JP residents help urban gardens grow

May 25, 2012
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Urban agriculture is blooming in Boston, from backyard vegetable patches to community gardens to for-profit urban farms, and Jamaica Plain residents are involved in nearly all aspects of the boom.

From the Mayor’s Urban Agriculture Working Group (UAWG), to Boston’s “Food Czar,” to business owners and backyard beekeepers, JP residents are not afraid to get dirt under their nails.

But local and state laws and regulations are just now being updated to reflect the community’s demand for urban agriculture.

Urban ag businesses Yard Birds and Agricultural Hall have sprouted in JP, hoping the push for hyper-locally-grown food is here to stay.

JP resident Bill Perkins took his dedication to living close to the earth and opened Agricultural Hall at 243 Amory St.

“It’s always a good thing when people are more connected to the earth and to the things that sustain us. We’ve lost touch with that,” he said. “It’s like losing a language. You’re putting yourself in a precarious situation by losing touch with where your food comes from.”

A beekeeper—“It’s addictive,” he said—and a gardener, Perkins hopes his new business becomes something Boston has lost: a center for farmers and growers to come together for supplies and sharing of knowledge.

“It’s the model of old agricultural ranges that have been long-lost here [in Boston],” he said. “It’s a place where people could meet and exchange ideas, like you’d find at a county fair.”

Agricultural Hall currently offers beekeeping, maple-sugaring, and organic gardening supplies, as well as chicken feed. Perkins also plans to add mushroom growing and cheese-making kits and gardening tools.

Yard Birds is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program for landowners will to share with gardeners. Brian Kline and Angela Roell, the owners and farmers, inspect and test the plot. If the soil is good, they sign a contract with the landowner. Kline and Roell then grow fruits and vegetables and give the landowners a share of the total yield every week.

Kline and Roell pay for water and up-front preparation costs like seeds, fencing and irrigation set-up. So far, they have plots in JP, Roslindale, West Roxbury and Milton.

“This is a hyper-localized aspect of urban farming. When we think of local foods, we think of foods produced within New England,” Kline said. “We want to bring the definition of local even closer to home by developing fresh healthy produce in Boston’s urban backyards.”

The Inspectional Services Department (ISD) is the government body that enforces zoning in Boston. ISD spokesperson Lisa Timberlake previously told the Gazette that the last update to zoning laws that govern urban agriculture were made in the early 1990s.

A much-anticipated update to the city’s zoning code will make it easier—and in some cases, will legalize—growing food inside city limits.

The UAWG is currently working with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to update the city’s zoning code, the result of which is expected this fall, JP resident and the city’s director of food policy—or “Food Czar”—and UAWG member Edith Murnane said.

“We’ve been working with the city, trying to hammer out zoning” that will be conducive to expanding urban agriculture, she said.

The rezoning initiative is exploring a range of ways in which the City’s zoning code can be amended to facilitate different types of urban agriculture, Murnane said.

One of the ideas proposed is the creating of urban farming overlay districts that would allow areas in all parts of the city to be used for agricultural purposed without having to rezone the whole area. A zoning “overlay” would be placed over residential or commercial areas, for example, to allow for community gardens without disturbing other uses.

For example, it is currently almost unheard-of for someone to get a zoning permit to raise a few hens at home. An urban agriculture overlay would allow chickens with minor regulations.

Once a set of draft zoning recommendations is developed by the UAWG and the BRA later this year, a series of neighborhood meetings will be held to vet the recommendations by Boston’s many neighborhoods, BRA spokesperson Melina Schuler said.

The BRA’s urban agriculture initiative website is bit.ly/BRAagri. Agricultural Hall’s website is bit.ly/AgriHall. Yard Birds’ website is yard-birds.tumblr.com.