1.7 billion environmental bond bill that includes earmarking funds to revitalize the UMass site, which spans 58 acres over two plots along Beaver Street. The project is dubbed the UMass Center for Urban Sustainability.
State Senator Mike Barrett, who represents Waltham, said he hopes to see the money approved in the next two to three years.
“So many people are into gardening, healthy eating, and locally produced fruits and vegetables that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst revisited a closure decision that it made about 25 years ago,” said Barrett, an avid advocate of the proposal that has been in the works for years.
“The idea is for this to be a regional headquarters, a nerve center, for nonprofit groups and individual amateur farmers and gardeners.”
In its heyday from the 1940s to 1970s, several dozen UMass personnel worked at the Waltham site, which was then called the Waltham Experiment Station, said Steve Goodwin, dean of the university’s College of Natural Sciences. UMass researchers conducted agricultural experiments, including the development of the famed Waltham butternut squash — a “hearty, wonderful variety,” according to Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy.
As agricultural funding to the university dwindled in the 1980s, however, staff and upkeep at the Waltham site diminished and the university now only uses it on “rare occasions,” Goodwin said.
UMass leases office and farm space to groups like the Waltham Fields Community Farms, the Waltham Land Trust, the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, and a Middlesex County 4-H. But the site has slipped into disrepair over the years. The main offices have crumbled, smaller buildings have been condemned by the city and fenced off, and a barn has collapsed, said Claire Kozower, executive director of Waltham Fields.
Under the proposed legislation, money would be spent on a new 20,000-square-foot eco-friendly building to house new classrooms, conference space, offices, and space for start-up farmers and agricultural organizations.
“The need to pay attention to sustainability issues has grown,” Goodwin said. “Having a presence in Waltham allows us to reach the large population of the eastern part of the state.”
The new proposal comes as a local cultural shift embracing organic food and naturally grown produce has sparked a new interest in — and funds for — agriculture and farming in the region, according to state experts.
Although the number of farms in America has fallen 4 percent from 2007 to 2012, there has been a 5 percent increase in New England, said Catherine de Ronde, agricultural economist for the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, citing data from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture.
“Massachusetts is a very well-educated state, and people are willing to pay top dollar for products that are important for them, like organic foods or maybe a funky vegetable you can’t find at a big farm out west,” she said.
Government spending on Massachusetts agriculture has also nearly doubled in five years from $4.6 million in 2007 to $8.1 million in 2012, de Ronde said — a sign that bodes well for the proposed UMass site.
“People are more concerned where their food is coming from, what practices are going into creating the food, and whether it’s organic,” she said. “We see that trend increasing into the future, and it’s evident in the increase of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, where consumers can purchase a share of a farmer’s crop up front.”
Massachusetts has also gained a total of 151 small farms ranging from 1 to 49 acres in size from 2007 to 2012, many in the eastern part of the state. The spike in small farms is likely due to an uptick in urban farming, as well as the relatively cheap costs associated with tiny farms, de Ronde said.
“Especially during the recession, it would be easier for a smaller farm to come on board, rather than starting a mid-sized business,” she said.
Many locals agree that the urban and suburban farming trend is on the rise. Barrett has been a proponent of the Waltham agricultural site proposal after taking stock of the need for a central agricultural headquarters in the Greater Boston area.
“Farming has seen a rebirth,” Barrett said. “There are farmers in almost every community I represent — there are farmers in Waltham, Lexington, Lincoln, Sudbury, Carlisle, Bedford — everywhere. It is just truly amazing.”
McCarthy said she had purchased a small “victory plot” in Bedford herself to grow produce, and noticed that the UMass site in Waltham has enjoyed a surge of popularity as locals grow interested in the farm space there.
“It’s quite popular in Waltham — people go over there to get fresh fruits and vegetables, and to teach kids how to farm,” she said.
The rising demand for urban farming has led UMass to rethink its role in Waltham over the past years. Though much research is done in western Massachusetts, where the college’s flagship Amherst campus is located, Goodwin said UMass workers in Waltham could use the urban and suburban population and infrastructure to research solutions to issues important there. Since the researchers would already be in Waltham, they could then easily spread their findings to Greater Boston locals and officials, Goodwin said.
“For the kind of suburban issues like alternative energy, water, food systems, food availability, and food security, the largest concentration of people that are impacted are the suburban and urban settings, which are mostly in the eastern part of state,” Goodwin said. “Having a presence allows us to serve that large population of people.”
Goodwin said the college is waiting to secure the money before it begins making concrete plans, but that officials are considering renovating the current office space or tearing it down and replacing it with a new building.
“A lot has to do with figuring out the programmatic needs and how to fit a building with the smallest carbon footprint possible,” he said.
Longtime tenants of the run-down site say rejuvenation is long overdue.
“We’ve watched the structure fall into serious disrepair,” Kozower said. “It’s sad and we’ve been pushing UMass to take notice in this space again, especially as agricultural interest has increased in the past decade.”
Kozower said she hoped UMass would consider the tenants’ need for more storage and packing space when revitalizing the site, but said she was a little worried about the university pricing out the small nonprofits if rent were to rise with building costs.
“There are a core group of tenants that have done so much to help make this place what it is,” she said. “I do feel like I have a strong verbal commitment from UMass that they won’t raise our rent, so I feel good about that. But if it’s voted through, I think it’s important that tenants remain involved.”
Still, Kozower said the benefits of a renewed agricultural headquarters in Waltham were undeniable.
“A UMass presence here will affect our home and community gardeners, as well as farmers in the area,” she said. “A lot of farms will benefit from seeing this center revived.”
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.