Farm-Fresh from the City

As the slow-food movement revs up, the Cradle of Liberty might just be the cradle of another kind of revolution.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Greg M. Cooper

Assistant Grower Jonathan Martinez gets some direction from Farm Manager Amanda Cather.

Assistant Grower Jonathan Martinez gets some direction from Farm Manager Amanda Cather.

Amanda Cather was in pre-med when she decided she wanted to be a farmer. It’s not that much of a stretch. As an undergraduate, she worked with malnourished kids in a clinic and saw what too little food—or too much bad food—can do to the human body.

She wanted to do something about it.

The fact that she’s doing it in the urban outskirts of Boston might seem like a stretch, too—until you visit Waltham Fields Community Farm and see just how much a good farmer like Amanda can do with 11 or so acres and a fired-up group of growers-in-training and volunteers.

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“When you think of Waltham, you think of industry,” says Cather, who works as Waltham Fields’ farm manager. Waltham isn’t exactly a wealthy Boston suburb. It’s an extension of urban Boston—a gritty mill town and one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution.

Still, like so many towns built on heavy industry, Waltham’s economy has changed over time. The town is home to two major universities, has a thriving arts community and even has its own orchestra. Oracle and Microsoft have East Coast bases here.

All that makes Waltham Fields Community Farm (WFCF) even more surprising. It’s a far cry from the fantastical, sci-fi vision of urban farming set forth as 40-story open skyscraper gardens—going up! 20th floor, tomatoes! bell pepper! basil! No, here it’s the same principles as any other vegetable farm: land management, conservation, making the most of the space you have.

At the start, that space was about 81/2 acres at the University of Massachusetts Field Station in Waltham. A group of volunteers inspired by the “Back To Land” movement of the 1970s proposed lease of the land as a farm to UMass. They first grew vegetables for a food bank. As the organization expanded, gained charitable status, and grew the need to take on staff, the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model seemed like a good way to raise the needed funds.

CSA works by selling “shares” to local consumers for a flat fee each growing season. For that investment, the customer gets a timely supply of fresh food as it is harvested. If the harvest is short, the share is short. The customer shares the risk of the farm.

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So, the economic viability of the CSA model depends on the community surrounding the farm, and even on that community’s willingness to learn, understand and participate in the risk/reward of small-scale agriculture, not unlike a traditional family farm.

Vast numbers of consumers are also catching on to the global slow-food crusade, bent on preserving heirloom vegetable varieties, reestablishing local and regional “tastes,” and teaching gardening skills to anyone who wants to grow a backyard squash or potted tomato plant. And for all the movement’s hard words about “factory farming” and genetically modified crops, there’s one message emerging that’s hard to deny: Everyone can grow at least some of their own food, or at least buy what’s grown locally—no matter where they live.

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Claire Kozower, WFCF’s executive director, says today WFCF uses the CSA model to pay for farm inputs and staff, and it helps with the charity work. She still writes grants, runs a membership organization, and runs a big yearly fundraising event to keep the non-profit organization stable. While the CSA has been economically viable—“lucrative,” even, says Kozower—hunger relief and sustainable ag education are at the center of WFCF’s mission.

The farm donates more than 150,000 pounds of organically grown produce to local food banks and shelters. The Children’s Learning Garden program works with Waltham’s Recreation department and inner-city youth programs to let kids get their hands dirty and learn where their food actually comes from.

A new program aims to help combat the notion that it’s too expensive to eat organic, locally grown produce. Waltham’s Outreach Market allows lower-income customers to pack all the produce they can in a paper bag for $5.

For those who can afford to pay fair market prices, the CSA offers season-long shares at $550 each, and it sells out every year. In 2009, WFCF offered 350 shares.

For all the success WFCF has with its CSA, there’s only so much you can do on the farm’s original 81/2 acres and the additional 21/2 WFCF now leases at nearby Lyman Estate. The farm managers establish a very careful crop plan.

