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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Pilot Urban Agricultural Zoning Program Serves as Model for Integration of Farming into City Life

May 10, 2012 |

Aside from a little referenced law dating back to the 19th century allowing public grazing for sheep and cattle on Boston Common, Boston zoning laws make no mention of agriculture. In absence of zoning permissions, most agricultural activities are in effect forbidden. “That’s not to say that the city is out there policing people with vegetable gardens,” says Tad Read, project manager of the Urban Agricultural Zoning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. He adds that without a legal support to lean on, farmers can be penalized if neighbors file nuisance complaints, such as odors from compost and manure application, or squawking of hens laying eggs each morning.

Mayor Thomas A. Menino aims to change that. Last fall he announced a pilot zoning project that would legalize farming on two plots of land that would serve as an experimental model for future integration of agricultural zoning laws across the city. For the pilot, the RDA created what is known as an overlay district. Essentially new zoning laws allowing additional uses were superimposed on top of existing multi-family, residential zoning, Read explains.

The announcement created quite a bit of buzz around pockets of the city. When city officials convened a kickoff and visioning meeting at the end of January, over 250 residents from Boston and neighboring towns converged on Suffolk University to brainstorm how to establish a meaningful agricultural community within the city. The standing room only event was a testament to the burgeoning interest within the city in finding new ways to bring agriculture back to Boston.

Concerns about Urban Ag

However, not all residents welcome urban agriculture. Read says that before selecting the two plots to be included in the pilot, the RDA and the mayor’s office proposed four different farming plots that would allow vegetable farming, beekeeping, and small animals, such as chickens or goats. After strong opposition from neighbors of the proposed sights, the proposal was scaled back to two properties and solely to include agricultural plants. “There was fear about cleanliness, odor, and disease,” Read says, “Some people expressed concerns that they had moved to the city to get away from agriculture and the idea of introducing agriculture back into their lives was actually a step backyard.”

Others worried about how safe it would be to grow food in urban soils, a very real concern in a city where lead remains in the soil from lead paint flecking off houses and vehicle emissions before lead was removed from gasoline. Read said that the city took care to make sure neighbors understood that the farms would be utilizing a raised bed method in combination with a geotextile barrier to separate native soil from new clean soil that is added above ground. Read says that some felt that the soil should be tested, adding that the city had decided not to test because if contaminants were found, remediation would be required by law. This decision raised eyebrows and concerns that the city was trying to hide something. “The truth is, that we don’t have a lot of money, we know that this method is safe and has been endorsed by the EPA,” says Read. In the end, the city brought in experts from the state to calm residents’ concerns.

Two Plots

The city selected two abandoned lots in Dorchester, an ethnically diverse neighborhood known as a food desert. Read explains that the city owns more vacant land in Dorchester than in any other city neighborhood and hoped to bring fresh food to an area of the city that suffers from disproportionate health problems related to obesity. The plots will be managed by two established organizations, ReVision Farm and City Growers.

ReVision Farm is a component of Victory Program’s ReVision Family Home in Dorchester, a shelter serving 22 young homeless women and their children. The shelter provides housing placement assistance, vocational training, and life skills development. Some of that vocational training occurs on ReVision’s existing farm. Residents can spend a month or two working on the farm in exchange for a child-care voucher, which frees up the women to spend time on resume righting and job skill programs offered at the shelter. “We consider the shelter resident job training program to be a catapult for someone staying at the shelter and doesn’t have any work experience,” says Jolie Olivetti a ReVision House farmer. The produce grown on ReVision Farm is divided up among the shelter, farm stands, and CSA that is supplied by several partner farms.

When the city proposed converting an abandoned lot across the street into a farm, Olivetti says she saw an opportunity to expand their model. From the initial proposal phase, she says she reached out to the neighbors, establishing relationships and making sure they knew about the program and how ReVision would be using the land. Once the city selected Olivetti’s proposal, she convened a community advisory board containing representatives from the community including the area dump and neighborhood groups to keep lines of communication between neighbors and the farm open. In their first meeting, Olivetti discussed the growing plan and how the site would be prepared for farming.

Preparing the plot will involve cutting down a few dying trees, leveling out the ground a bit, laying down the geotextile barrier, and bringing in 12-18 inches deep of compost soil mix. Once that work is complete 12,000 square feet of an overall 18,000 square feet will be used for growing space. A wide variety of crops will be grown including herbs, greens, peppers, and beans as well as less common foods for New England such as watercress, red leaf amaranth, okra, and other less common  “We try to make sure that some of our crops are relevant to the particular cuisine that a lot of our customers are used to.” Olivetti says that farmers at ReVision do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, though they have not sought organic certification. While the growing season has begun for many in the region, Olivetti says that she is in somewhat of a holding pattern as the city wades through the red tape of licensing the site, working out various details, such as will a shed be permitted. She says she expects to be able to start planting by mid-May.

The second parcel involved in the project is also in Dorchester and is being managed by City Growers, a local for-profit organization that seeks to convert abandoned properties within the city of Boston into environmentally and economically sustainable, intensive farms. This spring, City Growers farmers will be growing on four different plots in Dorchester and the neighboring Roxbury neighborhoods, although only one plot will be officially sanctioned under the city’s pilot program. Organic produce grown by City Growers is sold to neighborhood residents, local schools, area hospitals, local restaurants and other food retailers, according to the company website. Neither founders, Glynn Lloyd or Margaret Connors were available for comment.

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