On a crisp March morning that was colder than it should have been I pulled up in front of the ReVision Urban Farm in the economically challenged Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. The half-acre site looks out of place nestled between the triple-decker homes in the neighborhood. A large greenhouse stretches most of the way across the rear of the lot, and the growing beds sit dormant, covered in a layer of late spring snow. As I step inside the greenhouse, everything changes. A biting wind gives way to warm, slightly humid air, and the cold, snow covered ground changes into early summer soil with rows of tables covered in baby plants. The smell of warm earth fills my lungs and the diffused sunlight filters in with surprising warmth.
Here I meet Jolie Olivetti, the Farm Manager. Bent over a giant salad spinner, Jolie is harvesting greens and radishes which are part of the new winter growing program made possible with the addition of the greenhouse. The bunches of radishes and bags of baby greens Jolie is packaging are as fresh as anyone can get anywhere. The produce she is preparing is for the attached shelter, whose tenants are eligible for free produce upon request from what is currently in season.
As she fills orders, I look around. The greenhouse is bursting with life. Rows of seedlings are in various states of growth. A table marked “winter greens” brims with baby greens ready for harvesting, while other tables are covered in seedlings that have barely sprouted. Everything is growing though, which is such a surprise in a winter laden with snow, snow and more snow. As she works, Jolie explains that certain beds are growing plants that will be sold as produce, others sold as seedlings and still others will be transplanted to the outdoor growing areas. It’s a busy place to be a plant.
Don’t let the size fool you though, this little farm does big things for the community. Although the plot of land is just barely over a 1/2 acre along with a new smaller plot down the street, they provide enough produce to support a farm stand in the neighborhood, a CSA in conjunction with Trustees of the Reservations’ Powisset Farm, produce sold at local farmer’s markets, seedlings sold into the community and produce free to those living at the attached homeless shelter. In addition, there is a job-training program and outreach programs to teach neighbors urban growing skills, like how to start a kitchen herb garden or the basics of composting.
While not certified organic, the farm follows organic practices, and Jolie and other growers use a common sense approach. To avoid contaminated soil, the farm land consists of about a foot of transplanted soil that sits over a barrier between the preexisting soil and the plants which essentially makes the farm one giant raised bed. Contamination from city life is only one challenge the farm faces though. A large farm has the opportunity to let fields rest for a season, an option not available on a small urban farm. Crop rotation at ReVision means moving the tomatoes from one place to another ten feet away, not two fields away which opens the crops up to greater pest and disease pressure. Of course, the biggest challenge for a small urban farm is space. They cannot easily grow some crops that require a lot of land, so popular vegetables like corn, potatoes, onions and winter squash are available through the farm’s partnership with Powisset Farm, a farm that is part of the Trustees of the Reservations program.
The success of ReVision Urban Farm is the result of over twenty years of hard work by volunteers, members of the community and employees. Before there was the farm, there was the homeless shelter for young pregnant women and mothers. Over time this has evolved into a home for about 30 families who live there for a few months while they get back on their feet. ReVision Farm and ReVision House together act as a vital support for the community, providing not only homes to many in the disadvantaged Boston neighborhood, but produce, training, support and a wide-ranging positive influence. In fact, when asked what the single most important need for the organization was, Jolie instantly answered that it was to continue to develop positive relationships with those in the community.
Everyone I met at ReVision seemed deeply interested in helping those around them, and the farm is simply an extension of that. While I was there, Shani Fletcher, a Grower at the farm, was proof-reading an upcoming cookbook that the farm is publishing. (As soon as the book is available, I will add a link.)
ReVision Farm is an asset to the community and the City of Boston. Jolie, Shani and everyone that works there, the hundreds of volunteers and all those in the community that have bonded together to make this improbably little place a success are proof of hope in a part of the city that needs it most.