The sprouting of the urban agriculture movement

On a cloudless mid-November day in one of 500 plots in the Fenway Victory Gardens, Mark Slater maneuvered through his Texan curry plant, perfect-for-mojitos mint, horseradish, chive and tomatoes. Slater has been gardening in the park for four years, roughly every other week from March through November.

(clockwise from top): Horseradish, mint and curry from Mark Slater's plot in the Fenway Victory Gardens

(clockwise from top): Horseradish, mint and curry from Mark Slater’s plot in the Fenway Victory Gardens

“I think it’s important, no matter where you live today,” said Slater, a freelance illustrator, “to not disassociate yourself from the earth.” The Fenway Victory Gardens, set up during World War II, afford many this opportunity, at a plot rent of $30 per year.

While community gardening of this nature is nothing new, recent years have shown a burgeoning interest in urban agriculture. Non-profits are teaching gardening methods to inner-city youth, governments are passing related ordinances, and “locavores” are on the rise. While the movement has its zealous supporters, others question its practicality and supposed merits.

Slater represents many who garden for fun, perhaps bringing the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor home for dinner, but others want to do it for profit. Yet public policy is not on par with them.

“As it stands, many urban agriculture activities are forbidden use in the Boston zoning code because they are not overtly listed in the land use table,” said Marie Mercurio, senior planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). “If the use is not in the land use table, then it’s implicitly forbidden.”

The land use table is broken down into residential, commercial, industrial and exempt, and urban agriculture does not fit into any of the subcategories in this breakdown.

Currently, if someone wants to make a profit on farming in Boston, he cannot simply apply for a permit, but must go through a six-month waiting process. This stems from concern about health and safety risks.

Mercurio believes residents may be worried about bees for stinging, hens for noise, sanitation, traffic and the unsightly appearance of hoop houses.

“There’s contamination issues with the soil,” added Hal Kreher of Kreher’s Farm Fresh Eggs in New York, which owns about 1.3 million chickens, “because a lot of the urban areas have had… some kind of industry there.”

The wastes were not treated properly and there were no environmental regulations until the 1950s, he said.

When there are heavy metals in the soil, the planting must be done on raised beds.

This is one issue that may be addressed in the citywide initiative that Mercurio and Tad Read, the other senior planner for the BRA, have drafted. Its goal is to make urban agriculture easier to commercialize while monitoring the food’s standards.

The initiative would cut the process to 10-14 days but also regulate composting, the keeping of chickens and bees, rooftop gardens, greenhouses and other uses.

“Until the article gets adopted,” Mercurio said, “we’re very behind the times in Boston.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about 15 percent of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas, but figures are lower for the U.S.

Mercurio and Read hope to present the proposal to the Mayor’s Urban Agriculture Working Group this month. The group comprises 25 members, including farmers, consultants, health advocates and scientists.

Another effort toward the commercialization of local food is the Boston Public Market Association’s efforts to open a year-round public market. The future location is 136 Blackstone St., and the association anticipates an opening in June 2014, according to it website.

The Boston Public Market is anticipated to open in June 2014 at 136 Blackstone St., by Haymarket Station

The Boston Public Market is anticipated to open in June 2014 at 136 Blackstone St., by Haymarket Station

Other groups, such as The Food Project, engage youth in urban agriculture.

The non-profit was founded 20 years ago, executive director Selvin Chambers said, for young people “to know and learn about each other but also to learn about sustainable agriculture and also the impact it has on the communities and the body itself.”

Students aged 14-17 become involved with The Food Project in its paid Summer Youth Program. Crews of 10 youths work with a crew leader cultivating farmland. In Boston, the sites include the West Cottage Street Farm, a small farm at Lincoln Street and the Dudley Greenhouse.

Afterward, they may participate in the Academic Year Program or the Internship Program. These have more specialized areas of focus and allow the students to run workshops.

The opportunity teaches not only urban farming practices, but also social justice issues and leadership development, Chambers said.

Some of the food is sold at farmers markets and local restaurants, while 40 percent goes to hunger relief organizations, such as the Pine Street Inn and Rosie’s Place.

The Food Project also sponsors workshops and programs, such as Build-a-Garden, which helps residents grow food, and Farm to Family, which offers reduced-price produce to low-income families.

Chambers said the heart of the organization is the intersection of youth, food and community, which he called the “triangle of hope.”

“I think the most important element of urban agriculture is that it’s a very different source of food from what we’re normally used to,” said Peter Ladner, author of “The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities.” “But more than that it gives people the opportunity to connect with their food, and know the people that grew their food, and participate in the growing of it.”

Catherine Tumber, author of “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World,” said this “generalized interest in where our food comes from” is one of three reasons the urban agriculture movement has gained traction in recent years.

The second reason is Michael Pollan’s “groundbreaking” book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” published in 2006. It talks about sustainability, genetic modification and cruelty to animals, said Tumber, who is also a visiting scholar at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

The third reason, she said, is that we’re paying more attention to the structure of our cities. Rust Belt cities that formerly relied on manufacturing, such as Detroit and Cleveland, “were in a state of utter catastrophic fall.”

The land in Detroit is relatively inexpensive because there is no market for it, Tumber said, making agriculture a viable use.

Another appeal of urban farming is that “people are losing confidence in the food system,” Ladner said. They are “realizing how perilous it is and how fragile it is and how broken it is, and they’re starting to wonder what the heck will happen when it breaks down.”

This is particularly relevant in food deserts, areas with little access to supermarkets. This is not the case with Boston.

“In Illinois one day, everywhere I looked was cornfields and wind turbines, and I could not find fresh fruit to eat,” Tumber said. “I’d even be willing to go to McDonald’s.”

Supermarkets don’t want to open in certain places because there’s so much crime, Tumber said, and they don’t want to pay the insurance and run the risk of liability.

Some view urban agriculture as a solution, while others argue that it is too expensive for the inner-city poor, or that one cannot live off the “100-mile diet.”

“You’ve got a lot of the locavore trendy people, who just hate big farming, who are using this, who are using the misery of people in big cities,” said Richard Longworth, journalist and author of “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.” “I am offended by that… because I know a lot of people who are hungry who are not interested in local farms.”

He believes that it’s fine for people to seek out local sources for their own food, but using the urban agriculture movement for political ends is selfish. In addition, many experts agree that urban farming does not make for a profitable or effective business model.

“Realistically, it’s a hard model to break, the supermarket model, and I don’t think that’s what urban farmers are trying to do,” said Novella Carpenter, who wrote the memoir “Farm City” on her farming experience in Oakland, Calif. “It’s kind of too much work for us.”

“More and more people are coming to the conclusion that while urban agriculture can support a series of cottage industries,” Tumber said, “it’s less likely to become a major economic driver.”

Similarly, Longworth does not see it as anything other than niche farming, and Carpenter believes the only practical business model is growing a specialty cash crop.

“I think the future of urban agriculture probably lies more with small businesses and restoring community engagement and pride,” Tumber said.

While experts disagree on urban agriculture’s ties with health, the environment and business, the general consensus is that it is a positive driving force for community building.

This is the case for Finn Hewitt, a third-year biology grad student at Boston University who is applying for a plot in the Fenway Victory Gardens.

“I think the most important thing about these gardens is the sense of community,” he said, “and it really invests people in where they live.”


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