Urban farming thrives as pandemic simmers

Farmers at work at the Clark/Fowler/Epstein Farm on Norfolk Street this summer. Robin Luddock/WBUR photo

Boston is home to the nation’s oldest continuously operated victory garden. The 500 small plots in the Fenway neighborhood date back to World War II, when citizens were encouraged to raise their own food to support the war effort. By 1944, 20 million victory gardens produced 40 percent of America’s fresh vegetables.

Today, Boston’s new urban farms carry on that tradition, providing not just food, but benefits for the environment and their communities.
Boston’s commercial urban farms are different from their industrial counterparts. America’s large industrial farms are largely mechanized and extremely efficient at feeding the nation, but that efficiency comes at a high cost in terms of climate change emissions. It’s estimated that most food travels an average 1,500 miles before arriving on your plate.

But in Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester, the distance from farm to fork can be as short as a few feet.

“Urban farming is at the heart of what you can do about climate change,” says Jane Hirschi. Twenty years ago, Hirschi founded CitySprouts, a nonprofit that provides hands-on, environmental science programs for public schools in Cambridge and Boston. Hirschi says she teaches students how to grow food in small urban spaces — and raise a little hell.

“Having a local food system in the city that you can walk to, that’s about the most radical thing you can do,” Hirschi says. “But it also makes it a radical place for everyone who can see it happening. It’s like spreading the idea of empowerment.”

Once a month Hirshi visits her longtime friend Patricia Spence, Executive Director of the Urban Farming Institute. They sit at a picnic table in the shade talking about all things urban-ag at the institute’s bucolic headquarters.

“It is an oasis — and that’s how we feel,” says Spence. “It truly is, right in Mattapan.”

Amid triple deckers and the traffic on Norfolk Street, the Urban Farming Institute sticks out like a green thumb.

The institute is built on a small corner of what used to be the 330-acre, 18th century Fowler Clark Epstein Farm, named after the three families that owned the estate over the years. The land was covered with weeds, and the barn and farmhouse were in disrepair, until the institute took over seven years ago.

To make the land safe for farming — free of lead contamination and oil from old underground tanks — the soil was removed 18 inches deep, covered with a rain-permeable material and filled in with new dirt and compost. The soil is tested twice a year.

Today, the one-acre farm is lined with perfectly manicured rows. Spence ticks off some of the 60 varieties of vegetables that are grown: kale and collard greens, various types of peppers, tomatoes, squash and zucchini. In between the rows of veggies are basil and marigold plants.

“That’s how we deal with the pests. They don’t like basil, they don’t like marigold,” Spence says, “and there are other plants we use to send the bugs on their way.”

The crops aren’t certified organic, but are raised following the strict rules spelled out in the 2013 Boston “Right to Farm” ordinance that permitted commercial farming in the city, and the start of the Urban Farming Institute.

Bumper Crops And A Rocky Road

Patricia Spence predicted a bumper crop this year. The institute’s seven employees even worked with volunteers to build a new field in the neighborhood to grow more food.

“The whole community came,” says Spence, smiling at the memory. “We had 16 raised beds. We built a farm in a day.”

But now the new field lays fallow. When the pandemic hit in the early spring, Boston-area restaurants closed. The institute, which had contracts to supply 10 restaurants with locally-grown produce, lost its commercial customers.

Then the institute’s main distribution operation — operating out of the parking lot of the Bowdoin Street Health Center — shut down when the lot became a drive-in COVID-19 testing station.

Now the institute sells and distributes food at local farmers markets — when they’re open — and from its Mattapan headquarters, where customers can buy just-harvested produce by the bagful.

“We came to get the fresh grown vegetables here today, corn and spinach, a lot of stuff. The COVID is crazy,” said a customer named Joanna as she left the farm. She said she planned to give the food to her homebound, elderly mother.

The institute caters to the different cultural tastes of the diverse communities it serves, growing kuza squash for Cape Verdean dishes, long green and yellow beans for Southeast Asian cuisine. Then there’s redroot pigweed, also known as Métis spinach, which has slightly bitter leaves that are a main ingredient in the Jamaican dish, callaloo. Percess Williamson, a shopper from Hyde Park, left the the farm with a big bag of it. “You know callaloo?” she asked. “I’ll probably cook it for breakfast tomorrow.”

Williamson recently joined the institute’s $25/week Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program — but even that cost is too much for many residents hit hard by the pandemic. Hunger is a growing problem in the state: One in five Massachusetts families with children are food insecure. That’s almost double the rate of a year ago.

“They’ve lost family members due to COVID, they’ve lost jobs,” says Spence. “What can we do as farmers? We’re going to give food away. If someone is in need of food, we’re going to help you. That’s the most important thing we can do at this time.”

When residents were locked down and had to quarantine at home, the Urban Farming Institute brought the farm to them, building grow boxes to help establish home gardens.

“We come and bring you beautiful soil, a smattering of seedlings,” Spence says. “Oftentimes people will buy additional seedlings and they’re growing their own food! You can grow a lot of food on porches.”

But providing people with fresh, healthy food is only part of the institute’s mission. It also conducts a 29-week course teaching participants to become farm entrepreneurs. Spence says it's for "those who are interested in learning the art of urban farming, who really want to get their hands in the dirt." She says the program has graduated approximately 170 people since 2013. But this year, because of precautionary social distancing, just three students participated, rather than the usual 20.

Graduates have gone on to start businesses growing flowers and medicinal plants — one operates a hops farm for a local brewery.

Bobby Walker graduated in the institute’ first farm-entrepreneur class.

“We were trying to start a farmers market in our neighborhood — we lived in Lower Roxbury at the time, and we couldn’t get any farmers to come,” Walker says. “So I became a farmer — literally that’s what happened.”

