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Zoning commission goes with scientists over city councilor; approves urban farm zone

Sunny Washingon: Longtime urban farmer supported proposal.Longtime urban farmer Sonny Washington supported proposal.

The Boston Zoning Commission this morning unanimously approved a zoning change to turn two vacant city-owned lots in Dorchester into urban farms.

The commission approved a BRA "urban agriculture overlay district" for lots on Glenway and Tucker streets.

Victory Programs' ReVision Urban Farm will create a farm on a vacant city lot at 23-29 Tucker St., while City Growers will build a farm at 131 Glenway St.

The two organizations will lease their parcels for five years; the underlying residential zoning remains in place in case the city decides to put housing on them.

Unlike existing community gardens, whose participants raise food only for themselves, both ventures will grow food for use by others or sale - for example at farmers' markets in Dorchester and Mattapan. Proponents say the farms will mean more affordable, healthy food in areas that desperately need it. The zoning change only allows for vegetable and fruit growing; farm animals were not allowed.

Under the proposal by the city Department of Neighborhood Development, both farms will grow produce in raised beds with a membrane separating them from the ground underneath. The soil will be clean dirt donated by area farms and will be tested twice a year for contamimants.

Officials say this eliminates the need for testing the existing soil on the parcels, because it will never come in contact with the plants. Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, said that if she lived on one of the parcels, she would have no problems growing food for her kids in these raised beds - which meet federal standards originally developed through testing in Dorchester in the 1990s.

That wasn't good enough for District 4 (Dorchester) Councilor Charles Yancey, however. After grudgingly acknowledging the city hearing process on the proposal no longer treated his district like "a plantation or a colony," Yancey urged the commission to reject the zoning proposal until after the city tested the underlying soil. He noted one of the sites was the former home of an oil company and that he would hate to think the commission would approve anything that might have "the possibility that the site can poison people down the line."

Yancey wondered why, if the proposal isn't such a good idea, the city didn't propose pilot projects on the Greenway or Chesterfield Street in Readville (Ed. note: One guess who lives there).

Commission member Jane Brayton said she found Yancey's comments "extremely offensive" and that she refused to believe anybody in city government wanted to poison people.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority says it will use the experiences of the two farms to help guide development of a more permanent, citywide zoning change that could allow everything from farms atop high-rise rooftops to chickens and rabbits.

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Comments

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Kind of funny how Yancey is concerened about contaminants in the soil when he shows little effort of behalf of the young men and women in his district who are dying of very rapid lead poisoing every few days.

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As any moderately serious gardener knows, you're extremely lucky to break even on veggies. I can only assume that the 'affordable' food here means subsidized food.

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Just like your garden at home.

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Not even close. Next spring, go to your local garden center, and watch the lines at the cash register. Start with tools. Even if tools last for many years, the first year's crop still cost you the full price of the tools. The cost only gets spread out as you harvest each year. Who's paying for the water? I use a rain barrel and buckets, and I still have to pull water from the faucet during dry spells. Of course the soil is being donated, but unamended soil won't produce much. That means bales of peat moss and bags of compost until you get your own compost pile producing. Fertilizer? Soil testing? Stakes and cages and twine? Each item has to be paid back before you break even.

The truth is - and this is coming from a dedicated veggie gardener - if you want to contribute fresh affordable food to the community, the best thing you could do would be to buy it from a farm - where they do this for a living on scale - and sell it at a loss or give it away. To produce more value than you burn takes years of experience.

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We toured two separate urban farm projects several years ago as part of the annual Tour de Farms cycling event that winds through various areas of Boston.

One farm takes up what used to be an entire dead end street where every last house was burned out during the 1980s.

Perhaps you should read up on how those work - including the economics - before further comment.

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What a load of manure. I grew up on a farm (cattle was our "cash crop" but we got about half the produce for our family of seven from a quarter-acre garden).

As an adult, I've had garden plots at several of the community gardens here in Boston. I've seen people get a mind boggling amount of produce from a very small area, with just a few simple tools, some knowledge, and some elbow grease.

The two organizations mentioned in the article have labor costs that are very low/free, minimal transport costs, and concentrate on crops that are high value rather than high margin. They don't need to make a mint - they just need to be healthily sustainable.

Add to that the positive and lasting psychlogical effects that come from growing your own food, even if it's just a bushel or two of snap peas or tomatoes. Empowerment, pride of accomplishment, mindfulness about what we eat and how it affects our well-being, a feeling of connectedness with the earth and the seasons - gardeners know these feelings and know how valuable they are, in a completely non-monetary sense.

