Glynn Lloyd, CEO of Roxbury-based City Fresh Foods catering company, had an epiphany a couple of years back. “I was standing in the kitchen at City Fresh and realized that we were buying all this lettuce from California and paying a pretty good dollar for it,” he recalls. “Then I was driving up Harold Street [in Roxbury] and I just noticed vacant lot, vacant lot, vacant lot, vacant lot. I said, ‘We are going to get land and start growing food.’ ”
He was hardly the only one with that idea. Margaret Connors, a public-school wellness coordinator, was concerned that school meals had so little local food. She met Lloyd when City Fresh catered meals after her school’s kitchen broke down. They started talking, and together they hatched a for-profit, urban-farming company dedicated to providing farm-to-table produce, creating jobs, and bringing vacant neighborhood land back into productive use. They call it City Growers.
Now entering its fourth growing season, City Growers has partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural resources and the not-for-profit Urban Farming Institute of Boston to sponsor the first Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference at Roxbury Community College next Saturday. The conference will offer an update on city agriculture in the Bay State and lay out the opportunities and challenges of growing food in the city.
Urban farming is hardly a new concept. Farms persisted inside city limits around the country well into the 20th century. (The orchards of Roxbury were famous for developing the Roxbury Russet apple and introducing what became known as the Bartlett pear to the United States.) More recently, intensive growing on small plots — both in the ground and on rooftops — has flourished in municipalities as diverse as Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, and San Francisco.
Hard figures about how much commercial agriculture takes place in Boston are difficult to come by. Those involved locally say that this modern incarnation is in its infancy here, with most of the larger organized efforts involving nonprofit operations connected to hunger relief and social-service programs. But all agree that interest in self-sustaining micro-farms that grow for the market is gaining traction.
During the 2012 growing season, City Growers cultivated four small plots in Dorchester and Roxbury. “That really proved our model,” says Connors. The company employed two full-time growers and a part-time grower, and got assistance from about 100 volunteers. “We grew on about 20,000 square feet, which is half an acre,” she says. “We generated $32,600 of sales on that half acre. All we need to do is get more land and we can scale that up.” City Growers estimates its break-even point at about three intensely farmed acres.
Although Connors still envisions one day providing fresh food to Boston public schools, City Growers currently operates as a commercial wholesale grower. In 2012, the company sold to restaurants that ranged from Haley House and Stone Hearth Pizza to Lumière and Henrietta’s Table. Their fresh products also appeared in a few small grocery stores, including Foodie’s Urban Market in the South End, Savenor’s on Beacon Hill and in Cambridge, American Provisions in South Boston, Sherman Market in Somerville, and City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain.
As part of a commitment to small local food producers, David Warner, co-owner of City Feed and Supply, has been a customer of City Growers from the early days. “I’m a big believer in fewer degrees of separation in the food pipeline. The closer you can get to your food, the more you’re going to know about it and the more nutritious, potentially, it’s going to be for you,” Warner says. He also sees urban farming as an amenity for city living. “To walk down a city street and see a good-sized plot of land being actively cultivated,” he says, “adds a visual benefit. You’re seeing human activity that has an aesthetic and a beauty to it, and that enriches all our lives.”
Like Lloyd and Connors, Warner will be participating in discussion panels at the Urban Farming Conference, which is generating a lot of enthusiasm around the region.
“The time is ripe for urban agriculture,” says Greg Watson, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, another cosponsor of the conference. “The time is right to piggyback on the ‘buy local’ movement. I think people have made the real connection between locally grown fresh food, health, nutrition, and obesity prevention. If we can shorten the distance between where the food is grown and where it’s consumed, there will be multiple benefits.”
Last July, the Conservation Law Foundation published “Growing Green,” a report on benefits, barriers, and opportunities for urban agriculture in Boston. Working with a hypothetical farm base of 50 acres — about the size of Boston Common — the CLF estimated an annual net gain of more than 200 jobs and 1.5 million pounds of fresh food while preventing 4,758 tons of greenhouse gases.
No one is suggesting turning Boston Common into a farm, but there are a lot of smaller plots around. Estimates of the aggregate of small vacant plots vary widely, from 600 to a few thousand acres. Many are simply pieces of land that have lain unused for decades. “Those vacant lots are mostly in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan,” Connors points out. Not coincidentally, that is where City Growers is concentrating its efforts.
The potential is staggering. “Take 10 percent of that,” says Lloyd, “or even 5 percent. That would produce a checkerboard of small intensive farms where we can grow more of our food.” Linked into a single entity (such as City Growers) with coordinated market operations and pooled resources, several quarter-acre micro-farms could have a significant impact.
Urban farming fits into a broader vision by Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s office that would ensure access to healthy, local, nutritious food at fair prices for all Bostonians. Encouraging food trucks, pushing for the development of a public market, and even supplying vouchers for low-income residents to use at farmers’ markets have been part of that vision. Through the Mayor’s Office of Food Initiatives, the city hopes to foster a broad spectrum of agricultural activity that ranges from rooftop growing to aquaponds to service companies for a new agricultural sector.
The economic stakes are surprising. At a City Hall agri-economic powwow in November, Trish Karter (founder of Dancing Deer Baking Co. and now of LightEffect Farms, which proposes farming in rooftop greenhouses) estimated that the packaged salad greens market in Metro Boston is worth $100 million annually. A lot of growers would like a piece of that.
Most significantly for potential dirt farmers, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is taking an inventory of vacant land in the city to determine what might be suitable for agriculture. Part of the task involves determining the actual owners of the parcels — many are in city hands, and many others fall under the aegis of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation or even the MBTA. Still more are privately owned.
In a pilot project, the city created an urban agriculture overlay district on two city-owned plots in Dorchester. Through Victory Programs, women and children in a homeless shelter garden one plot to supply their kitchen. The other plot has been transformed into productive farmland by City Growers.
Plot-by-plot overlays are a cumbersome way to grant permits for urban farming. A year ago, the city began crafting changes in the zoning code to allow “a spectrum of urban agricultural activities” without variances. Final Draft Article 89 will be presented in neighborhood meetings across the spring and in public hearings before the Zoning Board in the summer.
It’s a process being followed closely by the Urban Farming Institute, the third co-sponsor of the Urban Farming Conference. Established last summer as a not-for-profit to support the development of urban farming in Boston, UFI has about 25 volunteers on its board of directors and working committees. Among them is the godfather of community development and neighborhood-centered urban land use, Mel King. Lloyd and Connors of City Growers were among the founders of UFI and remain actively involved.
Besides serving as an advocate for urban farms in policy discussions, UFI’s principal tasks are to incubate farms and incubate farmers. “For now we are looking to use city land,” says Dave Madan, a UFI founding board member and executive director of theMove, a Cambridge-based group that organizes educational farm volunteer workdays. He serves on UFI’s land-use committee. “In the future we will be looking at options to actually acquire land or look at long-term leases.”
More immediately, UFI has been recruiting about a dozen would-be urban farmers for a 28- to 30-week training program that begins with classroom sessions, followed by practical experience in the field. “The big vision,” says Lloyd, a UFI board member, “is that when they are done, each one gets a plot of land to grow on.”