Micro/Macro: Conversation with Green City Growers

This is the fourth and final installment of “Micro/Macro: Rethinking Agriculture on a Sustainable Scale,” a series examining shifting perceptions of agricultural practices. As interruptions to traditional food supply chains increase due to risks associated with factors such as climate change and changing global demographics, many are exploring innovative approaches to agriculture that will ensure greater food security. This series explores routes by which architects, urban planners, and ecologists can contribute to this dialogue of utmost importance.

The following is a conversation with Green City Growers (GCG), an urban farming company based in Somerville, MA. Sasaki’s relationship with GCG began this past spring, when we installed three of their raised beds at our offices. Each week, a farmer from GCG came to our office to tend the beds and offer agricultural training to volunteers from our office. The beds were very successful and yielded a wide variety of vegetables and herbs over the course of the summer and fall — including those in the image above. Read on for a conversation with GCG’s CEO and founder, Jessie Banhazl, farmer Marie Macchiarolo, and marketing associate Jeff Gilbert.

Q: Could you give an overview of what it is that Green City Growers (GCG) does? Some baseball card stats: How long have you been at it? How many employees/clients? Do you track the overall yield of your clients’ beds?
A: We specialize in the installation and maintenance of raised bed edible gardens and rooftop farms. Since our founding in 2008, we have installed over 500 raised beds, grown over 130,000 pounds of organic produce, worked hands on with over 6,000 individuals — and all of this done in less than two acres of growing space. We have up to 25 staff seasonally, with 12 full-time employees. We currently maintain 160 sites throughout the Greater Boston area, including the largest rooftop farm in New England at Whole Foods Market in Lynnfield, and a rooftop farm at Fenway Park.

Q: Most kids when they’re young want to be firemen or teachers when they grow up. Did any of you want to be… urban farmers? How did you get here?
A: Marie — I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, surrounded by farms and 4-H Clubs. My parents always had a garden in our back yard. Sometimes I would help, and sometimes I would just sit in the garden and eat a cucumber freshly picked from the vine. But as an angsty teenager, I wanted nothing to do with farms. They reminded me of the conservative, small-town attitude that I was pushing against and I didn’t understand how to separate the two. It wasn’t until I moved to an intentional community in central Virginia that I really grew to love farming. I had the chance to feel in my body exactly how much hard work is required to grow food for a community. I experienced the magic of stewarding and cultivating the land. Every carrot, potato, and tomato I ate I had had some hand in growing. That powerful experience set me on a path to further explore agriculture in the urban landscape.

Jessie — I didn’t have any horticulture background at all. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Boston (Wayland, MA) and was convinced I was going to work in advertising and live in a big metropolitan city — the farthest thing from urban farming. I did live in New York for a while and worked in television production, most notably for reality TV shows like “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” and “Wife Swap.” I realized after working in that industry that I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. I moved back to the Boston area where a friend of mine from college suggested starting a vegetable gardening business. I learned how to grow food in real-time through starting the business. The key is to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. Eight years later, here I am!

Q: It’s a really unique service that GCG offers. Did you have any precedents upon which to base your business model?
A: Jessie Banhazl, our CEO, founded Green City Growers in 2008 after her initial business partner had seen successful backyard gardening businesses on the west coast. At that point, there was no one offering these kinds of services in the Boston area, but the business model had proven effective elsewhere. While the beginning focus of GCG’s business model was a residential market, the company quickly shifted to focus on larger-scale, commercial clients.

Q: I know that the Fenway Farms has been huge. I’ve been seeing press on that all summer. Could you talk a little about how that opportunity arose?
A: GCG participated in MassChallenge, which is a startup accelerator program, back in 2013, and was awarded the John W. Henry Family Foundation prize for social impact. This provided us the opportunity to meet Linda Pizzuti Henry. Simultaneously, Fenway was planning to install a traditional green roof, and had hired Recover Green Roofs to do the install. Through speaking with Linda, we pitched the idea of Fenway installing a rooftop garden, which she was really excited by! The fact that we had worked with Recover Green Roofs on both the rooftop farm at Whole Foods Lynnfield and at ester restaurant in Dorchester was fortuitous, and made the entire process of converting over from a traditional green roof into a rooftop farm really seamless! Recover did the actual installation (of the green roof membrane layers, the crates, the soil, and the irrigation system) and Green City Growers maintains the farm.

Q: Does working with major commercial clients like Fenway or Whole Foods make you hopeful for more organizations to embrace urban agriculture in coming years?
A: Certainly! Fenway Park is the most visited tourist destination in all of New England. We estimate that some 500,000 people will interact with the farm each year, so when you’re talking about that level of community exposure, there’s a huge excitement generator. If organizations and developers see the success that Fenway Farms has had in just one year, urban agriculture moves from being a hard-to-conceptualize idea to something that is thriving in the heart of Boston.

Q: On a smaller scale, how do single household clients benefit from your services? What kind of feedback do you hear from families?
A: For many of our residential clients, the gardens are not only providing high-quality produce, but also acting as a teaching tool for young children and parents alike. We often hear about how the gardens have inspired more cooking at home, increased mental and physical health, and helped bring together families and friends. One of our clients used their garden almost like an after-school club for neighborhood kids, which inspired many other neighbors to install with us.

Q: In considering what GCG goes, I can’t help but think of the saying “teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Do you feel that success for GCG is clients becoming self-sufficient, and no longer needing your services, or do you see it differently?
A: On the residential level, it’s certainly exciting when clients get to a place where they are self-sufficient. We’ve also had a few clients who thought they could do it themselves and ended up hiring us back a few years later — something that I think speaks to the professional experience that our farmers bring to GCG. We do hope that, especially with community programs and corporate wellness programs like the one at Sasaki, our farmers will advise and mentor employees so that they can bring home this knowledge to their own gardens. So, to answer your question, success would be for many of our clients to become self-sufficient, but that we will also find new audiences to instruct and projects that are ready to scale up (such as the Whole Foods or Fenway rooftop farms), so that our assistance will always be necessary.

Q: Do you think that individual and community gardens can play a role in shifting dependencies on commercial agriculture? What would an ideal mix of food sources in this country look like? Any prognostications on what agriculture in the United States looks like in twenty, thirty, fifty years?
A: I think the key here is that no one source or idea is the idea. Community gardens and urban agriculture play a part in changing our food system for the better — so that it is more localized, more diversified, and more entrenched in the ways in which we are living and thriving in our communities. The “ideal” mix of food sources, if there is one at all, would be one that celebrates this diversity rather than centralizing and homogenizing in the way that many industrial systems function. This isn’t that far off of a dream, either. Fifty years from now, I think you’ll see a lot of technologically-driven agriculture (like aquaponics and hydroponics) complementing conventional agriculture, community and individual gardens, and new forms of growing that are still yet to conceptualized!

This post previously appeared on the Sasaki blog. This is the final installment of Micro/Macro: Rethinking Agriculture on a Sustainable Scale. Be sure to read the first, second, and third installments in this series on our blog.

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