Growing Support for Urban Agriculture in Massachusetts
On a toasty morning in late October, I sat in the hustle-and-bustle of early morning traffic with the Boston skyline on the horizon. My destination was Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in Mattapan – the first of a few stops on the Boston Urban Agriculture Tour – and I was giddy.
I have admired the work of the indispensable Urban Farming Institute as well as that of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Boston Farms Community Land Trust, and The Food Project. The tour featured some of the most productive agricultural spaces in the state. These small-scale, highly efficient, vital assets have been providing their communities access to high quality, affordable, and accessible food by any means necessary and continue to do so despite a myriad of challenges that are a constant in urban agriculture.
As a partner employee with American Farmland Trust (AFT) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), site visits are common. It is necessary for planners like me to venture onto farms and meet with agricultural producers to provide technical and financial conservation assistance. Still, I have found that my commute normally takes me in other directions; scenery is more likely to take the shape of wide-open spaces and long stretches of highway. To focus solely on this latter perspective, however, would be an inaccurate depiction of what holistic food access and production look like in Massachusetts.
In addition to the host of difficulties present across the agricultural spectrum (resource concerns including soil health, irrigation management, plant productivity, and the lot), urban producers often face unique issues in their work. The navigation of zoning and municipal complexities, issues associated with taxation and land tenure, challenges surrounding scale and the existence of (or often lack thereof) programs that fit their shape, and the highly relevant consideration of Environmental Justice barricades at nearly every turn can paint an overwhelming picture of life on an urban farm. But these farmers are still there, they’re still doing it.
A chartered tour bus roved the streets of Mattapan and Dorchester as we headed from farm to farm. The variable stakeholder interest was so high that the tour had to be capped to safely account for COVID-19 considerations and general bandwidth. I for one found myself cramped in the backseat of our NRCS Jeep with a few American Farmland Trust employees in tow. There’s something satisfying about being wedged between a surveying tripod and a soil auger while darting through residential roads and trying to avoid the street sweeper. It is a constant reminder that food production is a diverse business that demands diverse alternatives.
So, I sat there and watched as some truly incredible people shared their time and discussed their needs with us to ensure a climate resilient, financially tenable, urban agriculture-friendly future. For me, these conversations reinforce a need to further support the energies of these producers. Recently, and along that line, American Farmland Trust and NRCS joined forces to further support Urban Agriculture in the State. This Boston urban agriculture opportunity will, in part, enable me to spend a bit more time working to assist urban and peri-urban producers. It is probably not possible to overstate the importance of “support” in the phrase “support role.” I come with detailed experience across a range of agriculture including urban production. I also have access to some of the most seasoned agronomic minds in the State. Still, farmers know their farms best. When it comes to urban agriculture, this is especially relevant given the lack of context that exists to best assist producers in this space.
From a conservation standpoint, urban agricultural sites are uniquely equipped to be natural oases. These spaces don’t just nourish community health, culture, and economy (which, alone, would be sufficient). They also harbor sound farming practices; providing pollinator safehouses, clean air emissions, rain catchment and filtration – and the list goes on and on. Bearing this in mind, it is crucial to direct resources to these entities to support such essential work and environmental services. I consider this especially important as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) producers, who are highly represented in this space of production, have long been denied the opportunity to succeed through discrimination and racism (see AFT Statement).
The need to better support urban agriculture was abundantly clear on the day I sat on the Urban Farming Institute’s premises, exchanging ideas with other attendees for future partnerships and action, munching on a delightful lunch from Fresh Food Generation, and staring at an eight foot tall stand of okra which swayed gently next to the sidewalk in the distance. Farmers, members of government, nonprofits, community members, and the like dined together while discoursing on how their work overlapped and how relationships could continue after the day. What better way to gather than over food? After all, the land that sustains us comes in many forms. Here it was, is, and remains to be a network of small plots of land with high tunnels, raised beds, and some fiercely committed people who work tirelessly to ensure community access to fresh food.
With all this in mind, it is with tremendous excitement that I begin to transition into a new role, playing the part of “Urban Agriculture Specialist.” The need to spend more time and resources in these spaces is highly evident, and the opportunities to build success are abundant. In this new year, the position will especially work to earn trust in urban agricultural settings, nurture partnerships to maximize success, and provide support and increased direct assistance to urban farmers.
As I write this, it is about sixty degrees colder than that warm October day. Nevertheless, I have just been out to a farm where food production continues to flourish in greenhouses and high tunnels. Many crop rows lay dormant under vegetative cover and fresh snow, but this means the work has simply shifted, not ceased. I am deeply grateful to these farmers for their phenomenal efforts, and I’m excited to at the chance to pitch in to work worth doing.