Somerville Urban Agriculture Gains Popularity

By Claire Felter
BU News Service

“There’s Rhubarb chard, Fordhook Giant chard, and then you have Ruby Red chard – ooh, Rainbow Mix chard,” Llaquelin, a Somerville high school student read names off seed packets as though they were ice cream flavors.

“Rhubarb,” said Derrell, a UMass Boston student and planting veteran of the group that day.



Derrell and Llaquelin, both members of local nonprofit, Groundwork, Somerville’s Green Team, argued over which chard variety to plant in the last tray- only to put the decision to a vote. The Green Team is Groundwork’s youth employment program, where teens receive compensation while working on environmental projects. Llaquelin said she comes to the Groundwork office after school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where she can see the Rhubarb Chard they planted (it won by default – there were only a few seeds left in the Rainbow Mix packets) begin to sprout indoors for a few more weeks. Soon, however, her afternoons will be spent outdoors at Groundwork’s South Street Farm.

The farm, which was dubbed Somerville’s first urban farm at its opening in April of 2012, doesn’t look like much right now. A loitering winter has produced a 4,000-square foot landscape of weathered raised beds and frozen soil. But, don’t let the appearance of a barren lot fool you. In a few months’ time these same beds will be overflowing with organically-grown fresh lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, peas, beans, husk cherries, green onions, and herbs like mint and cilantro. There will be edible nasturtium flowers, known for their peppery taste. There will be rows of bright sunflowers.

Some volunteers aren’t only gearing up for farm work at South Street – they’ll be doing the same in the yards of their own homes. When the Boston Zoning Commission approved codes for urban agriculture in the city for the first time back in December, Groundwork Somerville’s Executive Director, Chris Mancini, said his first reaction was that Somerville, the most densely populated city in New England, would have to start sharing its pride by encouraging residential farming in urban spaces.

“We can’t brag that we’re the only city that has it anymore,” Mancini said light-heartedly during an interview at the Groundwork office.

Mancini was referring to the ordinance on urban agriculture that was approved by Somerville’s Board of Aldermen and Board of Health in September of 2012, more than a year before former Mayor Menino signed off on Boston’s legislation. The ordinance, which was the first on urban agriculture in Massachusetts, outlined rules for the keeping of chickens and honeybees and farming on one’s property.

Mancini and Kristin DelViscio, Groundwork’s Green Team Coordinator, realize that Somerville might not be a competitor when contrasted with a large city like Boston with its seemingly endless resources towards tech innovations and social entrepreneurship ventures.

“They have a lot of community gardens and urban gardening sites,” said DelViscio.

Mancini argued, though, that Groundwork’s South Street farm can be a model for those in the region who are interested in farming but don’t quite have the level of capital to build a rooftop greenhouse or install hydroponic trays.

“It’s a good example of how to do things in a lower tech, more affordable way,” he said.

Because Groundwork was already capable of selling its produce-and does so at local farmer’s markets-the new ordinance didn’t have a direct impact on the organization; but, the intent of the legislation is in line with the nonprofit’s long-term goals.

“It helps us in that it increases growing space and green spaces in the city,” Mancini said. “So maybe someone will de-pave a driveway and have a garden or farm now.”

Another environmentally focused group is helping Somerville residents to do just that.

Green City Growers (GCG), an urban garden installation business, partnered with City Hall last year to start the Urban Agriculture Ambassadors program, which was funded by the Mayor’s Office. The pilot program provided agricultural training to 16 residents last spring, spread over four weekends at the GCG office in Union Square. There participants learned how to control garden pests and build raised beds. These ambassadors then spent at least 30 hours volunteering at one of eight garden sites. One of the sites that participants could be assigned to was Groundwork Somerville. Resident Abe Gore got partnered with the non-profit after completing his training.

“Abe did the ambassador program, he was assigned to our site, he volunteered all through the summer, and now he has his own farm,” said Mancini.

To be more precise, Gore isn’t calling his back deck a “farm,” exactly. He said he would use the term “intensive gardening” to more correctly describe his set-up.

Just a couple months after completing the ambassador program, Gore and his wife incorporated a 10-foot-long raised bed into the layout of their second floor back deck. They planted a variety of vegetables, and while Gore said he is hoping for a better crop of tomatoes and eggplants this year by keeping a close eye on pH levels, the leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and Swiss chard all grew well last summer. He said the success was due to little things he learned from Green City Growers, like knowing the best position for plants to receive sunlight when you live in a densely populated area.