And these effects are all the more welcome because these farms will be explicitly reaching out to Boston's children, and our neighbors in some of the city's more economically challenged neighborhoods.

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I've seen people get a mind boggling amount of produce from a very small area, with just a few simple tools, some knowledge, and some elbow grease.

And no costs. They go out in the spring and plant seeds, and then come back in august and find full baskets of vegetables. Your inability to even recognize costs - the whole point of my post - tell me all I need to know about your experience gardening. Mommy and Daddy spent the money, and you ate the food and thought it was free.

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My landlords have a plot out back about 15 ft x 15 ft. They harvest more than they can use. They use rain water (almost never see them with a hose except early season to get things growing). They don't compost the ground and stuff grows just fine. They work hard but they spend almost nothing at it.

Maybe their produce isn't giant grapefruit sized tomatoes as a result but it all tastes good. Plants grow, man. You don't have to coddle them.

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water comes from the sky, energy from the sun, and nutrients from the soil.... there's some work involved in between, but c'mon. I'm glad you live now and not 10,000 years ago, so you weren't around to tell our ancestors it was all a crock and it wouldn't amount to nuthin! In my day, we foraged for our berries and nuts and we liked it that way!!!!

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. . . Dana Carvey SNL "Grumpy old man" reference. "And we liked it that way!". Under appreciated bit character.

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We had a stick, and we threw it in the mud, and we liked it!

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We did not have dolls. I wrapped up a piece of wood in a rag and I was happy to have it.

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It's not like you have to go out and buy a new spade and pitchfork every year--maybe every fifty? As for buying mulch or fertilizer...it really doesn't take much Ingenuity to find a reliable source for horse manure or salt hay--my mom used to mulch her garden in seaweed all winter and then work it into the soil come spring. If you want to go to Mahoney's and drop $400 every spring on plants and accessories, you can, but gardening isn't a luxury hobby for most people who are just looking to grow some tomatoes and kale and collards.

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The city of Boston composts the yard waste that is collected in fall and spring, as well as Christmas trees. That compost is then distributed for free to community gardens all over the city. I dare say that these urban farms would also be eligible to receive free compost.

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Very exciting.

Maybe the people rnning the plots will be retirees or part- timers. I don't think anyone expects to make a living off it.

Meanwhile what did Yancey prefer- that the lots remain empty? He questions why this isn't proposed for the Greenway or Readville...maybe because there aren't abandoned lots in that part of town.

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Having a real community garden where everybody has access to fresh vegetables, etc. is a great idea on the face of it, and would be a wonderful use for an empty, abandoned lot. However, I do agree with Yancey's point about taking care of and de-contaminating the soil, and yet, I agree that more concern about children (and adults, too), becoming ill, incapacitated or dying from the affects of lead poisoning is also warranted.

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1) DND and the soil/public health people it's working with (in addition to the BU professor, the former head of the Boston Public Health Commission's lead paint program) started with the assumption that ALL soil in the city is contaminated - a legacy of lead paint, leaded gasoline, etc., etc.

2) Although the raised beds and membrane and limiting plants to those with roots that don't go down more than 12 inches (there will be 18 inches of fresh soil above the membrane) mean the plants won't take up any contaminants from the existing soil, there's the possibility of contaminants being blown onto the plants as dust from the areas of the properties not covered with the raised beds. To deal with that, the farms will use stuff like woodchips to cover the dirt to reduce the possibility of dust contamination. And, again, twice yearly soil testing just to be sure.

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Sounds like that addresses Yancey's reasonable-sounding complaint, no? "All city soul is contaminated with lead"- there's something I was not aware of. That sorta sucks.

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To say that Boston's soils are contaminated with lead is putting it mildly. I've seen soil tests from yards all over Roxbury and Dorchester (some in Allston-Brighton and Eastie as well), and they've all been really high in lead. And in some cases the "soil" in the yard ended up being a thin layer of dirt over a bunch of buried construction debris (loads of lead paint). I once dug down a good foot before I hit a black plastic trash bag of a full garbage bag that had been buried.

Raised beds are the easiest way around this but the NY Times article quoted below about the fish bone treatment is pretty cool. A group in Worcester has been experimenting with some grasses that take up lead from the soil, but then you have to remove the vegetation and dispose of it somewhere as it's all full of lead.

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Lead does not actually migrate very quickly through the soil - it's not very biologically available, not very soluable, and it's heavy. It's quite possible to have badly lead-contaminated soil within five feet or so of a lead-painted house, and have almost no lead in soil that's only another half dozen feet away.

