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.”Continued...