Boston’s Future Tenant Farmers

The old tomato vines are black and oozing, the Halloween pumpkins have been ravaged by squash-crazed squirrels—last summer’s gardens are dead and gone, but Dorchester residents are already thinking about next year’s crops. On Wednesday, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) held a hearing on Boston Urban Agriculture Rezoning primarily aimed at four properties in Mattapan/Dorchester (shown on this map). The goal; make it legal for farmers to grow food in vacant city-owned lots.

According to the Boston Globe, current city law allows for community gardens on these lots, but not farming—an idea that seems curious when you consider that there are already three farming operations inside Boston city limits: Revision Urban Farm, Allandale Farm (which straddles the Brookline Border), and the Food Project’s multiple sites. They’re even shown on a pdf map the BRA produced of local food production and distribution.

Well, the Allandale Farm has been operating for more than 250 years, and Revision and the Food Project are nonprofits. This new proposal would let private farmers grow and sell food for PERSONAL GAIN! Just to make money! …on city-owned sites. That is, public land.

All the properties under consideration are currently owned by the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development (DND). Take a moment to search for them on the DND’s available property inventory, and you’ll find that all but one of them are considered “buildable.”

Tenant farming is inherently unstable in the best of situations. When farmers don’t own the land, it’s hard for them to make investments to maintain the soil’s fertility—and in Dorchester, there’s the added issue of lead contamination, even in raised beds with new soil. Add in a lack of infrastructure (Where’s the water? The shed?), and an uncertain future farming on a “buildable” lot, and you have a challenging situation…if the neighbors approve of someone coming in and making money off public land. If they don’t, I’d change my assessment from “challenging” to “precarious.”

Still, there are plenty of eager farmers around Massachusetts. The Farm School and UMass Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture keep graduating new ones every year. The biggest barrier keeping these farmers out of eastern Massachusetts is access to land. We’re not losing 40 acres of land a day to development any more, but the damage is done. Land near Boston is scarce and expensive, and farmers can’t afford to buy it. Any new farm land in Boston is going to make someone very, very happy—depending on what the city will charge for rent, of course.

Still, I’m not sure that private farms on public land are exactly what these communities need. I do think they will create a few jobs, and if the farmers are good at what they do, the pretty rows of vegetables will spruce up the neighborhood. And City Growers has already made a go of farming land on one Dorchester lot. But if someone asked, “Why is a farm better for the neighborhood than having another community garden?” I’m not sure what I would say.

The Boston Globe says that City Grower’s baby carrots sell for $2.99/lb at City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain, and City Growers was selling tomatoes for $2.90/lb last summer. Think about that, then read the text from one of the slides the BRA prepared for Wednesday’s hearing.

Why South Dorchester/Mattapan?

• Limited number of community gardens, farmers’ markets, and CSA pick ups

• Less availability of affordable, fresh produce

• Opportunity for jobs, training, and business ownership.

As far as I can tell, leasing plots to private farmers wouldn’t increase the number of community gardens, farmers’ markets, or CSA pick ups. And judging by the City Growers’s costly carrots, leasing land to private farmers just makes more unaffordable fresh produce available.

Farming does create more unskilled and semi-skilled jobs than a vacant lot. But growing high-quality fresh produce in the city may be expensive enough that the people living in the neighborhood cannot afford it.

For that matter, the people doing the farming won’t be able to afford it; on average, Massachusetts’ urban farmers make less than $50K a year. If you’d like to join their ranks, the BRA should be putting out a Request for Proposals for the future farm sites in mid-December.

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