Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special eight-session series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable and The Kresge Foundation.
Register to participate in future Cities@Tufts events here.
Below is the transcript from the second session “Organizing for Food Sovereignty in Boston: A Personal History” with Greg Watson. Learn more about his current work with the Schumacher Center for a New Economics by visiting: centerforneweconomics.org.
Organizing for Food Sovereignty Lecture
Julian Agyeman: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the city’s colloquium, along with our partners Shareable and the Kresge Foundation. I’m Professor Julian Agyeman and together with my research assistants Meghan Tenhoff and Perri Sheinbaum, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues. Today, we are delighted to welcome Greg Watson to be our third colloquium speaker of 2021. Greg is Director of Policy and Systems Design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics, and his work currently focuses on community food systems and the dynamics between local and geoeconomic systems. When I was researching Greg’s bio, it’s enough to make anybody feel like an underachiever, so I’m going to give you a few snippets. In 1978, he organized a network of urban farmers markets in the greater Boston metropolitan area. He served as the 19th commissioner of agriculture in Massachusetts under the governors Dukakis and Weld from 1990 to 1993 and under Governor Deval Patrick from 2012 to 2014. And during the Patrick administration, he launched a statewide urban agriculture grants program and chaired the Commonwealth’s Public Market Commission, which oversaw the planning and construction of Boston’s public market.
[00:01:22] From ’84 to ’90, Greg served as the assistant secretary in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Economic Affairs, where he established and chaired the Massachusetts Office of Science and Technology. He’s got hands on experience of organic farming, aquaculture, wind energy technology, passive solar design when he was at the new Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, first as its education director and then the executive director. He’s been executive director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, one of my fantastic favorite all time Boston based organizations. And he served under President Obama’s transition team in the US Department of Energy in 2008. Greg’s talk today is “Organizing for food sovereignty in Boston, A Personal History.” Greg, as Zoom-tastic welcome to the Cities@Tufts colloquium.
Greg Watson: [00:02:14] Thank you so much, Julian. And it should be obvious to everyone, as I think I said to you earlier, I have a difficult time holding onto steady employment. So we’ll attribute it to that. I am going to immediately switch to my presentation. And although it’s called “A personal history,” you’ll quickly see it’s far from that. It’s really about an incredible network of folks. I want to start by just talking about the politics of growing food. And in the mid to late 70s, it became a very public topic. And this was the front page of a local weekly called the Real Paper back in 1978. And it is about the politics of growing food in Massachusetts. There’s a history of growing food in the city of Boston, dating back to World War Two. We had our own share of victory gardens, I think probably the most known instance of our victory gardens, about seven and a half acres, over five hundred gardens. There are also victory gardens in downtown Boston, in this case, Copley Square.
[00:03:17] It’s sort of ironic that right at the end, or immediately after the end of the Second World War, even with the proliferation of victory gardens, the overall agricultural sector in Massachusetts began a serious decline, From the end of the Second World War, right up until the mid-1970s, Massachusetts was showing an alarming deterioration of both farms and farmland. That’s the graph, two graphs on your left. And it prompted the commissioner of agriculture at that time, Frederic Winthrop, to establish a blue ribbon commission to try to figure out what could be done to stave off the loss of farms and farmland in Massachusetts. Let me just say there was a sentiment at that time that maybe that was inevitable, that Massachusetts should focus on its high tech industries and its colleges and universities, and maybe it was an inevitability that we would not be a farming state. Fortunately, Fred Winthrop and the blue ribbon commission came up with didn’t feel that way and came up with some alternatives about what we could do.
