Somerville Urban Farm Grows Food and Skills

By LUCY NUNN/ecoRI News contributor

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — At first glance, the city’s industrial Boynton Yards neighborhood seems an unlikely home for hungry butterflies and bees and healthy garden produce. You’ll find them all thriving, though, at South Street Farm — the city’s first urban farm— now in its bountiful second summer.

When it opened in April of last year, Mayor Joe Curtatone called the farm “one of many to come.” “We want to encourage people to grow everywhere,” he said. “I think this is great.”

Last October, the city also passed landmark legislation making it easier for residents to keep bees and chickens and sell eggs and fresh, uncut and unprocessed fruit and vegetables grown on the premises — whether their yard, rooftop or community garden – to their neighbors.

South Street Farm is on land the city began leasing to Groundwork Somerville, a community-based organization promoting sustainable development and youth employment and education.

Of course, it’s not Somerville’s first farm. Agricultural activity, from livestock to backyard gardens, abounded before industry began driving the local economy, according to a Tufts University report entitled “From Factories to Fresh Food: Planning for Urban Agriculture in Somerville.”

South Street Farm is unique, though, as it is Somerville’s first plot created for an urban farm, leased by the city and managed by Groundwork Somerville. The lot was, in fact, paved as a former Department of Public Works space. Green City Growers built and donated raised garden beds to place atop the concrete. Taza Chocolate gave cocoa husks to help fertilize the soil, and a building across the street offered its water supply to irrigate the beds.

Barn with a twist
Groundwork Somerville has garnered praise for its garden education programs, which are featured at Somerville’s eight public elementary and middle schools, one charter school and a public library. In recognition of its efforts, five Healy School students who work in the school’s garden were chosen to visit First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden twice this spring to help plant and harvest vegetables.

Like the White House Kitchen Garden, South Street Farm, too, is a “learning farm,” according to Lee Dwyer, Groundwork Somerville’s gardens coordinator. An elaborate wrought-iron gate, artfully welded by students from Somerville High School’s metal shop class, welcomes visitors to the corner lot.

Next to the gate stands a red barn, called the “Eco-Shed.” Visually, the barn playfully affirms urban farming’s viability. Functionally, it works, too. Students at Prospect Hill Academy, a local charter school, co-designed and built the Eco-Shed with the help of a local carpenter, Groundwork Somerville staff and other volunteers. The city has helped fund the farm as part of the mayor’s Urban Agriculture Initiative.

The students recently created a rainwater-harvesting roof and pump system, which empties water into barrels stored half of the barn; the barn’s other half serves as a classroom for workshops and other events.

“This is the smart, innovative thinking needed to tackle a complex issue,” Curtatone wrote in a recent press release. “Groundwork is taking stormwater that could disrupt our environment and instead turning it into something that nourishes our environment.”

Rainwater storage also will make irrigation more efficient, since the farm currently depends on the water piped in from the building across the street. An addition, for storage and display, will soon be added to the barn, and more food will also be grown up a chain-link fence on one of the barn’s walls.

Teens make a difference
Kristin DelViscio coordinates Groundwork Somerville’s Green Team, a group of local teenagers paid to work on environmental projects. Since last summer, they’ve been working hard to make the farm a success.

With DelViscio’s guidance, the teens have planned much of the garden bed layout. To maximize the all-organic production, they’ve paired “companion plants.” For example, basil repels insects from a neighboring tomato plant.

The group has planted a vivid mélange of crops — lettuce, collard greens, arugula, kale, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, garlic and onions. Beautiful and aromatic plants grow here, too, such as zinnias, sunflowers, edible nasturtiums and a wealth of herbs.

Green Team members weed and water the beds, and enrich the soil with compost they tend to in bins next to the garden beds. The young gardeners’ budding expertise extends beyond garden care, though. They’re also are honing their skills as community leaders.

Last fall, members of the Green Team spoke at both Tufts University’s Sustainability Conference and at the Massachusetts Land Conservation Conference. Laxmi Spearing, a senior at Somerville High School, is in her second year on the Green Team. “I was nervous,” she said of speaking at Tufts, “but once everyone went in my group, I felt more confident, and all the college students seemed encouraging. They were excited to hear what we had to say about environmental justice.”

The teenagers have also met with Representatives Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, and Denise Provost, D-Somerville, and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, to advocate for more jobs for young people.