Dan Roberts, part of WFCF’s seasonal farm crew, drives the farm’s Massey Ferguson during planting.

Dan Roberts, part of WFCF’s seasonal farm crew, drives the farm’s Massey Ferguson during planting.

“We need to return about $25,000 an acre to make it work,” says Cather. That means a focus on high-value crops like heirloom tomatoes and fresh herbs on-site, and occasionally double-cropping veggies that may not return as much revenue but have educational and environmental value.

But WFCF’s CSA consumers want more. Here’s where the family farms come in. “We contract with a farm in Concord for sweet corn,” says Kozower. Another family farm near the Massachusetts border grows squash and potatoes for the CSA. Customers can choose a meat share from a local livestock operation, and buy an apple share supported by Autumn Hills, a family-run orchard about 40 miles from Waltham.

Autumn Hills owner Lyn Harris farms 80 acres with more than two-dozen apple varieties, as well as plums, pears and bush fruit. “We’re a general, commercial orchard,” says Harris. “Running a successful CSA is hard—not a job I would want.”

But selling to one is a different story. There’s a significant income opportunity for farms that contract with organizations like WFCF. Harris marketed the fruit share idea to WFCF, and customers can buy the $80-a-year apple share along with the regular share.

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Boston is fertile ground for community farms and CSA operations. There are around five dozen of them, and the town is also home to one of the most successful natural food chains, Bread and Circus (acquired by Whole Foods in the late 1990s). Still, comparing WFCF’s mission to the big-picture, “Farmers Feed the World” mentality is comparing a teardrop to the ocean; they feed thousands in a city of millions.

But even a commercial grower like Lyn Harris sees the value. “They’re doing a lot more than feeding 2,500 people organic lettuce,” he says.

WFCF’s training program takes on “assistant growers” each year who study under Cather and Assistant Farm Manager Andy Scherer to learn the planting side and the business side of farming. The program works. Graduates have started CSAs in Maine and Delaware, founded a farm school in Massachusetts, and work on family farms across the country.

“We open the books and show how the CSA portion is run,” says Kozower. “Part of the training is seeing how the model works economically and ecologically.”

The small successes count, too. Anne Ramsay, who lives in nearby Brighton, worked at WFCF in exchange for a CSA share and, in turn, learned to grow her own vegetables at home. “It gave me confidence,” she says.

Those kinds of stories go beyond the idea that people want to know where their food comes from—people want to grow it themselves. That may be where urban farms as a concept will succeed or fail—in the scope of their influence.

“There is a significant demand building,” says Harris. “But farming in urban areas is terribly tricky and fiercely expensive.”

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It’s all about the land. Any land. Harris relates a story of a friend who’s trying to farm an abandoned softball field on the back side of a city park. WFCF’s lease with UMass is still year to year, making it seem tenuous to Cather, who in her sixth growing season knows how much sweat equity is invested in those few acres.

Then there’s the “fiercely expensive” part. Buying land outright to farm in Boston, the state of Massachusetts in general or pretty much any other urban/suburban center is almost laughable. And even land zoned for agriculture is taxed to death in the state, says Harris.

Still, there are opportunities. Kozower looks to historical sites in nearby Lexington and Concord to open land that was once used for gardens and make them “working museums” again, like the Thomas Jefferson garden at Monticello.

WFCF and farms like it around Boston have support in spades. “Our community is passionate about the food, but passionate about sustainable agriculture, too,” says Cather.

Kozower demurs a bit when someone calls WFCF a “model” for urban farming; she says every farm needs to create its own model for its own community. But she admits WFCF has the right idea, and there is a lot other farms can learn from what they created. It’s not just about how many mouths they can feed. “We’re about growing new farmers,” she says.

“Everybody can grow some food for themselves, and that’s something community farms can help people connect with,” says Cather. “And that’s pretty neat.”

Neat, yes. And maybe even vital.

Visit Waltham Fields Community Farm online at www.communityfarms.org. Visit the Autumn Hills Orchard web site at www.autumnhillsorchard.com. >>