Zoning Law Expands Boston’s Urban Agriculture Possibilities
By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service
Jessie Banhazl was reading Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” when she decided to create, Green City Growers, a Somerville-based vegetable garden installation and maintenance business.
The former Food Network television production intern happened to read Pollan’s book at the same time she and college friend Gabriel Erde-Cohen were researching different business models for entrepreneurship. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which attempts to answer what Americans should be eating for dinner, also stresses the importance of knowing where food comes from in an increasingly industrial agriculture-reliant society. Banhazl said she saw garden installation businesses on the West Coast, but the book gave her the final push needed to join the movement toward sourcing food in a more sustainable, local and healthy way.
“It totally made me realize that this is such a need, and it was absolutely important to the way we feed ourselves as a country,” Banhazl said in a phone interview.
Now, she spends her days putting together plant orders, designing marketing materials and creating budgets for how many trees she needs to buy. Come mid-March, she will “hit the ground running” and look at customers’ properties, envisioning where she could install raised vegetable beds and gardens around Greater Boston.
“Homeowners start to contact us the minute the weather goes above 50 degrees,” Banhazl said. “The second snow isn’t on the ground, people get excited.”
While living in California where her production job was based, Banhazl noticed companies providing raised vegetable beds and ongoing maintenance for customers interested in homegrown produce, something she had not seen on the East Coast. Her time working for Food Network not only exposed her to healthy cooking, but also gave her business management skills needed to start a garden installation company back home in Boston.
“Nobody was doing it,” Banhazl said. “It was an underserviced market.”
Green City Growers, now about six years old, has installed over 400 raised beds, establishing it as one of the leading producers of raised-bed vegetable gardens for urban homes, restaurants, schools and businesses in New England.
Raised-bed gardens are ideal for urban agriculture because they can be placed anywhere with access to sunlight: parking lots, rooftops, concrete, grass, or dirt. GCG builds pine, fir or spruce beds in 4 by 8-foot increments, finishes them with nontoxic wood stabilizer to enhance longevity and attaches a weed block made of spun polyester fabric and hardware cloth (like chicken wire) to the base. This allows bed placement on almost any surface. Banhazl fills the beds with organic soil and installs drip irrigation systems with automatic timers.
Banhazl and her partner help customers grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including apples, peaches, pears, cherries, blueberries, carrots, peppers, and her favorites, Swiss chard and sugar snap peas that she eats right off the vine. Her biggest client is a 17,000-square-foot Whole Foods in Lynnfield, Mass., where GCG installed a rooftop farm.
When Banhazl started her business in 2008, she said there was not nearly as much community interest in urban agriculture as there is now.
“But it’s a progressive city with incredible technology and forward thinking,” Banhazl said.
GCG represents just one among many for-profit Boston organizations now focused on urban and rooftop agriculture, and Banhazl said she expects the number of urban farmers to increase with the recent passage of Boston Zoning Code’s Article 89, passed December 19. This legalized a wide range of urban agriculture activities such as ground and roof-level farms, farm stands, farmers’ markets, composting, beekeeping and roof-level greenhouses, provided they meet certain size and soil safety conditions.
While the passage of Article 89 has vastly expanded the environmental, economic and educational opportunities for urban farmers, many of the goals of the initiative have yet to be realized.
Erica Letson, urban agriculture AmeriCorps VISTA member, worked with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Mayor’s Office of Food Initiatives and the Mayor’s Urban Agriculture Working Group to help create the urban agriculture rezoning initiative that the majority of the community agreed upon. The process took three years of planning, consultation with urban farming experts, and 18 open public meetings.
Letson said one of the biggest goals of the zoning initiative is for city officials to buy vacant lots, clean them up, and sell them at a reduced rate to residents interested in starting urban farms. Empty land can be hard to come by in big cities, but Letson said there are plenty of potential spots around Boston, particularly in low-income areas.
“This allows access to neighborhoods in Boston that might not have had access to healthy food earlier on,” Letson said. “It creates aesthetic access as well.”
Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury are some of the neighborhoods the city is currently scouting for vacant lots to repurpose for agricultural use. The next step will be getting people to buy plots, which will range from a quarter-acre to an acre in size.
Letson said plots will sell for “relatively cheap,” something like $200, but buyers will have to tack on additional costs by going through a permitting process, gaining access to running water and acquiring electricity before starting their commercial enterprise.
Soil contamination prevents urban farmers from growing straight in the ground, Letson said, so all of the city-owned plots would be designated for raised beds. Soil testing, she said, can end up being a costly and lengthy process that usually proves what she and many farmers already know: most of Boston’s soil is polluted with lead.
According to Banhazl, roughly 80 percent of GCG’s soil tests have contained lead, so she only offers raised garden beds.
Though GCG and Article 89 also urge potential farmers to think about the possibilities of rooftop gardens, both Banhazl and Letson acknowledge that they can be far more expensive and difficult to maintain than ground-level raised beds.
Anne Sholley, director of marketing and communications for Recover Green Roofs, LLC, a Boston-based green roof installation company, said the price of a green roof varies from project to project.
The type of green roof system, the quality of the rooftop membrane, the roof’s accessibility and fall protection, the loading capacity, and the ease of material conveyance to the roof all affect pricing.
“They’re quite expensive up front, which is a limiting factor in most of our green roof projects,” Sholley said in an email message.
The most intensive green roof constructions cost anywhere from $100 to $200 dollars per square foot, she said.
“Rooftop farming is inherently challenging,” Banhazl said. “The roof needs the structural integrity to hold the weight of a rooftop farm, so safety and access needs to be in place.”
Many existing roofs, Banhazl explained, do not have railings or ready access to a water source. She said the future of rooftop farms will be incorporating them into new developments, and she thinks this will happen if the city has incentives for developers to do so.
In order for the new wave of urban farmers to grow nutritious, organic food and beautify vacant areas, Banhazl said they also need education.
“People need the skills and that’s why it’s so important for schools to fund projects,” Banhazl said.
GCG runs an urban agriculture ambassador program in Somerville, which trains residents to be farmers. In exchange for the course, new farmers volunteer as ambassadors to grow food around the community.
While she said she has been contacted by many student organizations interested in creating urban farms on their universities’ campuses, she said the key to implementing them is getting administrations excited.
“I think it’s only a matter of time,” Banhazl said.