Llaquelin Miguel, Green Team member and a fellow senior at Somerville High, called herself shy, but she joined her peers in meeting the local politicians. “It was quite exciting, knowing that they actually care about us, and are trying to give us more opportunities,” she said.

This summer, on the Eco-Shed’s back wall, the Green Team will design and paint a mural that illustrates the story of food access in Somerville and Groundwork’s role in providing fresh produce to local residents at affordable prices. The mural will give the urban farm a visual identity, and Groundwork hopes, helps build community there.

Local farm to local table
Who gets to enjoy the farm’s delicious produce? Primarily, customers at the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market, now in its third year.

Each week, Groundwork Somerville teams up with Shape Up Somerville, a city-wide campaign to encourage fitness and healthy eating, and Enterprise Farms, a Whatley-based certified-organic community-supported agricultural (CSA) farm. With these two organizations, it sells the harvest at the Somerville Council on Aging, Mystic Housing and North Street Housing. Housing development residents and anyone receiving food assistance can buy the food at half price. The market accepts cash as well as payments made through food stamps, government-funded Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards and the Special Supplemental Assistance for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program.

A brightly painted truck featuring two painted-on chalkboards announces the week’s treasures from both South Street and Enterprise farms. On the list recently: three types of kale, four types of lettuce, collard greens, Swiss chard, fennel, spring onions, bok choi, snap peas, spinach and beets.

The Somerville Mobile Farmers Market seeks to serve a clientele without easy access to a conventional grocery store and healthy foods. In the several years, two grocery stores in Somerville, Star Market and Johnnie’s Foodmaster, have closed. Their closings have left many residents with convenience stores as their only nearby options for buying food— and it’s not always fresh or affordable.

“In the East Somerville area, where the Star Market used to be on Broadway, there still is very much a need for groceries,” Dwyer said. “It closed a while ago, and talks to put anything in that area have stalled out for various reasons. ... With the mobile market, one benefit of that market is it’s so close. If you live in the Mystic (Housing Development), you can just walk out your front door and go down to buy your fresh fruits and veggies. That’s something we really value, being able to bring that produce to the people who might need it the most.”

Already, the initiative appears to be helping children. Just this week, Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition published a report in the journal Preventive Medicine, affirming the Shape Up Somerville campaign’s effectiveness in reducing childhood obesity. Groundwork Somerville has played an important role in the campaign, with its mobile market and educational gardening programs, including South Street Farm.

Similarly, at the Somerville Council on Aging (SCA), seniors may not have access to a car or easy bus route. Many, however, have loved picking up fresh veggies before attending an event in the building with friends.

Dwyer worked at the SCA location last summer and recalled with a smile, “Bingo was always when we sold the most vegetables. About 15 minutes before bingo started, we would get a rush of people.” Dwyer remembered one gentleman, Guy Amara, famous locally as “The Tomato Guy,” was delighted to recognize the tomatoes sold as the ones he had helped seed and grow at the Somerville Community Growing Center, which partners with Groundwork Somerville.

Another key component to the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market’s success is that its partners have taken care to grow and sell foods that reflect their clientele’s cultural diversity. For example, the market sometimes sells beets’ bright roots — widely popular on their own — separately from beet greens, commonly used in Haitian cooking.

In addition to fruits and vegetables, Groundwork Somerville sells another treat: maple syrup that local residents and Green Team members tap from city trees every winter and boil down in March.

Green Team members also often help sell the produce at the mobile market. Spearing finds it “exciting” to sell the food she and her peers have grown, saying that neighbors are surprised to see young people gardening.

Groundwork Somerville donates any leftover produce to local food pantries and shelters.

Room to grow
South Street Farm is 4,000 square feet. However, Groundwork Somerville and its partners plan to quadruple the farm by expanding to city-owned lots next door.

Most recently, these lots have stored snow plowed off streets in the winter. To get this land farm-ready, this past Earth Day, volunteers helped clean the lots of debris and about 10 bags’ worth of garbage dumped there. With the Green Team and the help of volunteers, DelViscio hopes to begin planting later this year.

DelViscio thinks of South Street Farm as “an example of how to live sustainably in such a populated environment.” With the Eco-Shed, she said, it’s “bringing us back to the days when everybody knew how to farm.”  

In New England’s densest city, that’s a fresh idea.