Francey Slater, a co-founder of Mill City Grows, an urban farming organization in Lowell, knows firsthand how urban agriculture changes a community. “When we started our first urban farm in downtown Lowell in 2013, people thought we were crazy,” she recalls. “The land, a small corner lot, was a mess – overgrown, filled with trash.” Scores of volunteers, including the lot’s owner, moved dirt and cleared out trash, weeds, and rocks to make this garden grow.
As Francey tells it, “As the garden began to take shape, it started to generate lots of attention. People would pull over in their cars to watch the transformation. Folks from the local homeless shelter came over to lend a hand and learn more. Neighbors stopped by to tell us stories of the gardens they used to grow. In short, the farm became a nucleus of a newly forming community.”
This tiny garden project now extends out over six acres of land – on city parks, abandoned tax-title properties, non-buildable land, as well as institutionally and privately owned parcels all over Lowell. The empty lot that became Mill City’s first site has since hosted dozens of workshops and field trips and produced over 30,000 pounds of fresh food, feeding many neighbors. Francey says, “The garden has become a source of beauty, hope, and nourishment for the many people who pass by, stop in, and get involved.”
Many cities across New England have embraced urban agriculture. However, urban farmers and gardeners still struggle to gain access to land in their own communities because of cost, competing land uses, or impenetrable legal systems. A bill under consideration in Massachusetts helps to address this issue of land access.
The Benefits of Urban Agriculture
Francey and the team at Mill City Grows are not alone in seeing a garden energize a neighborhood. Often led by and rooted in communities of color and immigrant and New American communities, urban gardens and farms bolster the well-being and resilience of our cities. Here’s a look at the many benefits they provide:
Nutrition: Urban agriculture offers increased access to healthy, locally grown, and culturally appropriate food sources. Having space to grow and share food is especially important in disinvested and underserved neighborhoods, where finding affordable fruits and vegetables can be challenging. Plus, growing and eating food locally reduces the distance food travels to our plates – which is good for our climate and our health, as food loses nutritional value in transport.
Health: While eating fresh food is beneficial in and of itself, the act of growing that food also boosts physical and mental health. Research shows that working with plants—and putting our hands in the dirt—provides outdoor physical activity, induces relaxation, and reduces stress, anxiety, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
Economy: Urban agriculture can provide a flexible source of income for gardeners and cut family food costs. Also, urban gardening and farming projects, like Mill City Grows, can often provide job training and jumpstart food entrepreneurship.
Community: Urban farming adds and preserves green space in cities, providing places for neighbors to come together, strengthen bonds, and build community cohesion. Urban agriculture connects people with the earth and the source of their food as well as with each other. What’s more, urban farms offer critical opportunities for youth leadership, intergenerational collaboration, and cross-cultural learning.
Environment: Urban agriculture improves environmental health and climate resilience in the face of increasing storms and heat. Cultivated land absorbs rainfall, preventing stormwater from overloading sewer systems and polluting waterways. Also, by increasing vegetation and tree cover, farms and gardens attract pollinators like bees and keep city neighborhoods cooler, minimizing the health impacts of heat island effect.
Urban Agriculture and the COVID-19 Pandemic
As community gathering places, urban farms also can play a vital role in crises like the one we face today in the coronavirus pandemic. Mill City Grows, for example, is mobilizing to address immediate food security needs for Lowell residents. They have offered emergency farm shares for families who need them and opened their community gardens April, with safety protocols in place. Mill City Grows is also doubling down on its efforts to produce and distribute culturally important foods that are not readily available in grocery stores, including sourcing hard-to-find seeds for gardeners to grow their own cultural crops.
Other urban agriculture programs also are playing a critical role in helping neighbors in this time of crisis. The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative has gathered guidance, protocols, and case studies for urban gardening and farming during the pandemic.
Expanding Urban Agriculture, Starting in Massachusetts
Ultimately, one of the biggest obstacles to expanding existing and aspiring urban farms and gardens across New England is the availability of land.
We need you to lend a hand to help urban agriculture flourish in New England. In Massachusetts, CLF is supporting a bill that addresses the challenge of land access through an optional tax incentive for landowners who make their land available for farming. Providing more access to land for farming in our cities will help accelerate the growth of urban agriculture and support low-income, people of color, immigrant, and New American farmers in search of land on which to grow.
Please, take a moment to find your legislator, then ask them to help build on the momentum for gardening and farming in our Massachusetts cities by passing “An Act Promoting Urban Agriculture and Horticulture.”
This blog was originally published in May of 2020. It has been updated to reference the current bill under consideration by the Massachusetts legislature.