Farming Futures

Urban agriculture aims to level the growing fields and keep Providence-made food in Providence

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Maybe you’ve driven by or stumbled across one by chance: a self-contained burst of greenery in the middle of Providence, wedged between a couple of multi-family houses or a block away from a hospital. Vines creep up chain link fences and leafy plants sprout from raised beds. Much like one of these plots needs soil, water, and sunlight, a city needs to meet certain conditions to cultivate an ecosystem just right for urban agriculture – conditions like infrastructure, policy, and distribution chains that leaders in Providence have spent years propagating.

In its 40th year, Southside Community Land Trust – the nation’s first land trust centered around urban agriculture – set the stage when they formed the Urban Agriculture Policy Task Force that helped shape the Comprehensive Plan in 2012 to designate city-owned land for urban farming. “The goal was to ensure that the future of food production incorporated converting public spaces into community gardens, addressing food insecurity, and growing food in environmentally friendly ways,” explains Jenny Boone, grants and communications manager of SCLT.

Today swaths of vegetation replace once-vacant parcels across the city, brown bag Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs distribute fresh harvests weekly during the growing season, and through Farm Fresh RI, SNAP recipients have improved access to nutritional, affordable sustenance via the Bonus Bucks program, which matches farmers market spending dollar-for-EBT dollar.

Practically speaking, the cost of remediating a piece of land is around $50,000 to reduce soil toxicity levels, build garden beds, fence the perimeter, and connect to the city’s water line, according to SCLT Director of Operations Craig Demi. Though the initial investment would ordinarily prohibit low-income, minority growers from getting started, SCLT obtains grant funding to set it all in motion, connecting farmers with land ready to build up and providing an outlet to sell their harvests in a group to wholesale buyers through their Produce Aggregation Program.

The yields of that labor? Along with the community programming and revitalization fostered by these small farms, the economic value is keeping Providence-made food in Providence – along with jobs in the growing urban agriculture industry. With new central distribution facilities and training programs emerging, Providence is in the unique position to accommodate and benefit from a thriving urban agriculture industry.

 

Cultivating Community

“There is no set template for urban agriculture, and there shouldn’t be,” says Quatia Osorio, a certified community health worker and doula who owns Quaintly Farm. She built up her second, Journey Farm, in 2019 on land remediated by SCLT after applying for their open bid for farmers. This growing season, Osorio looks forward to introducing fruit trees to establish biodiversity and optimizing the less than an acre of land with vertical space. “Each community neighborhood is individualized so they are all diverse. We should create within the community and not try to create ‘cookie-cutter’ solutions to things we have no genuine understanding of without building intimate relationships with the land, people, and community which exist.”

In the North End of Providence where Osorio tends the two USDA-certified micro-urban farms, this means directly addressing food access and economic disparities faced by low-income communities of color through direct-to-consumer distribution and building a lasting network of BIPOC farmers. Her approach is informed by a background as a maternal child health advocate: “While growing babies within wombs, and growing families through farming healthy foods, we increase the likelihood for better mental health, decrease inflammation within the body system, and increase locally grown food consumption. The marriage of these two justice movements, maternal environmental justice, is vital to the health and wellness of our communities.”

Community gardens, like those managed by African Alliance of Rhode Island (AARI), The Sankofa Initiative, and Mt. Hope Sharing Garden, share a similarly holistic approach to urban farming. SCLT partners with these organizations (and almost 60 other gardens in Providence) to provide resources and training, but the gardens are tended by members of the community. “Community gardens enable refugees and immigrants to provide culturally familiar food for their families and neighbors so they can maintain their healthy food traditions. They allow gardeners and farmers to earn money, meet people, and integrate into the community,” says Boone. “Gardens are one of the few welcoming spaces where refugees can gather and exchange important information about how to get along in the US.”

Made up of several plots in Section 8 residential housing tended mostly by African and Latina women and immigrants, the AARI gardens were founded around congregation. “These women, almost all of them are refugees,” says AARI director and co-founder Julius Kolawole, “and when we began in 2009, it had to do with getting them out of their apartments so they could actually join hands and meet in the garden. Staying in the apartment is lonely.” The Sankofa Initiative, spearheaded by the West Elmwood Housing Corporation, transforms blighted properties into gardens rich with food culturally familiar to their African and Southeast Asian residents, like bitter melon and Asian corn. Mt. Hope Sharing Garden, established through a Plan4Health American Planning Association grant, provides low-income residents with hands-on education and tools to grow their own nutritious, affordable food.

 

Farm to Table – and Beyond

Despite food being such a tremendous part of Rhode Island’s economy, SCLT Community Outreach Coordinator Jazandra Barros explains, “So much of our food consumed in RI is produced and brought in from elsewhere, but there is a huge shift in focus to sustainable food systems.” Johnson & Wales now offers a bachelor’s degree program in Sustainable Food Systems, and Brown started a multi-disciplinary program in Food Studies in 2016 with coursework in urban agriculture. “We are seeing an increased interest in urban agriculture. Especially with the pandemic, people know we have to shift the ways our food system operates and that will mean folks doing this work in many different ways.”

For ventures like Gotham Greens, an indoor facility using hydroponic growing methods allows for year-round, sustainable production of lettuce and herbs that uses 95 percent less water than traditional farming. “We work with a variety of retail and foodservice customers throughout New England and place a special focus on partnering with local businesses in and around Rhode Island,” CEO Viraj Puri explains. These customers span independent supermarkets like Dave’s Fresh Marketplace and national retailers like Whole Foods, along with distribution through Farm Fresh RI, Urban Greens Co-op, and local food businesses.

