Boynton Yards is a largely industrial neighborhood tucked away between the Fitchburg Railroad tracks and the Somerville/Cambridge border in Somerville, Massachusetts — a city of 80,000 people crammed into four square miles of space. According to a history by Union Square Neighbors, a local neighborhood association:
“Much of the neighborhood was originally part of the Miller’s River, a winding tidal stream that once extended inland to Union Square. The Miller’s River was used as an open water sewer and dumping ground for local industry. In 1874, Somerville decided to fill in the polluted river by removing the top of nearby Prospect Hill to use as filler. Over time, residential streets were laid to the east of Prospect Street and near the border with Cambridge. The central part of the area, however, was occupied by railroad sidings and surrounded by industrial buildings, including several meatpacking facilities. Consistent with the growth of the automobile industry in the 20th century, many businesses opened to serve auto-related uses including repair shops and parts dealers, some of which continue to operate today.
In the early 1980s, the City approved an urban revitalization plan for Boynton Yards resulting in the demolition of buildings, remediation of industrial wastes, construction of three light-industry buildings, and construction of South Street to support truck traffic…In 2012, Somerville passed a new revitalization plan that included an updated vision for Boynton Yards as a transit-oriented mixed-use district. Today, Boynton Yards is a neighborhood on the cusp of transition, due in part to its strategic location near the future Union Square Green Line MBTA station.”
But the MBTA’s Green Line subway extension is a huge project, mired in so many political and financial issues that construction could be a generation away. Meanwhile, the neighborhood endures.
Enter Groundwork USA, a group focusing on post-industrial cities with ‘brownfield’ problems like Somerville. It was founded by the National Park Service and the Brownfields Program of the EPA and sets up local nonprofit associations to work with youth to promote urban cleanups and urban agriculture. For the first five years the local group usually gets funding from the National Park Service, and then is weaned and supports itself with what it can raise in donations and grants from public and private bodies.
I met with Clay Larsen and Chris Mancini, respectively project manager and executive director of Groundwork Somerville, who showed me around the ‘farm’ they have created out of two trash-filled lots awaiting their fate in the Boynton Yards neighborhood.
“These are owned by the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA),” they tell me. “The SRA has a big vision for this area, as a part of the metropolitan Boston transit plan, but there are so many factors affecting that plan that it could take a while before anything really happens. It could be another 30 years!
“We knew the land would change someday,” they continue, “but when we took it over we wanted to make a statement and make a farm part of the community, so it becomes another political fact. And now it is. Whatever version of the planned street grid you look at, there is a farm here somewhere!”
The lots are small. One is about 4000 square feet, and the larger is only a quarter of an acre.
“When I came on as Executive Director,” says Chris, “we went to the mayor with the idea of using these lots for farms. They were wide open and full of trash. We said no one is going to be using them for years. Eventually the Green Line is going to come in here, but that is many years away. Right now the SRA owns the land and has the authority to grant us permission to use it.”
The SRA was enthusiastic about the Groundwork vision and encouraged them to use the sites for now. A license agreement was signed giving the group use of the land “as is” for no fee on a month to month basis. In return, Groundwork Somerville agreed to use the land for an urban farm, bring no oil or hazardous materials onto it, assume all expenses in connection with the property, keep it in good order, and indemnify and hold the city harmless against all losses and name it as an insured in a one million dollar liability policy.
“They don’t give us any instructions about how to use it,” says Clay. “They rely on us for that kind of advice and guidance. We sometimes have to go to a meeting and give them an update on what is happening. When we wanted to put up the beehives we had to go and ask permission to do that. But they were excited to have us do it!”
As might be supposed, the lots were not initially very suitable for farming. Besides being filled with trash, there was no water available, they were not fenced off from the street, much of their surface was paved, and no sanitary amenities existed for farmers.
These were not, however, unusual conditions for the sort of sites Groundwork USA has seen before.
The first site approached was the smaller one. To deal with the lack of water the group initially approached neighboring businesses, which offered use of their own water at no cost. Hoses crossing the street, however, did not last long when driven over by trucks and heavy vehicles all day. So the farm commissioned a shed with a roof that would collect rainwater and channel it to plastic holding tanks. The city helped fund the materials, and a vocational school crew designed and constructed it. To bring the water back out of the tanks when needed for irrigation, a bicycle-powered pump was installed.
For the larger site, the city actually tied into a supply line and brought water to an on-site hydrant, where irrigation hoses are attached.
Fencing and gates were fabricated and installed by a combination of vocational school help and funds raised by Groundwork Somerville. The paved soil was a little more of a problem.
“We are limited to sort of container farming here,” says Larsen, “and are realistic about that. I wonder about earthworms and critters in the soil. That is what we need more of. But we don’t want to take jackhammers to the pavement. That might open us up to toxic soil issues. So we grow in raised beds.
