Boston common
Nonprofit community farm strives to make good food a bridge between culture and class.

By Genevieve Slocum

September 14, 2007: Brookwood Community Farm rests on the perpetually-changing landscape and uncertain future of coastal Massachusetts. A hint of icy Atlantic air can be felt in the drizzly mist that blankets the woods and fields of the Blue Hills Reservation, on which rests this small parcel of cultivated conservation land. Although it is mid-June, some of the warm-loving crops—such as tender tomato seedlings—are in the ground fighting for survival. The reservation straddles Milton and Canton territory, two South Shore towns just off Route 128, Boston’s primary beltway. As the state of Massachussetts fights to preserve this precious slice of undeveloped land for a wildlife refuge, Mark Smith and Judy Lieberman work tirelessly to use the same land to preserve another endangered species—small-scale New England farmers and the litany of values, knowledge and community that trails after them. Their goal is to keep the competing challenges of economic, social and environmental sustainability at the forefront of their efforts.

“We can show that organic production can work side by side with habitat preservation,” insists Lieberman, the farm’s manager and one of its co-founders. Part of Brookwood’s mission is to get half the land into agricultural production and to keep half as a wildlife refuge. So far, Smith and Lieberman are still in the arduous process of proving to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) that their farm can be a viable enterprise and that it is worthy of having basic facilities—such as greenhouses, barns and production fields—all within easy access. Last year, they juggled these amenities at several different sites including another property also owned by The Trustees of Reservations (www.thetrustees.org). Two years ago, their vision was to build a nonprofit community farm, and 2006 was a trial period allotted to them by the DCR. They managed to gross $21,000 on one acre by incorporating diverse markets into their business strategy, including a 12-member CSA and three farmers’ markets, and their success has won them a modest greenhouse and an expansion this year from 1 acre to 4 acres.

Land use has always been a polarizing issue in New England. From the time colonists first set foot on Plymouth Rock, there has been an exploitative and extractive thread running through people’s attitudes toward and treatment of land (and against traditional Native American philosophies), which proved to be especially devastating to the thin, rocky and densely forested topsoil of New England. Clearing the land often exacerbates the effects of the region’s notorious weather extremes, allowing the soil to heat up more quickly in the summer, freeze more readily and permanently in winter and retain less moisture year round, making it susceptible to steady depletion through surface runoff. Colonial agriculture simply established a continuation of traditional European practices, which emphasized monocropping and largely ignored soil-improvement measures. It is perhaps this trend, its clash with indigenous practices and its adverse environmental consequences that have spawned such vehement reactions and a dynamic movement toward sustainable and organic agriculture in the Northeast. Massachusetts now practically explodes with demand for a return to fresh, local and sustainably produced food.

“The fact that we—a small farm in one corner of Metro Boston—can’t meet the growing demand for local food provides opportunities for local growers to alter their growing and marketing to meet local demand. This is the antithesis of the global food system,” says Smith, whose day job is to serve as campaign director for the family-farm-support organization Farm Aid. The irony is that in a landscape of such overwhelming demand, development is either so dense or so sprawling that there is little productive land left to meet it. What’s left is so sacred, that, as in the case of Blue Hills, the government’s impulse is to render it untouchable, to sever it almost completely from human impact and limit it to spectacle. The mounting dilemma is whether to preserve pristine land or to try and feed an unsustainably expanding population in a more sustainable fashion.

Rural areas where land is cheaper and more plentiful, on the other hand, tend to have stagnant or declining economies where there is little demand for organic food. “It would be almost impossible for young people to buy the land and finance the land” in a place like Massachusetts, comments Lieberman, whose main concern is recruiting the next generation of farmers, especially as America now loses about 300 farmers a week and the average age of the farming population continues to rise. Lieberman also sees opportunities to put large estates into conservation easements—land like the Blue Hills Reservation that has been willed to the state by previous owners—so that it may never be developed, and then convert it into productive farmland. Essentially, the challenge is to gather young potential farmers, seek out land and agricultural opportunities and connect the dots.

Last year, Brookwood hosted a young couple just out of college in what was almost a “sharecropping” arrangement, says Lieberman with a laugh, but it ended up being a fruitful learning experience, and they now have their own successful farm. Somewhat by accident, Brookwood became an incubator farm for this young, idealistic couple—a sheltered environment in which to learn the basics of agriculture with all the resources at hand so that they could then transfer this knowledge to an independent setting of their own.

Education and outreach are critical elements of Brookwood’s mission. There is intense enthusiasm and demand for involvement in local agriculture in the Boston area, and recognizing and engaging the myriad players has been one of Smith and Lieberman’s biggest accomplishments. Just as biodiversity and crop diversity are crucial insurance for the organic farmer, so, too, is market diversity, particularly the social diversity within those markets. Smith and Lieberman’s vision is to serve all economic levels. They make sure to spread their markets evenly across the socioeconomic spectrum, and what better place to do this than in their unique setting, wedged between Milton, an upper-middle-class suburb, and Mattapan, a low-income urban area. They reach a wide range of people who might reap very different benefits from renewed access to local and sustainable agriculture.

