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Urban farms sprout under community care

Providence’s Lots of Hope partnership seeks to expand thriving urban agriculture practices

The plot of land at the corner of Slocum and Almy Streets in Providence’s West Side has seen better days — the old building’s brown paint is peeling, slats are stripping  from its walls and a fading sign reads “Providence Head Start,” a faint trace of the school it once housed.

But the parking lot out front is home to rows upon rows of dirt mounds out of which small shrubs and plants, the remnants of last year’s planting season, are visible. A small stone Buddha rests under a gnarly tree. In the back, massive piles of compost wait for the next season of planting.

A quaint, rusty sign labels Nathaniel Wood’s most recent urban farming endeavor, Front Step Farm. After two years of renting another lot in Providence, one that was previously empty for about 70 years, Wood found himself ousted from the property when his landlord sold it to a neighboring nonprofit without his knowledge, he said.

This provoked a massive community letter-writing campaign to prevent the nonprofit organization from receiving a grant to plant the land that had previously been Wood’s, he said.

But the city wanted Wood to remain in Providence, he said. The Lots of Hope program, a partnership between Providence and the Southside Community Land Trust that seeks to plant vacant lots, developed out of Wood’s predicament — the city offered him the opportunity to rent a lot based on empty property listings. Wood’s most recent project sparked the city’s interest in urban farming, and the farmers have suggested the city implement five-year leases for other land plots, according to recommendations submitted to the city by the Little City Growers Cooperative.

“It cuts through the cynicism that people have about government bureaucracy,” Wood said.


Fruitful endeavors

Providence restaurant Local 121 — which sources its produce from local and urban farms like Wood’s — was founded on a commitment to the local economy and ecology, said owner Nancy Miller.

“In terms of our mission and our value system, it’s important for food security,” she said. Miller added that though it is not a financially sound arrangement — locally sourced food tends to be more expensive — her restaurant is not alone in its dedication to supporting local food and farms.

Florence and Manton Farm, an urban farm in Olneyville, has been growing for two seasons. Farmer Adam Graffunder said he hopes the Lots of Hope program will result in “more consistent availability of more local produce.” Graffunder and Wood are working together to obtain a larger expanse of land in Providence to increase production.

Graffunder noted his primary difficulty as a fledgling urban farmer was obtaining land. With Wood, he helped to make recommendations to the city about how best to create stability for farmers partaking in Lots of Hope.

“Our goal is really to build the local economy,” Graffunder said.

Neighbors have already seen the impact urban farms can have on the local community.

“It’s nice to have (Front Step Farm) near that really creepy house” on Slocum and Almy Streets, said Katie Worthington, a nearby resident. Though she did not know much about the farm when it first came to the area, she said she thinks it is a positive addition to the West Side.

“We’re psyched they’re there,” said Desi Wolf, owner of Loie Fuller’s, a restaurant around the corner from the farm. The farm’s yield is not large or consistent enough to sustain her restaurant, she said, so she has seen little tangible impact. But Loie Fuller’s does source some of its produce from Sidewalk Ends Farm, another Providence urban farm.

“It’s great to see empty lots turned into thriving gardens,” she said.

Urban farms rid trash from blighted empty lots, reduce storm water runoff, remediate toxicity in the soil and provide a habitat for pollinators, Wood said.

Sidewalk Ends Farm even has chickens, Wolf noted, adding that when she and her daughter used to visit the farm they appreciated the “bit of nature” incorporated into the urban environment.

“It allows for things like healthier communities to form,” Graffunder said.

“(Urban farming) really promotes a culture of sharing,” said Gregory Sankey, Jr., an AmeriCorps VISTA and sustainable communities director with New Urban Farmers. New Urban Farmers is a nonprofit food sustainability organization and urban farm lodged at a housing authority in Pawtucket.

Urban farms support the local economy, reduce carbon emissions and promote personal health and empowerment for the individuals involved, he said.

But the urban farmers are also confronted by “lack of respect,” Graffunder said — his collard greens have been stolen by the end of each of his past two planting seasons, he said.

He said he has also encountered some skepticism among the community. One man hoped to buy cilantro from Florence and Manton Farm for his restaurant but was accustomed to buying on a larger, cheaper industrial scale, Graffunder said. Urban farming was simply outside the restaurant’s usual business model and mindset, creating a rift between two modes of production.


Rediscovering roots

Going into its third season, co-founder and Assistant Director of New Urban Farmers Emily Jodka said the organization has seen its greatest impact among local youth.

“Children have a predisposition to loving nature,” Sankey said. Involvement in urban farming empowers children, teaches them consistent responsibility and gives them a greater understanding of the wider world, he added.

Local agriculture “puts food back where it should be from,” said Ryan Reeves, coordinator for Harvest Kitchen, a food-processing center in Providence.

Urban farming ensures that money from food production remains in communities instead of funneling into “a system that has no face” — the corporate farming industry, Reeves added.

Lots of Hope will have a defined, positive impact for Harvest Kitchen because an increased volume of local produce will need to be processed, he said.

Cultivating farmland in a city environment is not new for Providence. For five years, Roger Williams Park has been working on outreach with the University of Rhode Island through a massive community gardening program. Approximately 50 individuals plant plots of land in the park, which ensures “underserved demographics are actually engaging (with their food),” said Kate Venturini, landscape restorations and urban agriculture specialist at the URI Outreach Center.

An additional group of “Master Gardeners” from URI have planted about 30 plots of land for wider community distribution. Until recently, produce from these plots supplied a food pantry in the South Side, but the park is now looking for new distributors to stock.

Urban agriculture “empowers people to have a better quality of life,” Venturini said. “It just gets you to meet your neighbors,” she added, extolling the positive community-building nature of the program.

People who previously had no exposure to agriculture take immense pride in their produce, Jodka said.

Senior citizens who have been far removed from their “more agrarian-style background” can return to their roots, she added. “It’s really for all ages.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that farmers recommended five-year leases for the Lots of Hope program. In fact, they recommended five-year rolling leases, to be renewed at the start of each growing season. 


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