Monday, October 28, 2013

New Perspectives: Urban Farming Education in Boston

Bostonians: if you think you can grow more collards than you can eat and haven’t read about Article 89, you’re missing out. Though community gardens and private food forests have dotted the city since before it became trendy, selling vegetables for profit has been illegal. This is set to change very soon. From February 2012 through May 2013, an Urban Agriculture Working group met to draft language for Article 89, which will rezone Boston to allow for urban agriculture. This article was released for public discussion this spring, and as of September, the working group has been drafting an “Intro to Article 89” and a “Road Map to Starting a Farm,” which will explain the forthcoming legislation in plain language. More information can be found about this at the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s website. In the meantime, here are a few tips for growing food in Boston.

Boston Basics 
While you can’t grow food to sell at farmers’ markets in your backyard, you can grow food to feed your family (or to trade with other folks with gardens, if you want to be crafty…) According to theUSDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, Boston falls in Zone 6. has an interactive feature where you can enter your zip code for your exact zone and relevant “planting calendar,” which shows you when to plant and harvest popular crops in Zone 6.

Another good thing to know about Boston is that the city tends towards soils with a sandy loam. Loamy or not, get your soil tested—the city can’t guarantee that there’s not vestiges of lead paint in the groundwater. Of course, adding organic matter such as compost to the soil will increase the amount of microorganisms in the soil, which will lead to happier plants. In addition to this information, I would check and see what water sources are available in your neighborhood.

Farmer Education 
If you don’t feel confident enough to attempt the trial-and-error method of starting a garden—or better yet, if you have some gardening knowledge and are looking to get more serious, there are a number of farmer education opportunities in Boston. Volunteering is a great way to hone your gardening skills, and this can be done by researching the community gardens in your area or contacting an organization such as City Growers, one of the city’s chosen pilot programs in urban agriculture. For those who would like a serious internship opportunity in the city, the Urban Farming Institute of Boston will take you through a 6-week classroom experience, followed by a season on ¼ acre plots of land. More flexible (and not necessarily Boston-based) opportunities can be found through WWOOF USA, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This is a service that can help connect you to organic farms looking for help all over the world that often trade room and board for help. I gained my interest farming through a brief WWOOFing stint in Europe, and would recommend highly recommend working with this organization.

Community Gardens
A community garden is best defined as a single piece of land gardened by many people within a community. These are often grown on unused land, such as a vacant lot. The Boston area has over 200 community gardens, and the Boston Natural Areas Network has created an interactive map to help potential gardeners find plots of land near their homes.

For-Profit Exceptions
If you don’t want to wait to start your business until Article 89 passes, you can always apply for an exception through the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department, Building Department (ISD) for a Use and Occupancy Permit, or look for land just outside of the city. More resources on starting a farm can be found at the UMass Center for Agriculture’s website. The organizations listed here will certainly be able to help you, but remember that a small farm is a business, so treat it like one. Also keep in mind that farming is a venture whose value is difficult to measure in dollars, so you’ll want to create your own parameters for success. Nevertheless, if growing food to feed yourself, your community, and your soil isn’t initially reward enough, you may want to reconsider your path. Farming may be a politically potent act that draws attention to issues such as exorbitant land prices (and subsequently, land insecurity) and the true value of real food, but things are still changing slowly. Boston’s Article 89 is a reflection of those changes, and is a surefire gateway to a greener Boston.

AuthorSean Lords spent three amazing years teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Since returning to the States, he’s advised others who are looking for the right tefl course in Boston, while raising a family and working on his Master of Education.

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