Northampton’s Organic Community Gardens

02 Apr, 2012

by Bruce Boyers

An entire town getting behind and pushing locally grown, sustainable food for the community is a dream that many of us have—but in Northampton, Massachusetts, home of Smith College, that dream is becoming a reality.

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As this is being written, 100 gardening plots in the town’s new 17-acre community organic garden are being seriously vied for by citizens, schools and groups, while a recently established organic farm is expanding, and yet another is opening in the upcoming season. In total, 121 acres are being developed simply and only for sustainable organic farming. The entire scenario was brought about under the guidance of nonprofit organization Grow Food Northampton.

It all began back in 2010, when the lease was up on a plot of prime farmland in the town. The city decided that, instead of farming, this land should be used for soccer fields. “Grow Food Northampton came about when we as citizens learned that the city was interested in buying a farm for the purpose of turning it into recreational fields,” Lilly Lombard, Grow Food Northampton executive director, told Organic Connections. “We did some quick research and discovered that the land was prime farmland—which means that it grows the highest yield of food for the least amount of energy.”

Lombard and some others pulled together and decided to sway the course. “We started out just as an ad hoc citizens’ group, going to public meetings and expressing our opinion, and we grew our numbers,” Lombard said. “Then came the critical turning point where we had to determine whether we were going to actually incorporate as a nonprofit and buy the land, or let fate take its course. We decided we wanted to have a direct hand in the future of the land. There was so much public support for us doing this that I became the founding board president and we had five other founding board members. We just put in very long hours creating the organization and then running a campaign.”

Through that campaign, Grow Food Northampton ended up raising the money required to purchase the land—$670,000. Now, just a year later, their expectations have been not only met but exceeded. “It’s really gone beautifully,” Lombard reported. “In one year we have managed to get all of the land spoken for. We now have the anchor farming operation, called Crimson & Clover, which last year did such a wonderful job we decided to lease them a further 50 acres. Then we have signed a lease with another set of farmers that are growing grains for malting for local breweries, and they’re just breaking ground for the first time this spring.”

Probably the centerpiece of the movement is the organic community garden. “Where we’ve been focusing most of our organizational energy is on our future organic community garden—the Florence Organic Community Garden. It is slated to launch this spring, so we are working like gangbusters at getting that prepared. This weekend we are having a big volunteer staking and surveying day where we mark out all the plots. We’re going to have a driveway installed this spring. We’re going to build a shed. We’re going to put in the irrigation. All those things take a lot of work, but we got a sizable grant from our city to develop the site, and also have a lot of community involvement and community support. It feels like we have broad shoulders, which is really nice; it’s not just a few people carrying a lot of weight but is a much broader community effort.”

Demand for those first 100 plots has been high. “The registration starts at 10:00 a.m., and we’ve already heard people say they’re going to come at 6:00,” said Lombard. “I think it speaks to the fact that there’s huge demand for not just more community garden plots but organic community gardening. People want to know that if they grow organically on their plot it’s not going to be contaminated by their neighbors. That’s one of the reasons why people are drawn to this particular garden—that ethic will be universal.”

The plots won’t by any means be for private individuals only. “We’re going to have a plot dedicated this year to hunger relief,” Lombard related. “Everything grown in that plot will go to the local survival center or the soup kitchen. We’ve also got schools that are really interested in engaging with us and having their own plots, and local community institutions like daycare centers and churches are interested as well.”

There is much more land available, so as the community becomes ever more involved, the community garden will be expanding. There is room for up to 400 plots.

To ensure the fertility of the community garden, Grow Food Northampton is utilizing a process known as remineralization. “For over a hundred years the land that we purchased was under conventional agriculture,” Lombard explained. “For the last several years it grew potatoes conventionally, and potatoes can be incredibly drawing in terms of taking nutrients from the soil. We had done a few soil tests and we knew that there was not only a nutrient deficiency but there were also mineral deficiencies. We are blessed with having the nonprofit organization Remineralize the Earth right here in Northampton, so we benefited from the education and advocacy of their executive director, Joanna Campe.

“We had a Vermont farmer with a big truck go to a nearby quarry that offered the rock dust for free. We were then very grateful to Natural Vitality, who donated the money for the transportation cost and the expense of actually applying it to the land. In late fall the truck applied, I believe, 36 tons of local rock dust in five or six passes. We also planted cover crops in the field, a nice mixture of clover and rye grass. Those two things in combination should make for really fertile ground for the gardeners.”

Training is obviously key to the success of the community garden—and Grow Food Northampton is seeing to that as well. “When registrants sign up, they agree to practice organically, and we’ve spelled out clearly what constitutes organic practices,” Lombard said. “They also agree to attend a two-hour mandatory organic gardening workshop that we’re going to have right on the site. Additionally, we will have a mentoring program throughout the season, through which we match experienced organic gardeners with newcomers. We want to get the message out that everybody is welcome at this garden, regardless of level of organic gardening experience—but we want to teach you.”

Lombard is seeing only expansion in the community garden, and its influence is being felt far and wide. “I think what is really important is the amount of awareness this farm is inspiring in the average citizen,” Lombard remarked. “We’re on the front page of today’s paper, and we’re becoming more and more commonplace. Once people engage with our land, they can take what they learn back into their own backyards or to their own community groups. Hopefully it will just have this wonderful domino effect. The idea is that this land was never meant to feed everybody—but it’s meant to inspire everybody.”

Lombard is hoping other communities throughout the nation will take a lesson from what has happened in Northampton. “We look back on where we were three years ago and we could never have imagined in a million years that we could be where we are right now,” she concluded. “It was through vision and tenacity and building a lot of partnerships—with every like-minded community organization we could think of—that made it happen. I believe it can be done anywhere with that combination. It’s hard work, but it’s well worth it.

For more information about Grow Food Northampton, visit www.growfoodnorthampton.com.

To learn more about remineralization and its remarkable effects, please visit the website of Remineralize the Earth at www.remineralize.org.

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