Much of Mattapan is what is commonly referred to as a “food desert”—a place where, aside from the occasional convenience store, it’s almost impossible to find actual food (let alone whole, unprocessed, healthy food). Smith and Lieberman aim to remedy this situation by setting up a farmers' market in Mattapan Square. They are currently seeking the obligatory minimum of two vendors certified to accept coupons from seniors and low-income recipients of WIC (Women, Infants, and Children, a USDA-supported supplemental nutrition program). Such farmers’ market coupons would be distributed at Dorchester House, a nearby public health and wellness center, and could be redeemed only for whole, unprocessed foods sold at the farmers’ market. It’s been a challenge to get vendors on board for the market, says Lieberman, who plans to hire several teens from Mattapan for a youth advisory committee focused on the effort. She now works with middle-school kids, whom she intends to recruit for these farmers' market apprenticeships.

Donations to shelters account for about 20 percent of Brookwood’s crop, which their status as a nonprofit and the support they receive from grants allow them to do.

Meanwhile, Milton and similar nearby communities are the source of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, shareholders in the farm’s production who pay an initial fee and receive fresh produce from the farm each week throughout the growing season. These are the customers who typically are already educated about obscure types of produce, who are savvy, knowledgeable, and who value freshness and seasonality. They are the customers for whom outreach and marketing are less necessary—they are a readymade market that simply needs to be served. Maintaining these extremes demands a diverse marketing strategy and the willingness to cater to varying income levels and tastes, from the basics to specialty crops.

Smith comments that Brookwood could easily feed into the “locavore” movements—a loose organization of people striving to have all elements of their diet come from within a 100-mile radius—because here in the Boston area even a 5-mile radius doesn’t seem absurd. Surrounded by such diverse and high-demand communities practically within a stone’s throw, Brookwood has the potential to have a sizable impact on strengthening the local food system and building a more cohesive community in the process, one linked across socioeconomic divides by concerns about food access, quality and a healthy local economy.

Does the Brookwood endeavor bear echoes of The Food Project, one of its suburban farm neighbors? “I remember when they were just starting, and I had a lot of the same ideas they did," says Leiberman, who sees the parallels between the two groups' social visions and efforts to draw a cross section of the community into agriculture. The Food Project, located in Lincoln and Dorchester, Mass., recruits teenage workers—especially for leadership roles—and other volunteers, both from the inner city and from affluent suburbs, and donates much of its product to Boston food pantries and homeless shelters. (Read more about The Food Project in Cultivating soil, cultivating youth.) Leiberman wants to distinguish Brookwood from The Food Project, yet hopes that their goals can dovetail, too.

At the time of the Food Project’s inception, Leiberman, who had come from a dairy farm in Vermont, was working at reVision House, a women’s shelter in inner-city Boston. Wanting to see more productive use of the abandoned lots she noticed around her, she and one of the residents decided to take over one of those lots and turn it into a garden. She had been inspired by a trend she noticed sprouting in the most unexpected, crowded corners of the city—especially in Chinatown, where there was no shortage of Asian gardeners. “I was amazed by the diversity of culture that I didn’t really find in Vermont,” she says, a diversity which began to express itself best in the garden. Finding and cultivating that small patch of land could be as important in the depths of the modern city—a place where many cultures collide—as anywhere, as a means of both cultural expression and self-sufficiency.

ReVision House now weaves its urban farm into its mission as a shelter, providing cultural enrichment, job training and education for residents, and a source of fresh, wholesome food for those who do not normally have access to it.

When Lieberman landed at Brookwood, her enthusiasm, agricultural experience, and social conscience were able to take root in the rich soil of the reservation. She was thankful that the land had been preserved in a natural, second-growth state, protected and enriched by wild grasses. Soil tests revealed 9.2 percent to 9.4 percent organic matter. Pests have not been much of an issue either, thanks to the diversity of wild native plants and an abundance of ladybugs. The one drawback of such rich, undisturbed soil is that it yields large chunks of sod when plowed under, making it much harder to produce a fine seedbed. Working within the unpredictable New England weather patterns can sometimes be a challenge as well, especially when trying to time fall crops so that winter cover crops can get established before the mercury drops.

Lieberman strives to preserve the natural wealth of this land and convince the DCR of the merits of organic production, so she keeps diversity in her rotation, builds organic matter with cover crops and mulches with compost and plastic to keep the weeds back. She relies on a handful of sources of temporary labor, including CSA work shares, summer workers and the “community workday” volunteer labor force listserv (which has 250 recipients). During one community workday, the pulled-together farm crew was able to transplant 1,500 tomato plants. Enthusiasm and desire for involvement is rampant, especially among CSA families who want to make the farm a family experience. One member built a pole-bean teepee, knowing it would be an exciting place for kids to play once it was filled out by tendrils and foliage.

Brookwood blossoms as a hub of community life, providing what many people crave in many ways—a celebration of the productive and recreational capacities of their environment, a sense of identity and history despite the growing sameness of metropolitan areas, and an idea of how food production and individuals fit into their micro-ecosystem. Brookwood’s mission statement relays the hope of becoming a place where “the visiting public can enjoy nature alongside an organic farm and see the symbiotic relationship between the two.”