June 11, 2020 “We’re still growing”: Summertime at Fowler Clark Epstein Farm
One of the few constants during this wave of COVID-19 upheaval is that plants are oblivious and they are needed – now, more than ever. The urban farmers tending to the plants are rethinking, retooling and reorganizing, but the food is growing just as it did last year and the year before. If you drive past the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm on Norfolk Street, you will see the farm beds full of green, and you will see the farmers – keeping their distance from one another – working the rows just as they always do at this time of year.
But, of course, the operations at the farm are not the same. Just as it did for everyone across the state and city, the Urban Farming Institute’s plans and programs came to a full stop in March when the Governor and Mayor issued stay at home advisories. A significant moment of uncertainty was followed by clarity of purpose coupled with seemingly instantaneous shifts to the on-line world – in some cases, for activities that would never have seemed possible. We mourn the loss of the summer’s agenda of in person workshops and special events at the farm, and we celebrate the growing attention to the importance of the local fresh food supply, UFI’s No. 1 goal is to grow and distribute food to everyone we can reach.
Two programs that were poised for spring start seemed too important to cancel: the Farmer Training Program (FTP) and Fit Around the Farm (FATF). The first is UFI’s flagship program that has been training future urban farmers and food business entrepreneurs since 2013. The second is an exercise and nutrition program for elders. It is critical to continue the growth of food entrepreneurs and to have people ready to train on the farms this summer. FTP staff made farm training happen with a full class, UFI trainers, and many informative guest speakers. And it worked. At the (virtual) graduation at the end of May, the sense of achievement, connection and sustenance was evident in the students’ presentations of their future plans and their appreciation for the guidance. Fit Around the Farm also went on line with chair yoga, food preparation and social connection. Our seniors would not stand for the program ending! The challenge here was that a few of the elders, unaccustomed to depending on technology, didn’t have laptops or pads. One by one, and with help from UFI, friends and relatives, UFI was able to add many elders to the Zoom platform. Shortly, UFI will hold Zoom training for those wishing to be in better communication with their families.
But what about the farms and food? The growing goes on. UFI usually welcomes around 750 volunteers during the growing season to help on its five farms. This year, instead of volunteers, our farm staff of seven will grow all the food while other staff assist with deliveries. As always, the farmers collaborate but are working solo at the farms more than usual. Each has a designated set of tools, regularly disinfected. Between the two buildings at the Farm, we have the ability to minimize the overlap of users in the kitchens and bathrooms which adds another level of safety for our farmers. We celebrated the opening of the new greenhouse at Fowler Clark Epstein Farm just in time for this season and the seedling sales have gone very well, in spite of the added challenge of taking all the sales on line, with safety protocols for pick up, a brand new delivery service and limiting the number of people in the greenhouse.
The on-line sales platform, pickup and delivery service is continuing for the early produce and seedling sales. UFI is committed to getting food to all the friends and neighbors of the farm who count on us, and especially those who have been hardest hit financially by the pandemic. We are working with our partner restaurants who are retooling their models, including preparing CSA-type boxes for distribution.
And because extraordinary circumstances always spark new ideas, we have a new initiative called the “Grow More Food Campaign.” The intent is to build 100 grow boxes for residents of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. It is aimed at families who have wanted to start learning to grow, and especially to offer a new and engaging activity for teens and young children as public activities have been cancelled. Our team builds the boxes and supplies soil, seedlings and some know-how to get a garden started. So far, the team has built 17 boxes and has funding in place to build more. So, while we won’t be able to welcome the neighborhood to the farm this season we are finding ways to bring the farm into the neighborhood!