By Samantha Mellman
The increasing demand for accessible, fresh, and affordable foods in a city such as Boston is not a new trend. However, with the progression of urban agriculture in recent years, people are steadily changing the food landscape from within the neighborhoods.
Last month, at the 4th Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference, dozens of businesses and nonprofit organizations came together to learn and share everything from planting the seeds of their companies, to sharing the fruits of their labor. Gathering in the Fenway at Northeaster University, the Urban Farming Institute (UFI) and City Growers in partnership with the state Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) arranged for one day of workshops, engaging panels, and networking opportunities for hundreds of state area farmers, home gardeners, and the general public.
As one of 23 vendors that lined Northeastern’s Curry Student Center, Rachele Rosi-Kessel was standing behind a table representing the, Boston Food Forest Coalition (BFFC). Kessel, an executive committee member of the Mattapan-based nonprofit, greeted information seekers with a welcoming smile wearing her green-framed glasses and matching green BFFC t-shirt.
The coalition began designing edible public food parks in 2014 on a 1-acre plot leased from the Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center. Prior to the coalition, Kessel was a gardener and volunteer at the Roslindale Food Pantry. When she helped found the BFFC, Kessel found a greater calling for both of her interests.
“It’s even more rewarding for me to be working in the soil and knowing that everything I’m growing is free for anyone who wants it,” said Kessel.
The increasing expansion and number of urban farms in the past three years would not have been possible without an open collaboration between farmers and MDAR. In 2013, the state passed Article 89 directed toward allowing urbanites more freedom to farm within the city, while abiding by workable zoning and permitting rules.
“It was a no brainer for us, because we want to promote our citizens to eat healthier and create pathways for fresh food to enter our communities,” said Rose Arruda, the urban agriculture coordinator for the MDAR.
The regulation not only defines zoning laws for food production, but also regulates how to keep animals such as: poultry, cows, and an important buzzing yellow pollinator also known as the honeybee.
Across from the BFFC table, two college interns from The Best Bees Company were giving samples of the sweetest local honey one may taste in Boston. The South End-based beekeeping service incidentally helps urban farmers pollinate thousands of pounds of produce each year.
“Honeybees fly for miles away from their hive, so it doesn’t matter if a beehive is privately owned or publicly shared,” said Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich, founder of The Best Bees Company. “Any bees in Boston benefit the whole.”
Urban agriculture is similar to an ecosystem, because it relies on the health of the environment and the involvement of people to work.
“Many, many seeds require pollination in order to be created; pollination creates food. Bees need flowering plants, and these crops need bees in return,” said Dr. Wilson-Rich. “Anyone who eats food needs bees.”
Advocacy for urban agriculture is also an integral part of this movement. The UFI is at the forefront for providing farmers with practical and business training as well as youth programs for children and students. Their overall mission is building a network for communities to unite around urban agriculture.
“Starting with the kids, they’ll know that a potato does not come from McDonald’s in the form of a French fry, and that carrots do not come from cans or the frozen section,” said Pat Spence, executive director of UFI.
Spence believes that education is a key part to helping her community members lead healthier lives. She has directly seen the lifestyle changes people have made while participating in UFI’s programming. Whether it was watching one man lose a significant amount of weight though his eating habits or seeing the unemployed earn ‘green collar’ jobs.
With the support of the state, and the demand from the community, urban farmers have begun to taste success. However they will still face regular challenges of maintaining that momentum.
“The overall challenge of urban agriculture is that it’s riding a wave of being new and cool,” said Spence. “That doesn’t mean the funding has caught up with it.”
With the UFI hosting yearly events and programming, the organizers want to help enthusiastic farmers and participants build a model to be financially stable and productive.
“I really think all farmers are champions,” said Arruda. “I love the fact that there is more of an appreciation, but now we just need to make sure that we support our farmers.”