“I didn’t really appreciate just how challenging gardening in an urban environment was until they really spelled it out.”

After his positive experience with the program, Green City Growers asked Gore to join the steering committee for this year’s ambassador program. Gore then helped in choosing the new set of participants, who are already three weeks into their classes.

Gore said that during the last harvesting season he and his wife consumed all the vegetables that grew out on their deck. So as of yet, he hasn’t taken on the role of produce seller and leaves that to the Whatley-based Enterprise Farms and Groundwork Somerville, which sell the fruits of Llaquelin’s and Derrell’s labor at the Somerville Mobile Farmer’s Market. You might even find both Rhubarb and Rainbow Mix chard.

Taza: Making Mexican-style Chocolate

By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

Taza Chocolate Factory makes organic stone-ground dark chocolate following traditional Mexican practices. Watch here:

Somerville Receives Smallest “Pocket Change” Grant in Statewide Competition

By Claire Felter
BU News Service

The city of Somerville is scaling down its plans for an initiative to reduce unemployment among low-income youth after winning a significantly smaller grant than it applied for through a statewide competition.

The 1.8 million dollar Working Cities Challenge, which was put on by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston but funded by other partners, asked cities to write proposals that utilized collaboration across sectors and set out to help low-income populations. The competition targeted smaller cities in Massachusetts with populations greater than 35,000, median family incomes below the state median level of approximately $63,000 and poverty rates above the state median level of 10.7 percent.

The twenty eligible cities ranged from New Bedford in southern Mass. to Pittsfield near the western border to Lynn just north of Boston. All twenty cities considered eligible applied, but the six to win grants were Lawrence, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Chelsea, Salem, and Somerville.

Somerville received the smallest grant amount at $100,000, although the city requested the highest amount possible – $700,00. The seed award will span one year as compared to the three-year grants that four other winners received.

The initiative, named “The Pocket Change: Creating A Somerville That Works For All,” will combine soft-skill training sessions with micro-job opportunities. The training sessions will show local youth successful methods for landing a full-time job while the micro-jobs will provide participants with some income while they prepare for a more permanent position.

The “Pocket Change” initiative is reminiscent of the now nationwide jobs program, Year Up, which began in 2000 and provides job training and corporate internships for young adults from disadvantaged communities.

Amanda Maher, Economic Development Specialist at the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, is heading the smaller program in Somerville. Maher said research into this issue started long before the application process for the Working Cities grant.

“This all builds out of a process that has been going on for the last few years. The Mayor, back in 2011, put together the Jobs Advisory Council,” she said. “And it was actually a very similar process to what the Boston Fed wanted us to do, with bringing together public sector, private sector.” 

This forethought into tackling this portion of unemployment became an asset when sending in the application for the grant. Tamar Kotelchuck, the Boston Fed’s Program Manager for the Working Cities Challenge, said that the one of the goals of the competition was to support efforts that were already underway.

“We wanted to support cities in projects that they had already identified as priorities,” she said. “We wanted to know if it was something that they had truly been thinking about for awhile.”

Maher and her colleagues were also working off a 2013 study by the Commonwealth Corporation and Drexel University concerning teen employment in Massachusetts, which found that businesses wanted to hire locally but found that many applicants were lacking in the skills necessary for the job.

Now that Somerville has been awarded the grant, Maher said she will look to private sector employers to pinpoint which abilities applicants need the most help in improving. Then the city can bring in its nonprofit partners to carry out training or help participants enroll in certificate programs.

“Pocket Change” will be smaller than initially expected, though. Maher said that the estimated number of seventy-five people who could partake in the initiative has been scaled back to twenty or twenty-five young adults due to the smaller award amount.

They also originally planned to target four or five industries such as “green jobs” and retail, but Maher is now looking to make it a pilot program involving just one or two, likely including the healthcare sector.

Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), a local network of hospitals and health centers, has already partnered with Maher for this initiative, offering to provide some of the necessary services like training for interviews and résumé critiquing. Kurby Gress, Manager of Temporary Services at CHA, said they could begin offering training as soon as within the next thirty days, and that ideally he would be able to place people into temporary positions through the program.

“They can get some job experience, a resume builder, get exposure to the workplace, get some confidence,” Gress said. “That’s probably one of the biggest hurdles.”

Although Somerville received the grant, other cities in Massachusetts are plagued with high rates of youth unemployment as well.