When we built several garden beds at my daughter's K-5 a few years ago, I had multiple soil tests done by Umass Amherst's Soil and Plant Testing Lab - all were clear of lead and other contaminants. The sample area encompassed a 20 feet radius from the bed sites, and were taken from 2-24 inches down.

I will concede that we deliberately sited the beds in areas that had no nearby structures (and hadn't for some years) and were set well back from any roads. Also we built the beds with lumber certified safe for organic farming and heavily amended them with certified crop-safe topsoil - but the fact is, I would not let my daughter eat produce from a bed that was not clean to begin with.

I also had a plot at the Clarke-Cooper Community gardens for several years, and had the soil tested there as well (given the history of nearby area, my concerns there were less about lead and more about PCBs and asbestos). That plot also came out clean.

Soil testing from Umass is inexpensive, quick, and available to any citizen. I'd recommend anyone thinking of gardening to have it done before starting a garden of root crops or leafy greens. There's even lots of research that shows some veggies are actually safe to grow and eat even in lead-contaminated soil (notably tomatoes - metals get sequestered in leaves and almost 0% goes into fruit) - although I'd be hesitant to do so despite the science.

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He wants them to test the soil that's already there. They say that'd be really expensive and pointless since the plants won't ever be in that soil.

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Nothing like using the most expensive land for...farming! That makes good economic sense.

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..we all know that land should be held empty and useless for long stretches of time until needed as political hand-outs to the folks who provide money to your election campaign and charitable efforts (i.e., election campaign outside of electoral laws).

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Um...in Dorchester? Sorry--did you have some kind of development plan that's been thwarted? What "most expensive land" are you talking about?

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In fairness to Brett, land is a scarce commodity in Boston (as opposed to say, Detroit), and the amount of money you'd get out of selling some veggies grown on a vacant lot does not pay for the property, labor, etc. The economics are all out of whack, so you have to look at the other benefits of doing this sort of thing, not all of which have a direct monetary value. I think ReVision works with domestic abuse cases or something like that, so there are benefits that might not be obvious here.

If we actually paid realistic costs for our farm goods (the petroleum for transporting this stuff was not subsidized by war and handouts to oil companies, immigrant labor paid way below regular wages, govt subsidies to agro-industry) directly to producers I suspect the numbers for small lot urban farming might look a little better (don't know if you'd actually be able to live off it, but you could eat your work at least).

Whether this kind of effort makes a dent in the food desert concerns in poor urban neighborhoods seems to be an open question as well, but let's see what happens. It's better than just leaving empty lots filling up with crap.

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Just think it's a silly argument--no one is planning in trying to turn Dorchester into Iowa. I just can't imagine that on either of these streets anyone is currently jumping to build luxury condos or even just plain old housing. And in my mind, something like this is more comparable to a park or other recreational facility--it brings health benefits but also general wellbeing to the area.

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Why does everything have to be done on a freaking cost-benefit analysis, with money as the only factor? I'm so sick of this.
There are so many benefits to working in a garden, and there are so many urban programs that can be enhanced or even started up for kids based on these gardens. And that's only the beginning.
As an urban gardener myself, I have been able to meet and work with people that I would have NEVER known, otherwise, to all of our benefit.
It's not all about the money, folks.

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There is a lot of arguing, as you have said, surrounding the cost of this. But why are we not considering the benefits of having gardens in an urban setting! The people who will most benefit from fresh produce most likely only understand veggies as lining grocery aisles (and no, that isn't true for everyone). It is critical to know where food comes from and how, being a part of the process even if that just means being able to see it, brings you closer to the end result and more likely to eat healthfully. The experience of bringing a garden and all it has to offer to an urban setting is worth a lot more than the cost of seeds. Thank you for bringing this up!

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Don't be tossing out the baby with the camel. The key part to what you said is "with money as the only factor." A cost-benefit analysis that looks at all the costs and benefits is a good thing. It can also help to underline those benefits you mentioned. How much money is saved by keeping kids active, doing things, keeping out of trouble? It also helps to underline some of the unseen costs that our society frequently slips onto all of us for the benefit of a few...say ...oh I dunno, 1% of us. If we had more comprehensive and honest cost-benefit analyses we might change the way we do a lot of things.

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In Oakland they're experimenting with rapid decontamination of lead hazard residential properties by tilling in large quantities of fish meal. Evidently the lead binds to the meal and is no longer "bio-available" for either animals or plants. It's much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than trucking the soil away.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/science/earth/21...

In any case, I think that making the land available for community gardening is a nice idea. No perhaps it might not be "cost effective" but if you have free labor (kids, retirees, unemployed people) and high fresh food costs, it's not a completely uneconomic proposition.

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