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Boston Zoning Commission Approves Urban Farming Guidelines

One of four City Grower's farms is located behind the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester.  (Courtesy City Growers)

City Growers operates four farms on formally vacant lots in Boston. Pictured here, the organization’s farm behind the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester. (Courtesy City Growers)

BOSTON — To someone passing through the concrete and traffic on Blue Hill Avenue, the rows of lush lettuce, peppers and tomatoes tucked behind the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester are an unlikely sight.

Unlikely, but for Kafi Dixon, a farm apprentice at City Growers, not unimaginable.

“I did see myself farming, I just didn’t see it happening in Dorchester,” Dixon said.

Until now, Boston’s zoning code did not address urban farming, which technically meant it was forbidden. But after years of work and more than a dozen neighborhood meetings to gather public opinion, the Boston Zoning Commission on Wednesday approved a final set of guidelines for farmers looking to set up shop within city limits. It’s now headed to Mayor Thomas Menino’s desk for final approval.

Help For ‘Bootstrapping Farmers’

Since 2011, the Mayor’s Office of Food Initiatives and the Boston Redevelopment Authority have been working with local farmers to break down the bureaucratic barriers to farming in the city.

“Farmers need three things,” explained the city’s Food Initiatives Director Edith Murnane. “They need land, they need water and they need money. And of those three things, land and money tends to be the most difficult for farmers to access.”

Murnane explains that even though Boston was allowing a small number of urban farms to operate in the city, they had a challenging time raising money because the practice was not officially recognized as legal. She adds that once the new zoning guidelines go into effect, banks will be more likely to grant loans and property owners more likely to provide land.

City Growers, an organization that turns vacant lots into farms and has been operating in Boston since 2012, is hoping easier access to land will take their business to profit levels they see in the near future. Co-founder Glenn Lloyd says his organization will start seeing real profits once they expand from their current size — just over one acre — to around three acres.

“This really gets to be self-sustainable when you’re at three, four acres, in that range. There’s no reason we can’t be beyond that,” Lloyd said. “That’s our immediate goal. That’s where you start not only covering the cost of your farmers, but covering the cost of your overhead.”

What Starbucks Did To Coffee

Bostonians are already getting creative when it comes to growing food. Established urban agriculture businesses in Boston range from community-based endeavors like City Growers, to commercial rooftop farms or more high-tech approaches fueled by startups.

Freight Farms operates stackable hydroponic farms in large shipping containers. They currently  operate on Newmarket Square and at the Boston Latin School. (Courtesy)

Freight Farms builds stackable hydroponic farms in large shipping containers. They currently operate on Newmarket Square and at the Boston Latin School. (Courtesy)

Freight Farms co-founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara make stackable hydroponic farms in large shipping containers. The containers currently operate in Newmarket Square and at the Boston Latin School, and investors are looking to bring them to lots in areas like East Boston soon. With humming red and blue LED lights, the setups look more like spaceships than farms.

“We used to joke back in 2009 about it. We were brainstorming about this new ‘agtech’ and we joked about it as a term because we found it so hilarious,” McNamara recalled. “Now people are calling us an agtech company and we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I guess that’s a real thing now.’ ”

Lufa Farms combines rooftop farming with high tech greenhouses that run on automated systems, Excel models and automatic pest maps. The company developed a successful business model in Montreal and opened an office in Boston to explore options for expanded farming.

“We’re trying to do to agriculture what Starbucks did to coffee,” explained founding member Lauren Rathmell. By merging technology with age old practices of farming, Rathmell says the company hopes to “create that methodology and really define it down to a science so it’s easily scalable and efficient.”

Next Steps

At neighborhood meetings to discuss the zoning changes, residents voiced concerns that farms may overuse public water, and that pesticides may affect nearby lawns and gardens.

The BRA used those comments to establish the set of zoning rules prospective farms will have to meet before planting seeds — part of the final proposal sent to the Mayor’s desk for approval.

Jennifer Rushlow, director of the Food and Farm Initiative at the Conservation Law Foundation, says the resulting Comprehensive Farm Review Process was designed to “make sure farms are compatible with neighborhoods, to make sure they’re not bringing in noise or smell or unpleasant things that neighbors were worried about.”

For example, the percentage of farm property that can be used for composting, which provides important fertilizer for farms in an urban setting, was raised after the extensive commenting process. A limit on the location of farm stands was also relaxed such that farm stands are now permitted to accompany any urban farms.

“The BRA engaged stakeholders and the public in a robust process to review the draft regulations,” Rushlow says. “We are very pleased that the BRA made meaningful changes to the draft in response to comments received.”

The city’s Food Initiatives Director Edith Murnane says the process of coming up with these guidelines already has residents and policy makers rethinking the way Boston gets its food.

“People want to be a part of the process where you start talking about food, community resiliency, and access to food,” Murnane says. “How do we make an impact, and how we begin to change some of those things within our neighborhoods?”

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  • Valerie

    This is a great first step. Local farming has huge potential to make our neighborhoods more resilient and sustainable and our communities stronger. Check out some of the great micro farming initiatives of the Transition movement

  • The Beech Bums

    Where we allow ourselves to be subjected to the whims and ignorance of centralized planners, each of us becomes restricted to only the activities that offer results predictable enough to satisfy those controlling our choices.

  • fun bobby

    I guess our empire is collapsing if we can no longer maintain large useless energy consuming lawns

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