According to the 2012 American Community Survey by the United States Census Bureau, Somerville’s unemployment rate was 8.4 percent for 20 to 24 year olds. For those with a high school degree, the rate was 9.2 percent and for those with some college experience or an associate’s degree, 12.2 percent. Statewide, however, the rate of unemployment for the same age range was 12.6 percent.

The rate was also slightly higher than for high school graduates across the state.

Maher said that while she is working to effect a change in Somerville, she recognizes that the problem is not just a local one.

 “This isn’t a Somerville issue. It’s a Massachusetts issue. It’s a United States issue,” she said.

The unemployment rate across the country for 20-24 year olds was nearly 16 percent in 2012, according to the same American Community Survey. A report released by The Opportunity Nation coalition in October of last year shows that almost 15 percent of American youth aged 16-24 were neither working nor in school at the time of the study. According to United Nations data, the rates for both males and females are up significantly from where they were in 2006. 

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone addressed the numbers in a January press release published by the city.

“Somerville’s unemployment rate remains below the state and national average,” he said. “But for the individuals in our community who are struggling to find employment- including some of our younger workers – all that matters is whether they can get the one job they need.”

Maher echoed the Mayor’s statement, saying that the focus of the program will be on the individual – or the twenty individuals.

“If, at the end of our pilot program, we have ten kids in the process of completing a certificate program and ten kids who have been placed into employment,” she said, “to us that’s a major success.”

BeardFest Grows In Popularity After Years of Grooming


February 2, 2014 - Brad Petrinec of Worcester, Mass. watches competitors show off their beards during Beardfest, a facial hair competition in Somerville, Mass. Photo: Taylor Hartz/BU News Service.

February 2, 2014 – Brad Petrinec of Worcester, Mass. watches competitors show off their beards during Beardfest, a facial hair competition in Somerville, Mass. Photo: Taylor Hartz/BU News Service.


By Megan Turchi
BU News Service

Weird beards. Long beards. Ginger beards. Curly beards. Twisty beards. Thick mustaches. Beards made of beads, string, glitter and paper. Old men. Young men. Little kids and even women! They traveled near and far to the Beard Fest 2014 in Somerville.

“This is the 4th year, but started out in Union Square, but we moved it here,” said Gregory Jenkins, executive director of the Somerville Art Council.

Held at the Center for Arts at the Amory on Highland Avenue, old wooden floors creaked as the bearded and their fans walked through the doors of the historic building. The room was quaintly decorated with twinkling lights and paper mâché. Exposed brick walls surrounded the room and there was a purple stage in front where DJ Pace played music with a fake beard and sunglasses, songs that only the hippest of guests would recognize.

Todd Easton, now a volunteer for the arts council, asked Jenkins to start a beard festival after spending a year growing his facial hair.  From this original Beard Fest, the Boston Beard Bureau was developed.

According to the Boston Beard Bureau website, the Bureau is “Boston’s local bearding team (the most rewarding and demanding sport in existence) and a member of the North American Competitive Beard and Moustache Alliance. Our mission is to promote the growth and appreciation of facial hair in the Greater Boston area.”

Many of their members were present and competing, T-shirts and all.

“Last year I lost my title, so I am here to win it back,” said Bert Mayer of Framingham, president of the Boston Beard Bureau and participant in the freestyle full beard category.  “I spent an hour on my beard today.”

There were more people than seats. Many were bearded, many were family members of the bearded, and others just came for the show.  To the left of the stage was a beard making station where children, women or beardless men got a chance to participate.

All sorts of beards and people were present at the festival.  A guy in a plaid shirt, a ponytail, and glasses sported a simple full beard.  Another man in a tight white shirt, classic jeans and tattoos had a beard down to his stomach.  To the left was a guy in tan pants, a white collared shirt, slick down hair, a tie, a vest and a curly cue mustache sticking out to the side.

After the socializing ended, the competition was set to begin, split into 5 different categories: free-style partial beard (goatees, sideburns, and others), free-style moustache, natural full beard, free-style full beard and fake beard.

The competition was a lighthearted affair not short on puns and jokes.  The category was announced, the bearded came up to the stage and walked across, looking at the crowd to the left and the three judges to the right.  They then stood in below until it was their turn to get their spotlight up on stage, where the judges and the host could ask questions.

“Do you have any mustache-related dance moves?” the host asked Sam Treviño, a competitor in the free-style mustache category.

DJ Pace quickly chose a song and within moments, Treviño put his hands on his hips and started moving his feet across the stage.  As the crowd cheered he walked down the stairs back in line with a smile on his face and gave a thumbs up to someone in the crowd.