Today, Walker is Training Manager at the Urban Farming Institute.

“People change doing this work,” Walker says. “When you plant that little tiny seed and you let it grow and get that fruit off it — that’s the same with people.”

farming grp.jpgTraining manager Bobby Walker instructs a group of UFI trainees on harvesting collard greens. Robin Lubbock/WBUR photo

Urban farming is labor- and land-intensive, which makes it expensive. And it’s just one, small-scale solution to society’s many problems. But perhaps what urban farming really produces is people empowered to raise not just crops but a little hell.

“Urban farming is at the heart of what you can do about climate change,” says Jane Hirschi. Twenty years ago, Hirschi founded CitySprouts, a nonprofit that provides hands-on, environmental science programs for public schools in Cambridge and Boston. Hirschi says she teaches students how to grow food in small urban spaces — and raise a little hell.

“Having a local food system in the city that you can walk to, that’s about the most radical thing you can do,” Hirschi says. “But it also makes it a radical place for everyone who can see it happening. It’s like spreading the idea of empowerment.”

Once a month Hirshi visits her longtime friend Patricia Spence, Executive Director of the Urban Farming Institute. They sit at a picnic table in the shade talking about all things urban-ag at the institute’s bucolic headquarters.

“It is an oasis — and that’s how we feel,” says Spence. “It truly is, right in Mattapan.”

Amid triple deckers and the traffic on Norfolk Street, the Urban Farming Institute sticks out like a green thumb.

The institute is built on a small corner of what used to be the 330-acre, 18th century Fowler Clark Epstein Farm, named after the three families that owned the estate over the years. The land was covered with weeds, and the barn and farmhouse were in disrepair, until the institute took over seven years ago.

To make the land safe for farming — free of lead contamination and oil from old underground tanks — the soil was removed 18 inches deep, covered with a rain-permeable material and filled in with new dirt and compost. The soil is tested twice a year.

Today, the one-acre farm is lined with perfectly manicured rows. Spence ticks off some of the 60 varieties of vegetables that are grown: kale and collard greens, various types of peppers, tomatoes, squash and zucchini. In between the rows of veggies are basil and marigold plants.

“That’s how we deal with the pests. They don’t like basil, they don’t like marigold,” Spence says, “and there are other plants we use to send the bugs on their way.”

The crops aren’t certified organic, but are raised following the strict rules spelled out in the 2013 Boston “Right to Farm” ordinance that permitted commercial farming in the city, and the start of the Urban Farming Institute.

Bumper Crops And A Rocky Road

Patricia Spence predicted a bumper crop this year. The institute’s seven employees even worked with volunteers to build a new field in the neighborhood to grow more food.

“The whole community came,” says Spence, smiling at the memory. “We had 16 raised beds. We built a farm in a day.”

But now the new field lays fallow. When the pandemic hit in the early spring, Boston-area restaurants closed. The institute, which had contracts to supply 10 restaurants with locally-grown produce, lost its commercial customers.

Then the institute’s main distribution operation — operating out of the parking lot of the Bowdoin Street Health Center — shut down when the lot became a drive-in COVID-19 testing station.

Now the institute sells and distributes food at local farmers markets — when they’re open — and from its Mattapan headquarters, where customers can buy just-harvested produce by the bagful.

“We came to get the fresh grown vegetables here today, corn and spinach, a lot of stuff. The COVID is crazy,” said a customer named Joanna as she left the farm. She said she planned to give the food to her homebound, elderly mother.

The institute caters to the different cultural tastes of the diverse communities it serves, growing kuza squash for Cape Verdean dishes, long green and yellow beans for Southeast Asian cuisine. Then there’s redroot pigweed, also known as Métis spinach, which has slightly bitter leaves that are a main ingredient in the Jamaican dish, callaloo. Percess Williamson, a shopper from Hyde Park, left the the farm with a big bag of it. “You know callaloo?” she asked. “I’ll probably cook it for breakfast tomorrow.”

Williamson recently joined the institute’s $25/week Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program — but even that cost is too much for many residents hit hard by the pandemic. Hunger is a growing problem in the state: One in five Massachusetts families with children are food insecure. That’s almost double the rate of a year ago.

“They’ve lost family members due to COVID, they’ve lost jobs,” says Spence. “What can we do as farmers? We’re going to give food away. If someone is in need of food, we’re going to help you. That’s the most important thing we can do at this time.”

When residents were locked down and had to quarantine at home, the Urban Farming Institute brought the farm to them, building grow boxes to help establish home gardens.

“We come and bring you beautiful soil, a smattering of seedlings,” Spence says. “Oftentimes people will buy additional seedlings and they’re growing their own food! You can grow a lot of food on porches.”

But providing people with fresh, healthy food is only part of the institute’s mission. It also conducts a 29-week course teaching participants to become farm entrepreneurs. Spence says it›s for «those who are interested in learning the art of urban farming, who really want to get their hands in the dirt.» She says the program has graduated approximately 170 people since 2013. But this year, because of precautionary social distancing, just three students participated, rather than the usual 20.

Graduates have gone on to start businesses growing flowers and medicinal plants — one operates a hops farm for a local brewery.
Bobby Walker graduated in the institute’ first farm-entrepreneur class.

“We were trying to start a farmers market in our neighborhood — we lived in Lower Roxbury at the time, and we couldn’t get any farmers to come,” Walker says. “So I became a farmer — literally that’s what happened.”

Today, Walker is Training Manager at the Urban Farming Institute.

“People change doing this work,” Walker says. “When you plant that little tiny seed and you let it grow and get that fruit off it — that’s the same with people.”

WBUR 90.9FM published this story on Aug.7. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.