It was a big moment for Eastie Farm: a flatbed truck was arriving late last winter with a shipping container holding the farm’s first greenhouse. And even on that brutally cold day, farm director Kannan Thiruvengadam was bouncy with anticipation.
“It's a very exciting day!” said Thiruvengadam, who does actually speak in exclamation points. “It'll be a space for people to come together, have some food that's harvested right there!”
But the farm is in East Boston, and that morning he had a very Boston problem — two illegally-parked cars were blocking the delivery route. Thiruvengadam and his colleagues knocked on doors up and down the street, trying to find the owners instead of towing the cars.
“This has nothing to do with the greenhouse!” he laughed. Then, he reconsidered: “It’s an urban farm, it's an urban greenhouse, and this is an urban problem.”
Eastie Farm, which sprouted up in 2015, is made up of seven small plots of land sandwiched between buildings and behind billboards around East Boston. The neighborhood has the highest percentage of immigrants in Boston and a median household income below the rest of the city. It’s also the Boston neighborhood with the farthest average distance to a grocery store.
Juana Sanchez, who co-manages Eastie Farm's garden near Mario Umana Academy, said, in Spanish, that she likes working for the farm "because they help people, and because a lot of people need it."
The farm helped feed people during the pandemic, and today, it supplies 200 produce boxes a month to elderly people living in public housing. The farm's food relief work was so successful it inspired food justice legislation that's working its way through the state Legislature.
But Thiruvengadam acknowledged his tiny farm can only make a small dent in the neighborhoods' food insecurity. “We do not grow enough food to feed even a block of East Boston, probably,” he said.
But he's got another mission: connecting people to where their food comes from. Thiruvengadam calls Eastie Farm "a seed" that plants an understanding of food and climate in local residents through activities like inviting kids from neighborhood schools to plant and grow food. For him, there’s magic in a child pulling a carrot from the ground, and realizing with a shock that vegetables grow in dirt.
“This is where you get connected to the Earth, and we need that connection back,” he said. Food “doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
The 1,500-square-foot greenhouse, funded through grants from the state, the city and the East Boston Foundation, will support this mission, enabling Eastie Farm to grow hot peppers, tomatoes and beans year-round — and even baby trees for residents who want to plant them. Thiruvengadam expects the greenhouse to produce about 7,000 pounds of produce a year, contribute up to $200,000 each year to the local economy and build community engagement through school trips and public events.
The greenhouse will also be a climate solution, diverting rain to irrigate plants and help prevent flooding in the neighborhood. It will use green electricity through the City of Boston Community Choice Energy program, and be heated and cooled with geothermal wells sunk 455 feet into the ground.
"I think it's the future," said state Sen. Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston and supported Eastie Farm's greenhouse. "I think it speaks to the creativity of a green future. You can grow anywhere if you put the right infrastructure in."
Farm manager Alex Graora said it’ll likely be the first geothermal greenhouse in Massachusetts, maybe in New England.
"We cold-called a billion people this time last year trying to figure out what to do, if geothermal is viable, and no one had put the two together," he said. "We ended up having to start from scratch."
Unable to find the greenhouse they wanted in the U.S., the farm ordered one from Holland. It now sits next to a highway near the entrance to the Sumner Tunnel, behind two billboards. It will get just enough sunlight to grow food in the winter.
But first they had to deal with the illegally-parked cars.
After a couple hours, a tow truck showed up and removed them. A crane hooked the container, lifted it gently toward the sky and lowered it into place. A worker cut the bolt and swung the container doors open. Thiruvengadam climbed inside and giddily inspected the unassembled greenhouse, pointing out the frames, walls and roof.
"We're good!" he said. "Everything's here."
It'll take a few months to get the greenhouse up and running; Thiruvengadam said he expects it to open to the public in early fall.
"The most important purpose that Eastie Farm serves is to show people that another world is possible," he said. In that world, where a climate-friendly greenhouse will grow vegetables in a vacant lot down a narrow alley, "you can have healthy food and you can work on climate at the same time."
This segment aired on May 26, 2022.