City Growers Brings Fresh, Sustainable Produce To Boston’s Low Income Neighborhoods and Beyond
December 22, 2011 | Danny Jensen
Boston may have long carried the nickname “Beantown”, but the urban agricultural trailblazers behind City Growers are moving beyond the bean to bring a diverse array of sustainable and locally grown produce to the city. As a for-profit enterprise, City Growers aims to transform neglected lots around the Boston area into thriving urban farms that provide immediate access to healthy food as well as economic vitality to low-income residents. In just a few short years since the City Growers launched, their small-scale agricultural model is already proving to be a successful effort with potential to expand throughout the Boston area. According to co-founder Glynn Lloyd:
“It’s important for us to start rethinking more localized production and more regional production where we know our farms, we know where our food comes from and it’s more sustainable. And from an environmental impact we’re less reliant on chemical inputs.”
Launched in 2009, City Growers was founded by Lloyd and Margaret Connors, two Bostonians already quite familiar with the nutritional and economic needs of the city. Lloyd is founder and Chief Executive Officer of City Fresh Foods, which provides affordably priced and culturally appropriate meals to schools, childcare centers and homebound elders around the Boston area. Started just over 15 years ago, the $5 million company now provides over 8,000 nutritious meals daily.
To help ensure that those meals were not only nutritious, but also locally and sustainably sourced, Lloyd co-founded City Growers with Connors, who works as a Wellness Coordinator for a local Boston Public school. Together they envisioned a local food system that would help to meet the nutritional needs of the city’s residents who face the challenges of poverty, unemployment and obesity. Both Lloyd and Connors have devoted their careers to combating poverty and improving the health and well-being of low-income residents through a diverse array of organizations and schools.
Standing in his kitchen a few years ago, Lloyd was suddenly startled by the cost, both economic and environmental, of romaine lettuce imported from California at $3 a head.
“Why am I buying this stuff when I know it’s a cold crop and we can probably grow it closer by?”And then his epiphany came later that week: “I was driving down Harold Street in Roxbury and noticed a total of one and half acres of vacant lots on just one street. And I said, ‘There has to be a way where we can intensively grow vegetables and make it economically sustainable.”
With City Growers, Lloyd and Connors set out to utilize the hundreds of acres of vacant lots around Boston to provide residents with food security as well as green-collar jobs. But in order to realize this vision, the team first had to find a place to put down roots.
Despite an abundance of underutilized land, addressing Boston’s zoning regulations presented a challenge. The two vacant lots initially considered for City Growers pilot plots were ultimately found to be unusable as neither was zoned for commercial agriculture. Fortunately, the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood, offered to lease City Growers an unused portion of its property for a minimal price. Using the Club’s quarter acre of land, as well as an additional two acres of privately owned land in the suburb of Milton, City Growers began planting a variety of crops in raised beds in the spring of 2011. The produce grown over the course of the season went to community service operations, including Haley House and Community Servings that help feed and employ those in need, as well as a variety of nearby restaurants that feature local and sustainable ingredients.
While many urban agricultural efforts begin with a socially driven mission, seeking to educate and nourish the community, City Growers has focused their sights on making the operation economically viable, first and foremost. Lloyd explains, “We are determined to make this economically sustainable as quickly as possible. And when you come out of the gate thinking like that and that’s how you make your decisions and build your team, you are clearly more effective at achieving it.” The social benefits of increased access to fresh and healthy produce, employment opportunities, and a greener, more environmentally sound cityscape, are all important consequences of urban farms. However, in order to sustain those positive repercussions, a strong economic foundation must be in place.
Scott Soares, commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), is all too familiar with the challenges of establishing an urban agriculture venture such as City Growers. He explains:
“Usually the obstacles we’ve seen are tied to agricultural and non-agricultural interests not always seeing eye to eye. Furthermore there are unique challenges including costs and space availability when working in typically dense urban communities. At this point I think it’s important that we continue to work at the local, state, and federal level to help facilitate those opportunities that seek to harmonize both.”
While City Growers has approached their venture from a for-profit standpoint, they have also found that working with a non-profit foundation helps to overcome some of these obstacles of securing land and other farming resources, such as soil, water and labor. To address these issues, City Growers has developed the Urban Farming Institute of Boston as a non-profit foundation that will focus on issues of land ownership, soil remediation, and job training. The Institute “will be able to raise funds as it’s own separate entity for the unfortunate, but necessary subsidies to get urban agriculture going,” Lloyd explains.
City Growers also successfully applied to MDAR’s Matching Enterprise Grants for Agriculture Program (MEGA) for 2012. Upon completion of a business plan, the organization will be eligible for a grant of up to $6,000 with a cash match of $6,000 for a total of $12,000. Based upon the program application the $12,000 will be spent on a fixed greenhouse. Additionally, City Growers would receive production-planning assistance if awarded the grant.
In the meantime, City Growers aims to focus on soil improvement, “intensive relay” farming techniques, which involve yielding at least three high-value crops from each bed per season, and eventually hoop houses to extend the growing season and boost production. They have also looked to other small-scale, year-round farmers in the region for inspiration and advice, including Eliot Coleman of the Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, and Greg Maslowe of the Newton Community Farm.
Beyond securing financial resources, land, and utilizing sustainable practices, an urban farming venture such as City Growers must be greeted as a welcome addition to the neighborhood. As long-time residents of the underserved communities where the initial City Growers projects have taken root, Lloyd and Connors have had the distinct advantage of being familiar with the needs of the area. Lloyd insists that a neighborly sensitivity is critical to a successful urban farm: “Our approach has always been working side-by-side with our neighbors. Education about the benefits of urban farming and the control of choice has to be in the hands of the residents. We’ll only work with neighborhoods that want to have us.”
Over the next five years, City Growers aims to have close to ten acres under cultivation, consisting of small quarter acre properties along with a four acre piece of land, now under pre-lease negotiation, which would act as a centerpiece for the other sites. The whole operation would offer more jobs and training to community members, provide direct wholesale to more restaurants, as well as offer a Community Supported Agriculture program.
In a few short years, City Growers has already taken great strides towards an economically viable and environmentally sustainable urban farming approach. And MDAR Commissioner Soares emphasizes the importance of their endeavor:
“Efforts to make local food more accessible to more of our residents in Massachusetts is critical to the success of a vibrant and sustainable agricultural future. The City of Boston and organizations like City Growers have been at the forefront in their support of access points to locally grown food.”