SCOUT OUT: Growing Gains

urban agriculture

On an unseasonably chilly March morning, J.T. Scott walks me through a rear exit of his Union Square business, grabbing a bag of birdseed on the way out the door. He heads over to a wooden coop, a plain structure save for a spray painted logo, where six chickens enthusiastically cluck a greeting. “You want to make some fast friends?” he asks, opening the birdseed. “Hold out your hands nice and flat.”

This wouldn’t be so strange if Scott ran a small farm, a CSA or even a farm-to-table restaurant. But he’s the owner of CrossFit Somerville, a training facility he founded in 2011. For the last three years, ever since a few of his members asked if they could plant a garden behind the building, Scott and a team of 20 to 30 fitness enthusiasts have been growing vegetables in raised beds. In the summer, tomatoes and beanstalks snake their tendrils through a chain link fence at the edge of the property. The chickens came along two years ago. CrossFit members built the coop themselves inside the spacious gym, which used to be a garage, and last year, they added bees.

Somerville has seen an urban agriculture boom over the last few years, so much so that in January, Modern Farmer identified the city as one of the five most urban livestock friendly areas in the nation. That recognition is largely a result of City Hall’s increased focus on green issues. In 2012, the Somerville Board of Aldermen approved the Urban Agriculture Ordinance, the first initiative of its kind in Massachusetts, which established consistent policy regulations for practices like beekeeping and chicken farming. To make it simpler for residents to raise animals or plant vegetable gardens in Somerville, the city also turned its urban farming laws into a book, “The ABCs of Urban Agriculture,” which is available for download on the City of Somerville website. The book simplifies rules from the city’s Board of Health and urban agriculture ordinances by subtracting the legalese and adding photos to help residents who are interested in growing their own food understand the requirements.

Today, six residential properties in the city have a permit to keep bees, while 14 have the proper permits to raise chickens. That may not seem statistically impressive, but in Somerville’s 4.2 miles, it’s not bad. And, as Khrysti Smyth points out, those figures don’t necessarily reflect all of the livestock that’s raised within city limits.

“There are way more than that,” says Smyth, the founder of Yardbirds Backyard Chickens. “They just either think that chickens are not legal, so they haven’t approached the city in the first place because they don’t want to be found out, or they know that chickens are legal but didn’t bother to go through the permitting process.”

According to Smyth, chickens are a relatively easy animal to raise—easier, even, than dogs and cats can be. But the initial costs associated with these birds, including the price of materials for building a coop and the $50 permit from the city (should you go through the proper channels), are fairly high. It can take a year or two for new chicken farmers to recoup their losses. Still, she says that Somerville has been extremely supportive of urban agriculture. That permit was initially going to cost much more, and the city was willing to bump the price down after they realized how prohibitive the price tag would be for many of Somerville’s residents.

Even before the aldermen passed the ordinance, there were city programs taking advantage of both the health and financial benefits of urban agriculture. One of those groups was Shape Up Somerville, which has been promoting sustainability and community through food for years. According to Shape Up coordinator Erica Satin-Hernandez, residents of Somerville’s low income areas, including Winter Hill and East Somerville, often don’t have access fresh produce at their local grocers. They might not even have a local grocer—at least, not one that they can reach with a short walk. Giving these residents the tools to grow and raise their own food could change lives.

urban agriculture

The vegetable spread at Shape Up Somerville’s mobile farmers market

“That kind of support and research from the urban ag ordinance…it’s really important,“ Satin-Hernandez says. “The question of food availability as a health equity issue can be approached by urban agriculture opportunities.”

In addition to teaching locals how to plant and raise their own food, Shape Up Somerville actually brings reduced-price produce to people in these communities. One of their most effective programs has been the Mobile Farmers Market, a project they took on with area nonprofit Groundwork Somerville. The Mobile Market goes into Somerville’s underserved communities, bringing fresh produce grown at Groundworks’ quarter-acre South Street Farm and other local farms directly into neighborhoods that might not otherwise have access to high-quality fruits and vegetables. The mobile market has increased its sales and reach every year since it opened in 2011, and this year, they’ll expand their services by adding bicycle produce delivery.

“It’s hard for people in some parts of the city to get over to Union Square for a farmers market, or even get to Market Basket,” says Groundwork Somerville Executive Director Chris Mancini. “But we can bring the food that we’re growing here and partner with other local farms nearby to get to those parts of the city.”

“For cities in general, a lot of them are starting to approach this from a public health and food security mentality,” says Yardbirds’ Smyth.

Back at the CrossFit Somerville chicken coop, it’s starting to drizzle, so J.T. Scott closes the gate and heads back inside. He tucks the bag of chicken seed into a corner of the concrete building, where a shelf is stocked with watering cans, trowels and shovels that found a permanent home among the gym’s barbells, weights and ropes. Scott likes urban farming. He’s proud of what his gym members have accomplished in a few short years, and he’s grown very fond of the chickens. But for Scott, this project is about more than just the birds and the bees—it’s about community, and it’s about the future of Somerville.

“If somebody’s got a dream, a vision, a hope, and what they need is physical space, I’ve got physical space,” he says, gesturing to the open room in front of him. “If what they need is a few strong friends to help them, I’ve got a few strong friends. This is about using our shared resources and community to make those visions happen.”