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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Urban Farming During COVID

Air Date: Week of

Patricia Spence stands in Clark Farm, one of the earliest intact examples of agricultural property in an urban space in Massachusetts. (Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Gellerman, WBUR)

Boston, Massachusetts is home to the United States' oldest, continually-operated Victory Garden, made up of some 500 small plots dating back to World War Two. Today, urban farms throughout the city provide much needed nourishment for the city's residents, but the COVID-19 crisis changed the way these small farms operate. WBUR's Bruce Gellerman reports. 


CURWOOD: During World Wars One and Two the US government encouraged people to plant victory gardens to grow their own food as a way to support the war effort.
The nation’s oldest continually operating Victory Garden is in Boston and across the city modern urban farms carry on the tradition of growing hyper local food for residents.
The farms were growing in size and scale but had to adjust operations when the Covid19 pandemic hit. WBUR reporter Bruce Gellerman has the story.

GELLERMAN: America’s industrial farms are highly efficient at feeding the nation but that efficiency comes at a high cost in terms of climate emissions. It’s estimated most foods travel an average 1500 miles before arriving on your plate. But in some Boston neighborhoods the distance from farm to fork can be as close as a few feet. Urban farming is at the heart of what you can do about climate change. Jane Hirschi runs City Sprouts. It’s a hands-on environmental science program 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.

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

[Sfx ---farm/street sound]

Hirshi sits at a picnic table in the shade, with her long time friend Pat Spence, Executive Director of The Urban Farming Institute. Spence says they meet once a month to talk all things urban-ag at the Institute’s headquarters.
SPENCE: “It is an oasis and that’s how we feel,” laughs Spence ….yeah, it truly is, hahah right in Mattapan.

GELLERMAN: Amid traffic on Norfolk Street and triple decker houses, the Urban Farming Institute sticks out like a green thumb. It’s built on a small corner of what used to be a 330 acre 18th century estate.To make the land safe for farming-free of lead contamination and oil from old leaky,underground tanks,the soil was removed 18 inches deep, covered with a special 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 offering 60 varieties of vegetables:

SPENCE: Various types of kale and collard greens, various types of peppers, tomatoes,squash , zucchini……...fade under KEEP…

In between rows of veggies are marigold plants and basil…

SPENCE: That’s how we deal with the pests….hahaha...the bugs etc..they don’t like basil they don’t like marigold...and there are other plants we use to send the bugs on their way.

GELLERMAN: The crops aren’t certified organic but ARE raised following the strict rules spelled out in the 2013 Boston “Right to Farm’ zoning ordinance which permitted commercial farming in the city....and the start of the Urban Farming Institute.

Sfx road…

GELLERMAN: Pat Spence predicted a bumper crop this year…the institute even built a new field in the neighborhood.

SPENCE: The whole community came we had sixteen raise beds we built a farm in a day.

GELLERMAN: But now the new field lays fallow. When the pandemic hit…and restaurants closed, the Institute lost its commercial customers for it’s locally grown produce.
Then the main distribution operation, shut down when the parking lot was turned into a drive -in covid testing station.

[SFX Street/general field sound]

GELLERMAN: Now Urban Farming sells and distributes food at local farmers markets --when and if they’re open...and from the Institute’s headquarters where customers buy just harvested produce by the bagful.

CUSTOMER VOICE: Oh boy, we came to get the fresh grown vegetables here today, corn and spinach a lot of stuff. The covid is crazy.
GELLERMAN: Has it affected the way you buy food?

CUSTOMER VOICE: Oh yeah, oh yes.

GELLERMAN: The Farming Institute caters to the different cultural tastes of its diverse communities, growing kuza squash for Cape Verde dishes, long green and yellow beans for South East Asian cuisine. Then there’s red root pigweed also known as Metis Spinach. The bitter lemon tasting leaf- is a main ingredient in a Jamaican dish called Callaloo. Percess Williamson leaves the urban farm with a big bag of the greens.

GELLERMAN: Are you from Jamaica? 

Bobby Walker, among the rows of plants at the urban farming space. (Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Gellerman, WBUR)

WILLIAMSON: I am..Oh you know callaloo? ..yeah callallo and shellfish..I’ll probably cook it for breakfast tomorrow.

GELLERMAN: Williamson recently joined the Farming Institute’s $25 dollar a week Community Supported Agriculture program but even that is too much for many Boston residents hit hard by the pandemic. Hunger is a growing problem. One in 5 Massachusetts families with children are food insecure. That’s almost double the rate a year ago. And nationally some 54 million people may be food insecure this year.
Institute Executive Director Pat Spence:

SPENCE: So they’ve lost family members due to covid they’ve lost jobs ..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.

GELLERMAN: When residents were locked down Spence says, the Urban Farming Institute brought the farm to them.

SPENCE: So we developed for this year the Build On Hundred Grow Boxes Campaign and we built 20 already. and they’re growing their own food.

GELLERMAN: But providing people with fresh, healthy food is only part of the Farming Institute’s mission. It also conducts a twenty week course teaching participants to become farm entrepreneurs.

SPENCE: Those who are interested in learning the art of urban farming...who really want to get their hands in the dirt...and we’ve graduated approximately 170 people since 2013.

GELLERMAN:But this year- because of covid social distancing-just 3 rather than 20 students participated in the farmer entrepreneur program.
Graduates have gone on to start businesses growing flowers and medicinal plants - another operates a hops farm for a local brewery. Bob Walker  graduated in the Institute’s first farm- entrepreneur class. 

WALKER: We were trying to start a farmers market in our neighborhoood- we lived in Lower Roxbury at the time and we couldn’t get any farmers to come...so I became a farmer... literally that’s what happened.

GELLERMAN: Today Walker is Training Manager at the Urban Farming Institute.

WALKER: That’s what I say all the time we don’t just grow food we grow people. And people change doing this work. When you plant that little tiny seed and you let it grow and get that fruit off it...that’s the same with people..

WALKER: Urban farming is labor and land intensive…which makes it expensive...and 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.

CURWOOD: Reporter Bruce Gellerman’s story comes to us courtesy of WBUR.



Read more about the Fenway Victory Gardens


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