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Worcester sees economic and health benefits in urban farming

BY Sam Bonacci

10/27/2014
PHOTO/MATT VOLPINI
PHOTO/MATT VOLPINI
Teenagers harvest crops at a community garden on Worcester's Oread Street. It's run by the Regional Environmental Council.

A team in Stoughton cultivates saltwater shrimp in nearly 4,000 hundred-gallon tanks, each of which holds 3,300 shrimp. Meanwhile, produce that will appear at local farmers' markets sprouts and flourishes inside a 40-foot-long freight container in Boston.

These urban farming operations and others like them tap into a growing demand for locally grown food. Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty wants to capitalize on that by opening the city to commercial farming he says will expand the economy while enhancing the quality of food available to all residents.

“Other cities are making a business out of this by buying local products and supporting local businesses,” Petty said. “The idea is if we can grow more fresh food here in the city, from a health standpoint and an economic standpoint and a job-creation standpoint, it is great.”

Eight months ago, the mayor pushed the idea of commercial urban farming to the City Council and has since created a working group to examine how other communities have tackled zoning changes for farming. Last year, for instance, Boston opened up produce farming through the city's permitting process.

Proponents of commercial farming in Worcester say it can open up urban areas to thriving economic options.

“We are at a moment where cities like Worcester are identifying that the agricultural sector is a serious part of the economy. It can have so many benefits, for the economy, for health and for the urban environment,” said Steve Fischer, executive director of the Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts (REC), a 43-year-old nonprofit that advocates health and sustainability, and also runs community gardens. “In past years, urban agriculture and community gardening and the like weren't necessarily considered a serious part of economic development thinking in urban areas.”

Worcester already has urban farms, which include 65 REC-run community gardens. Its Youth Grow Program is its first commercial farming effort, with 32 low-income youths handling everything from planting seeds to selling the final products at REC's farmers market.

“Urban farming is possible in Worcester,” Fischer said. “There is real demand and I think that if there (were) more production happening in the city it could be absorbed and there are real opportunities for jobs out of it.”

The city has seen growing demand for farm-fresh products. Worcester sustains three Saturday farmers markets during the summer and one throughout the winter. The REC runs farmers markets six days a week.

“Demand for locally sourced food is definitely outstripping supply at the moment,” Fischer said.

John and Emily Harvey, sixth- and seventh-generation farmers at Harvey's Farm and Garden Center in Westborough, have been farming at their location for 50 years. They started a community-supported agriculture initiative this year that saw high demand; 197 people were left on a waiting list for weekly deliveries of fresh produce to 30 families.

The Harveys have concerns over soil quality and food safety with urban farming. But if those can be addressed, they favor the idea of “turning a weedy lot into something productive” and getting more people involved in farming.

“Everyone should be able to learn how to grow food but also where their food comes from,” Emily Harvey said.

Restaurants are also getting in on the farm-fresh push, with Worcester's Armsby Abbey and Volturno among those leading the charge.

And Lettuce Be Local, based in Holden, delivers fresh produce directly from Central Massachusetts farms to area restaurants. The company has grown to serve 44 farms and 15 restaurants since it launched in 2011. There is demand from restaurants for high-quality ingredients, said Lynn Stromberg, who runs Lettuce Be Local with her husband, Lee.

A change to the 2014 federal farm bill opened up $5,000 youth loans for urban farming, said John Niedzielski, executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Service Agency (MFSA), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Through those loans, and $35,000 micro-loan programs, the agency is actively looking to fund urban farming, he said.

“When you are talking about urban agriculture, we see a lot of possibilities there,” Niedzielski said. “We live in a very dense part of the country, so there are markets for niche agricultural products right nearby.”

Commercial farming allows people to take what might start as personal gardens, yet can grow into larger operations that have economic impact, he said.

In 2012, Brad McNamara founded Freight Farms, which provides self-contained farms in shipping containers that can operate anywhere with access to power and water, no matter the weather. For instance, a freight farm in Minnesota grows basil during winters when temperatures dip to 20-below zero. Freight Farms has distributed 18 such farms to eight states and Canada.

“Worcester has a unique opportunity to utilize a number of different urban farming techniques,” said McNamara who grew up in the area and attended graduate school at Clark University. “There is already a network of people in Worcester. There are a number of different organizations that are connecting people, connecting businesses and connecting food players.”

A freight farm can transform a vacant lot or portion of an industrial building into a viable farming effort with no major investment by the landowner, McNamara said. There are no costly infrastructure changes; just set one down and plug it in, he said.

“The system allows people to activate spaces that would not have been suitable before,” he said.

Petty sees urban farming as an opportunity to build the city's health and its economy. Increasing the availability of fresh, healthy food is one of five principles of the Greater Worcester Community Health Improvement Plan, which was created by the city and 90 community partners with the goal of making Worcester the healthiest city in New England by 2020.

The plan stresses access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Building access to healthy food is especially important in so-called “food deserts,” where affordable and nutritional food is not readily available, Petty said.

“It's going back to eating healthier, knowing what you are eating and where it is coming,” the mayor said. “This is another piece of the puzzle and I would love to see the city grow this with fresh fruits and vegetables available and have businesses expand from this.” n