PANEL 1 Open Field Farming Techniques
Moderator – Greg Maslow (GM)
Bobby Walker (BW)
Greg Bodine (GB)
Jess Laborio (JL)
Ethan Grumberg (EG)
Question: What is the difference between urban farming v.s gardening and how to grow enough volume for market.
GB: We all see ourselves are farming for markets though some of us actually operate as non-profits. Farming by definition is targeted towards commercial production, whereas gardening is targeted towards recreation or personal benefits. We mostly grow in response to customer/restaurant demand. Roughly 90% of product goes to resturants in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Cambrifdge. Salad and mixed green are a major crop.
GM: The biggest differences between non-profit (NPF) and for-profit (FPF) farms are tax categories and methods of getting money. NPs can have fund-raisers while FPs have to rely solely on sales). This significantly affects your business model.
FP’s have to focus on reducing operating costs and maximize output.
GM: FPs rarely do educational programs because it isn’t profitable, but NPFs often do because they can make money by teaching and sharing knowledge.
JL: a for-profit farmer once said to me “FPF farming is an joke/oxymoron because most farms don’t make a profit at all.” We’re out here farming but barely making any money.
GM: NPF farms are supposed to be doing community work.
GM: IRS has cracked down on NPF farms because some people are trying to find loopholes to avoid paying high taxes (so they teach a little bit but mostly just sell for profit). Most of the “registered farms” in massachusetts are not farms but tax shelters for land owners. Most of the land area used in MA farming is used for hay production, which can be questioned as a legitimate farming enterprise.
Audience Question (Aud): Can FPF just subcontract the educational things to NPFs?
EG: for profit farms want to gain value from educational experience (i.e. cheap labor in exchange for sharing knowledge), while NPFs can really focus on the educational outcomes
Aud: Rural pest problems vs. Urban pest problems?
EG: In urban areas that are close to rural areas, the distances are negligible so many pest problems are the same. However, some urban areas do experience positive buffer effects.
There is greater weed pressure in rural settings from wind dispersed seeds than in urban settings
JL: Sometimes surrounding neighborhood ag. Projects make pest avoidance difficult. Crop rotation is difficult in urban areas though it does help with pest control.
GB: pest control in rural areas is largely constrained only by a farmer’s own personal convictions; in urban areas, the consent of your neighbors for your pest control method is much more important
EG: In urban settings people are become very concerned if they witness you spraying a crop, even if it is certified organic chemical.
GB: Pest control in urban settings often requires talking to or notifying all the neighbors
Aud: What is the equipment difference between rural and urban farms?
BW: Urban farms don’t have any equipment; we use volunteers.
EG: it’s much easier to farm with machines over large spaces and quantities of crops but urban farms often get much higher yield because they have to take more care at each step (sowing seed for example) since they are doing it by hand. Using human labor often requires more time and effort in terms of management.
GM: “Right now, fuel is still cheaper than labor; even if it is volunteer labor, because you have to manage them and that costs money!” There are some machines for small farmers; Italian walk-behind tractors are a good example. Urban farmers should seek to mechanizing their process because it provides superior efficiency.
Aud: How can urban farms be viable and still sell at affordable prices? Is it only profitable to sell to restaurants?
GM: Non-profits have the ability to donate to the least advantaged in society.
JL: The urban farming community is still trying to answer these questions of how to make farms economically viable while making food affordable for consumers. The mission is to provide a level of community based self sufficiency for food security. There are experiments but no one is sure yet. We should advocate for food access programs (SNAP, etc.) to allow local purchasing to shift money towards local food producers
GM: What is the future of FP farming? Often FP farmers want to sell to their own communities, but the prices make it hard to be profitable to sell to low-income residents. In addition, we are so conditioned to buying cheap (subsidized) food that we don’t want to pay very much even if we can. The current state of affairs are that poor farmers are trying to provide food for the poor.
GB: These have been issues forever. The 10-person training program is hoping to create the next generation of idea-makers and ideas to innovate. We are still looking for new ideas and new models.
JL: There may be unrealistic expectations from the community-at-large; things like, “Shouldn’t you be able to sell to restaurants and to poor people?” We are so used to seeing food prices where future generations are paying our (environmental) costs. We need more people working on these issues.
Aud: How do we get more youth and gardeners involved?
GB: City Growers working towards getting more people involved. City growers is an entrepreneurial organization with open access geared towards outreach towards new farmers. We want to (and do) try to get more people involved, but we’re still entrepreneurs
EG: farming has always been a low-profit, low-wage career. If it becomes a better career path, young people will come to it . Farming is not a financially viable career for future generations. (all panelist agreed that they are working hard for minimal salaries)
BW: We do work with youth, though. Anyone who wants to work with us, we’ll take.
Coffee Dixon: I’m here because food access for my family is important. I wanted to make farming cool for inner city communities, too. City Growers is an important experience. Urban poor need access to healthy affordable food.
Greg Watson (GW): Gus Schumaker is trying to connect food directly to health with “food prescriptions” and food as preventative health measures. I Health care aimed at prevention through diet is an emerging policy movement. In the future, wellness of physical supported ag could be a huge opportunity. We are now seeing the ag community finding a powerful ally in the public health community.
GM: there are some healthcare plans that will reimburse you for your CSA subscription
Aud: How do you manage your soil in urban environments?
BW: We just use more compost!