“Our business model has enabled Gotham Greens to remain nimble during these unprecedented times and continue to deliver fresh, locally grown produce to customers and our communities,” says Puri. “In the past year we’ve provided over 300,000 pounds of our fresh produce to community partners to increase local food access throughout our five regions.” Amos House, Rhode Island Food Bank, and We Share Hope are a few of these recipients, and a partnership with Sodexo provides healthy meals to families in the Providence Public School System.

For smaller farms, Farm Fresh RI is instrumental in wholesale distribution with Market Mobile, their game-changer platform launched in 2010. “It has been transformational (and studied nationally) for its complete transparency for local farmers and food makers,” explains Director of Communications Rebecca Seggel. “Traditionally, producers have no control once a distributor gets their hands on products to sell out to businesses or consumers. With Market Mobile, producers list their own items once or twice per week, set their own prices, and can track sales in real time,” along with a slew of consumer data.

This past year saw both the opening of the Farm Fresh RI food hub on Sims Avenue and the quick pivot to connect Market Mobile directly with consumers in response to the pandemic demand for home delivery. “Consumers are able to purchase from over 100 farms and food producers at once, with one order form, one invoice, and one delivery or pickup,” says Seggel. “It enables the farmers to focus on farming, and make just a single delivery to our packhouse to fulfill orders. This greatly streamlines things from the producer side as well.”

Meanwhile, the new Valley neighborhood facility provides the infrastructure needed to accommodate a growing urban agriculture industry with the capacity to store more inventory, state-of-the-art loading docks, a vast vendor space with MERV 13 air filtration that kept winter farmers markets open through the pandemic, and the opportunity for more partnerships with local food businesses. Wholesale services continue to grow, bringing together producers from across New England, primarily the metro Boston area but some as far as Maine.

 

A New Generation of Farmers

“A few anemones are already popping open blooms in our high tunnel – rebelliously early,” says Anne Holland, board president and co-founder of What Cheer Flower Farm. “It’s exciting to see them, but we are waiting on a critical mass of bloom to begin harvesting and deliveries this season. Depending on weather, that looks like April or May. Hopefully by this time next winter the pandemic will have subsided so it will be safe for volunteers to gather together inside our barn for winter flower arranging as well.”

Known for distributing flowers grown right in Olneyville to hospitals, recovery centers, food banks, and other nonprofits serving those who can use the human connection tied to a bouquet delivery, What Cheer Flower Farm has so far remediated a one-third acre into an organic growing field, with plans of nearly doubling this space. The flower garden is just one part of the symbiotic system they’ve fostered since opening in 2017: During the growing season, partnerships with arts organizations invite painters and socially distanced classes in the field, and volunteers learn the basics of gardening and bouquet making.

Though in a state of disrepair now, the Colonial Knife building on site will find new use as a jobs training center. Unsalvageable parts will be demolished to create space for more fields, while a capital campaign is in the works to restore the historic 7,000-square-foot wing visible from Route 6, now decorated with floral art created by Riverzedge Arts students in the windows. “The jobs training center will help locals gain skills at no or low cost to get jobs in floristry, farming, and even advanced landscape maintenance,” Holland explains. “These are jobs that won’t leave RI, and there are employers seeking people for them already.”

What Cheer Flower Farm isn’t the only urban agriculture organization offering job training in this growing industry. Hosting workshops, internships, and apprenticeships, SCLT’s flagship City Farm serves as both a production and demonstration site where beginner farmers cut their teeth in the field before owning their own businesses. For some, small urban plots are incubators for larger-scale careers in Rhode Island agriculture, which SCLT also helps facilitate through mentorship and connections.

“We want to see young people in our neighborhoods go into and know that there are thriving career options for them in this sector,” Barros explains, and SCLT’s currently underway Trinity Square site housing a Farm-to-Market Center and local food retail operations will help. “A part of 404 Broad is continuing the SCLT trend of building and maintaining infrastructure so that small local food businesses like farmers – but also processors and retailers – can thrive, hire local folks, and make their food accessible.”

 

The Future  of Urban Farming

“SCLT is one small part of the landscape, but we have been doing this work for 40 years and want to see more people in our particular communities benefit from being a part of and creating a system that builds equity, not just for farmers but for food workers across the board,” says Barros. Both with new centralized facilities scaffolded by rich, holistic programming, SCLT and Farm Fresh RI have the capacity to support the shift toward more sustainable and equitable food systems, especially since the pandemic changed the way so many of us buy our food. Despite the challenges it’s posed, the crisis has also shown how adaptable – and essential – urban agriculture is. Quickly responding to the call to meet pandemic needs, programs like SCLT’s Produce in the Park have improved fresh food availability to seniors in the Fox Point neighborhoods, and their pilot program VeggieRx partners with Integra AE to serve pediatric patient families with regular vegetable shares.

In a landscape of civil unrest, economic hardships and food scarcity disproportionately affecting people of color, and food deserts – or areas that lack convenient and healthy grocery options – in Providence neighborhoods, the future of farming also needs to be inclusive. The intersection of food access and racial justice has never been so visible, especially in the agriculture industry where people of color have historically been denied land ownership. 

Learning that there were only three registered Black farmers in the state of Rhode Island in 2016 was the foundation of Osorio’s mission for her own farm. “The preliminary work of Quaintly Farm is to establish a design model for replication to increase Black-owned and -operated urban farms for the RI local food system, increase local consumption of fruits and vegetables, and provide access to locally grown quality food.”

And while there’s still work to be done at a state- and city-wide level, Osorio can appreciate the small successes while anticipating a brighter future for her community. “My children work on this farm with me. They are the next generation, they are learning through my experience, participating alongside me,” she says. “My eldest daughter is proud to be the daughter of a Black farmer. This is imperative to provide a narrative of respect for agricultural cultivation and pride.” 

 

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