In the make-your-own-beard competition, women and little kids lined the stage with beards made of yarn, paper, patterns and one even made entirely out of buttons.

“It’s a little Beyonce and a little Colonel Sanders,” said Ava Pandiani, who wore a paper leopard print beard in the fake beard category.

The natural full beard category contained the largest number of competitors.

“Is your armpit hair the same color as your beard?” the host asked Kevin Vargas from Rhode Island in the natural full beard competition.

“No, it’s entirely different,” he responded. “It’s black.”

For many, growing a beard has become a way of life.  Defending champion for the full beard category, Brian Roy, who has a long grey beard and a red “Beard Season” shirt, walked up on to the stage put his hands in the air.

The 2014 Northeast Regional Beard and Moustache Championships will be on August 2nd.

Creating Community, One Beer and Ice Cream at a Time

By Dee Fuller
BU News Service

“Hey, large mint chocolate chip!”

“Hey, Suzanne!”

Less than 2 minutes pass before the next greeting.

“What’s up, double bottle cabernet?”

“How ya doin’, Suzanne?”

This is how Suzanne Robichaud knows her neighbors. And she knows a lot of them. At first she just seems like a friendly face at the local corner liquor store. But she is more than that. These nicknames are personalized so that she can remember the flavor profiles of her customers.

“I’m just switchin’ it up. These are the things that you remember,” she said.

Sitting behind the counter of Joe’s Liquors, Suzanne takes a second to eat some food. She is not on her break though; Suzanne is always working. The Robichaud family owns three businesses in Sullivan Square: Joe’s Liquors, Louie’s Ice Cream, and a hardware store. She is 23 now and has been working for the “family biz” since she was 18.

“I’m a proud member of the East Somerville community,” Suzanne said.

After she punches out —probably after a 12-hour day—her work is not over. Suzanne is always on the clock. Her 24/7 job is bringing neighbors together. And her main outlet for doing this is through East Somerville Main Streets.

“The main idea is to form a cohesive group, so we can do a lot to make this area a lot cooler,” Suzanne said.

There are many interesting people around Sullivan Square, she said—writers, doctors, musicians. The problem, Suzanne said, is that they all work in such different spheres that they never meet each other. Her work with ESMS is meant to change this.

“Basically, we are working in conjunction to do something that has never happened before,” Suzanne said.

The area wasn’t bad before, she said, but it was closed-off and exclusive. People shouldn’t have to feel like they have to leave their neighborhood in order to go out and have fun, she said. Through events and programs, things are improving.

And ESMS is doing a lot to bring people together. In early September, they hosted the “Foodie Crawl:” a culinary exploration of Sullivan Square. It was complete with free food and more than 500 people attended.

But the real strength of a close community comes from the work of individuals. To that end, Suzanne also organizes many events on her own.

Wine and beer tastings at Joe’s Liquors spark conversation between diverse community members. One theme she said, is even helpful and affordable: “10 for under 10 dollars.”  And a growler club that she just started promises hand-made T-shirts.

She even began a book-swap. “We decided to bring in old books for people to take on their commute,” Suzanne said.

On the roster: movie nights, date nights, paint nights.

What does this mean for Sullivan Square? It means events are being created that are worth showing up for. It means neighbors can bring their skills together and spark new connections. It means a city dweller doesn’t have to feel lost within a vast metropolis. It means a homey neighborhood can be cultivated. And it means that Sullivan Square is getting younger and more connected.

“Our generation is aware of the situation. They bring perspective and are enthusiastic toward changes. And they bring positive influences. Even consider litter. Our generation doesn’t do that,” she said.

But Sullivan Square isn’t the only neighborhood leading this effort. People flock to Davis Square for its sense of community. Various music venues and theaters offer limitless entertainment. And local shops draw friendly faces together. Recently, the Honk Festival drew circus-sized crowds. A weekend full of dancing, music, bubbles, and candy apples brought smiling faces across Davis Square.

Davis Square has a reputation of being hipster-central though, while Sullivan Square fosters a reputation much less glamorous. Mostly, people just know it as a stop on the T. But this is why Suzanne works so hard.

“We are on the ground floor, but we are going full-force,” Suzanne said.

Her next project? Bringing justice to mistreated pet birds. In addition to relentless community work, Suzanne is also a self-proclaimed bird-mom. She taught her two birds many tricks, she said, including fluffing on command. I guess no project is too small.