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Class in urban farming draws participants from Roxbury and Dorchester

Posted by Laura Gomez  March 11, 2013 12:31 PM

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Photo by Anthony Savvides

On a cold winter night, a dozen people sit in a softly lit conference room in an office on Shirley Street in Roxbury, black binders open in front of them as some jot down notes.

They have come together for a pilot training program in urban farming, a growing phenomenon that promotes living off of the land -- even if it happens to be in the middle of a major city. Urban farmers plant and cultivate crops within their neighborhoods -- in this case, Dorchester and Roxbury -- to provide and sell fresh produce within the area. This is not just gardening for personal use, but part of a larger national effort to promote healthier eating habits and more sustainable food production, especially in urban areas.

The training program, a collaboration between the Urban Farming Institute of Boston (UFIB) and City Growers, is “teaching the whole aspect of farming -- and there’s a lot to it,” said Bobby Walker, one of the course instructors. Besides the technical aspects, he said, urban farming involves public relations and outreach, or “growing a community.”

The program consists of six weeks of a formal classroom curriculum, running through March 20, followed by an apprenticeship of hands-on field instruction at farms around the city, from April through October. The goal is to enable class members to establish their own farms, using sustainable business models.

Class participants come from various backgrounds: Some are experienced farmers hoping to hone their skills, while others are new to the idea of urban farming.

“I am very interested in and concerned about sustainable, locally grown food,” said participant Vernell Jordan, 61, a Dorchester resident and ‘wearable art’ designer. “The idea of gardening and growing food locally has been an interest of mine for almost 40 years. . . In principle, I look forward to a time when people can produce the food they consume, or at least some of it.”

While Jordan has been involved with other farming projects in the area, including Revision House, Noonday Farms and the Food Project, other members of the course are new to the concept of urban farming, or farming in general. Hamdi Abdullahi is a Somali-born and Boston-raised 23-year-old teacher’s aide at the Hennigan School in Jamaica Plain.

“My parents lived in Somalia, and food there is fresher. So they’re excited about having fresher food in the house,” said Abdullahi. “I didn’t know the distinction between gardening and farming before, but I’m interested in taking what I learn about farming in this course and applying that to gardening for myself and my family.”
The curriculum was designed by Walker, Jordan, Greg Bodine, Nataka Crayton and Sarah Uziel after City Growers’ co-founders Margaret Connors and Glynn Lloyd were approached by UFIB about starting the program last summer. Walker and Bodine are both course instructors employed by City Growers, which aims to increase agriculture within the Boston metropolitan area.

“There’s a range of experience among the participants, in terms of what they each bring -- from farming experience to family experience to business experience,” Connors said of the first group of students.

Lloyd, a Roxbury resident, said the classroom curriculum covers topics from soil health to seed and crop selection. “The core is crop design and layout -- how to keep the product after harvest,” he said. Also covered is “the business stuff -- how to maintain a profitable farm, budgeting, pricing, distribution, packaging.”

The idea, Lloyd said, is that City Growers will acquire more empty lots around the city that can then be used, potentially by some of these students, for sustainable urban farming.

Lloyd, who has been involved with urban farming in Boston for the last 18 years, worked previously with the Food Project in Lincoln, Mass., and established City Growers with Connors about three years ago with a lean group of about six workers, as well as some volunteers. City Growers is currently based out of the City Fresh Foods office, where the classes are held Wednesday evenings.

As the classroom work winds down, each of the 10 students is preparing to work at an establish farm for the duration of a 25-week apprenticeship.

Although the program is just starting, Connors has no doubt that it will continue next year, as interest in urban farming grows.

“It’s just what we imagined -- that the interest would be there -- and that will only continue to grow,” she said. Twenty people applied to join this program and half were chosen. Connors said the information sessions prior to the application process were crowded.
Walker is similarly hopeful.

“They’ll be able to get their products out, from growing it to selling,” he said of the participants. “I think, I hope, that people will come out having learned a lot.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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