GW: Sometimes it is necessary to make substrate amendments to remove contaminated soil and put down a textile barrier before adding compost
GB: we test soil regularly and give different plots of soil different treatments to make sure they are well balanced in nutrients. Boston is actually on the frontier of figuring out the compost problem. Composting in the city is difficult because of space and odor/runoff issues. There is some regulations that prohibit on site composting of community sourced organic matter.
JL: Our farm actually does some cover cropping because it’s beneficial.
EG: No farmer wants to cover crop (because it isn’t directly profitable), but we do because it’s better for
the field in the end.
Aud: Who decides what crops you grow? Are there health board concerns?
GM: Truly depends on your market.
EG: Board of health only really gets involved when selling prepared foods directly to customers. Most farmers are exempt from most commerce laws surrounding selling food to the public, but food safety is an emerging issue.
Aud: it’s egregious that farmers can’t make money. Are there people fighting for a level playing field versus the subsidies for the big farmers?
GM: There are groups petitioning the government. The Mass. Farm Bureau has an option opposite that of most Farm Bureaus in the country.
Aud: Who does your soil testing?
GB: UMass does it for cheap.
JL: Logan (contract company) tests for things other than minerals.
Aud: what about soil and soil management? What about runoff and water management?
BW: some plots have runoff problems and some don’t; depends on their location.
GM: Water is really expensive.We use MWRA water in the city, but we don’t have to pay for sewer charges that amount to more than half of the cost.
Aud: Practices to retain nutrients?
EG: Cover-cropping helps to suck up nutrients.
GM: Nitrogen is the biggest problem because it’s water soluble.
EG: There are specialized cover crops for whatever purpose you need (nitrogen fixing, etc.)
Aud: What about regional food?
JL: Food is a network and everyone producing makes the whole system more resilient. We need to develop better networks
GM: There are government groups that will help farmers figure out how to do things better.
Panel 1. Open Field Farming.
Bobby Walker and Greg Bodine, comanagers, City Growers. For profit. Plots throughout city, 4 plots about 1.4 acre each, 1 in Roxbury and 3 in Dorchester. 10 new trainees. Sell to restaurants in South End, JP, Haley House. Harvest 4 days/week. A lot is salad mix.
Greg Bodine says have to assure nervous neighbors when spraying, more a problem for urban farming than rural.
Jesse Lavorio (?), The Food Project. 2 sites, 2 acres. Greenhouse plus 1 acre cultivated. Veggies at Dudley St Farmers Mkt, donate to Rosie’s place. Lots of Volunteers to deal with.
Ethan Grundberg, Allandale Farm, Not exactly “urban”, 60 acres, 30 in Groton (?), the rest in Boston (JP).
Greg Maslowe, Newton Community Farm. Moderator. Newton Community Farm, 2.25 acre, 1.25 acre farmed. Is Educational Non-Profit. $80K in sales, $20K selling seedlings?
A goal is to get people gardening. Non-profit, so donors can write off donations on taxes. Advantages is can solicit donations from foundations, etc. State agricultural exemptions of land used for farming, includes e.g. hay for horses, not just people food; a controversial issue?
Q: What kinds of different equipment are needed for urban vs rural farms?
Bobby Walker-“we have no equipment, we just push a wheelbarrow around”. Digging forks. Greg Maslowe -Has a walk behind tractor made in Italy, good kind. Troy Bilt are no good.
Q: how can urban farms sell to other than ritzy restaurants, i.e. to regular people at a not- too-expensive price, and yet make money?
Greg Maslowe -This is a big problem. He makes little money and is on Mass Health.
“How can a poor farmer provide food for poor people?” “We are used to cheap food.”
Greg Bodine -Have been discussing this for 4 weeks at some meetings.
Jesse- We have unreasonable expectations (re price of farm produce).
Notetaker concludes: no answer.
Q: How get the urban youth involved?
Bobby Walker -That is what we are doing.
Greg Bodine -At end of day you have to be entrepreneurial. Want to have way for youth to have own farm, maybe have a coop model. E.g. each owns own business, but markets cooperatively.
Ethan Grundberg -he made $32K/year last year. Not a great career path for many. “It is less fun than playing Xbox all day, even for me”
Some people have started flower business.
Q: Owner of Root Family Farm (Kathy Dickson?) lives in Dorchester, 3 kids, going to
Urban Farming Institute, says she wants to help make farming be cool among people of
Q: mentioned a guy (physician?) Schumacher, whose concept is “Veggie Prescriptions”
where doctors write prescriptions for vegetables. Concept of reimburse health insurance
if you join CSA.
Q: What about soil testing?
Greg Bodine -soil testing harder if you have many plots, as urban in areas.
U Mass Amherst, does lead, can also do approximate mineral tests.
Jesse (Food Project) says Logan Labs in Ohio is good. Others say Logan tests are more for Midwest type soil, not New England soil.
Greg Maslowe says best to keep using the same testing agency over time to monitor long term issues. Ethan says nitrogen is the most important (?).
Q: Where do you get your water and what are the costs?
Bobby Walker-Pay for city water but not sewer.
Jesse-We pay about $1600/ year for 1 acre.
Greg Maslowe -Nitrogen is what leaches away, so use cover crop to prevent that.
Ethan Grundberg. Different cover crops are needed for different purposes, as listed in Johnny’s Seeds catalogs.
Q: A professor at Univ Vermont says there should be longterm regional networks including New England and Midwest (?).
Jesse-That sounds good, but also having a lot of small local producers is good.
Q: What help is needed from state of Ma?
Greg Maslowe -can get lots of help from NRCS of USDA.