“This is all fresh soil brought in,” he continues, pointing to the beds, “and put on top of 6 inches of gravel. We are using it up fast, however, and are thinking of making the soil deeper. The beds drain water through the gravel well, and it runs on top of the pavement to a catch basin over there in the low spot, which becomes a big mud hole. I’m interested in storm water management and hope we can capture more of that.”
The group has thought about reclaiming the native soil on the farm, but a lot of work would be involved to remediate it, and it would be expensive. They have not tested the soil and don’t know exactly what problems they would encounter, but don’t want to make such a commitment without a more permanent lease.
Some areas around the edge of the sites are unpaved, and there the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) planted Serviceberry trees — which the farm is trying to use as a part of Permaculture-style layered plantings.
For crew toilet stops, nearby businesses have again generously made their facilities available.
Groundwork Somerville was founded in 2000 and started with small planning projects and designing vegetable gardens at schools or empty lots. By 2010 every elementary school in the city had a garden and a seasonal curriculum. After school classes would maintain the gardens.
The next logical step was for them to have their own farm. Thus the successful approach to the city for land.
“Now we have a school year program,” says Chris, “that involves about 10 youth, and a summer program for 20 at the farm. We have three fulltime staff and two and a half Americorp interns. We start seeds in March in the office 10 minutes from the farm, and have a seedling operation in a school in a fourth floor stairwell with south-facing windows. No one goes there because it is so hot even in January! We put some plants in the ground in April, more in May, and by June we are going full tilt. We went from raising 300 pounds of food in 2014 to over a ton in 2015!
“We have a Green Team,” he continues, “of young people here who work on the farm. The kids make youth minimum wage for their work, which is $10 an hour. We get some jobs funding and various grants to help us out on that. Most of the produce we raise is directed to a mobile farmers market delivery van that buys the produce from us. The money goes back into the program.”
The Mobile Farmers Market was created by Groundwork Somerville in collaboration with other local food access groups. It sells in the city’s underserved neighborhoods, which might not otherwise have high-quality fresh fruit and vegetables. Marketing through the van is also a way for the farm to minimize pushback from private farmers who sell at the nearby thriving Union Square Market and might be upset at competition from “subsidized” farms.
Somerville has large Brazilian and Haitian populations. The farm raises certain vegetables that are popular with those communities, like Jamaican spinach, or Callaloo, and Jilo, a Brazilian eggplant. People were asking for those and saying they couldn’t get them anywhere, so the Green Team started growing them at the South Street Farm.
“Besides the farming work, there is a whole “soft skills” portion of the youth program,” explains Mancini. “We show them how to get basic skills such as showing up on time, writing a resume, etc. For a lot of these kids it is their first job. We also try to connect them to other opportunities for employment.
“Driving is difficult in Somerville,” he continues, “and parking is nearly impossible. So we have 15 bikes for the kids to ride to work. Some have never ridden a bike before. Next year the kids will be working with NOFA/Massachusetts researching soil issues. We will have three test plots to study compost-based soils, testing them for toxicity and nutrients, and start a program of cover cropping.”
Green Team kids are mostly 15 to 19 years old. Most do not have to live in Somerville, but a few of the slots do require residency. Some of the kids are college bound, and others are going to be in the trades.
“The program is targeted to vulnerable populations,” Chris says, “recent immigrants, people of color, etc. That is part of our selection criteria, based on our funding. We try to get the families involved as well, but we are working with teenagers and it is a paid job for them, so they tend to feel it is their thing. They are grown up now and don’t want anything to do with their parents. We try to do something with the families at the beginning and end of each season, like a celebration.”
Clay, whose background is landscape design, construction and contracting, works with the students on how to measure a site and do scale drawings or teaches about OSHA or how to prune a big tree limb. Youth who have done a year with the program might go on to working with a small landscaping company or a construction company, he says.
In 2012 the Somerville Board of Aldermen approved Massachusetts’ first urban agriculture ordinance, codifying the municipality’s health and zoning ordinances, subtracting the legalese, and putting “The ABCs of Urban Agriculture” onto their website as a downloadable pdf. Modern Farmer magazine has gone so far as to call Somerville one of the five most urban-livestock-friendly areas in the nation, offering as it does permits to raise chickens or keep bees.
“The powers that be really want us to be here,” agrees Mancini. “The mayor is a huge supporter of this farm. He wants to innovate, be the first to do this kind of stuff. A lot of city hall staff are very forward looking and really into this. You don’t get naysayers there. The head of the parks department is very enthusiastic about what we are doing.
“Somerville is all about community development,” he continues. “We get some grants from the city, through the Community Preservation Act or other funding. We have to do our part but it is not like we are fighting for this land. Somerville has among the lowest rate of open space of any city in the country. We want to add at least 100 acres of open space here. The city is looking for any little postage stamp lot to use, and creative ways to use it.”