[00:04:20] This Real Paper article, just want to give you a synopsis, does talk about where the public sentiment was, and again, this is back in 1978. We were importing 95, maybe 98 percent of our food, it’s not a whole lot better these days, but this was enough to sound the alarm to say we should do whatever we can to sort of at all. And here’s what’s interesting. During that period and the aftermath of the policy for food and agriculture that came from the blue ribbon commission, that was a product of the blue ribbon commission, suggested a number of options that he state could undertake, all of them within the realm of state powers. They wanted the report not to sort of speculate on what might come from the feds, whatever, they really said, let’s look at the strategies that are available within our state boundaries. And interestingly enough, the number one major advocate for agriculture in the state legislature during those years, was Mel King, state legislator from the south end. I say surprising, and most folks thought it was surprising at the time, obviously, because Mel was, as you can see, African-American and folks couldn’t understand at first why he was so passionate about agriculture to the point where one of his colleagues did ask him that on the floor of the legislature, and they asked him, “Mel, why are you so interested in agriculture?” And Mel’s response was, “Because I eat.”
[00:05:43] Mel was — is, is — Mel is still very much active and still very much alive. He embodied sort of the whole Rainbow Coalition mentality in terms of embracing everyone and creating the most diverse network of people possible to solve problems. He was a genuine, passionate, visionary, gentle — could be angered. He knew how to envow people. When he ran for mayor against Ray Flynn back in the late 70s — I think it was in the 70s, he never asked his supporters for cash. He got us to get involved with his campaign by holding house parties, making cream cheese sandwiches, or in this case, because he knew I was a cartoonist, asked me if I could design his campaign — well, he did raise some money from his campaign envelope.
[00:06:31] The major organization at that time, as far as food production in the city and food sovereignty was the Boston Urban Gardeners, or BUG, for Short and the Boston Urban Gardeners, BUG, is where I really got my introduction to community organizing. It was, again, just like Mel, embracing an organization that was very diverse, women led and actually white led organization, which in some cases in terms of some models of organizing some folks would have or take issues with. In the case of Boston and Mel King, and those of us who were members of the Boston Urban Gardeners, not an issue at all. What we were looking for was commitment, management skills, passion, and an understanding, really even back then of systems. A woman in the center on the left there, Charlotte Kahn, she, along with Judy Wagner, were founders, co-founders of Boston Urban Gardeners. I’m going to not point out everybody in the photo, but in the upper left hand corner there, the one woman who you can see is just sort of peeping over the top there. Her name is Susan Redlich. And Susan at the time was director of Agricultural Land Use in Massachusetts,
[00:07:43] BUG really had a very small — I think really Judy and Charlotte were sort of the paid staff, maybe a few others. It was a vast network. They got everybody to sort of participate that was interested in urban gardens and urban food production. This was sort of the funky office that they occupied after they merged with the Southwest Corridor Community Farm, so you can see it was not necessarily — it didn’t have a huge budget. What they did with the money they got was pretty amazing, though. They took advantage of resources. Back then we had something called — we had the Waltham Field Station, which provided technical assistance and advice to urban gardeners, specifically to urban gardeners. And so it focused on issues like lead and soil, things that we could not have gotten from the Agricultural Extension Service — or maybe not as much from the Agricultural Extension Service out in Amherst. An incredible resource. The extension services gone, but the Waltham Center is still there with about eight nonprofits, I think there — and some amazing organizations that you should all know about.
[00:08:45] The approach to getting things done by BUG was pretty incredible. Sometimes the tactics were outrageous and audacious, but they understood the current political and cultural environment. And they knew what they could do. They knew how far they could push. And then this case, for instance, that they needed. We were always in need of soil. And that’s still the case in many urban — I guess pretty much in all urban environments these days because of soil contamination, lead, and because in most cases, people don’t even really know what type of contamination there is because there’s a record of illegal dumping or at least a knowledge of illegal dumping that’s gone on for decades. So either barriers, bringing in, composting new soil was always a challenge.
[00:09:29] When, Judy, and in this case, I think Charlotte Kahn learned about a project at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, I think it actually was the Worcester Biotech Park. And they realized there was just this five thousand cubic yards of topsoil. They were anxious to see how they could get it. And they were able to recruit the US Army 640nd Battalion to haul the top soil from Worcester to Boston. You probably couldn’t do that today. Today, if you tried to do that, we would get all the negative headlines about the abuse of the military, whatever, there were a bunch of reasons why you couldn’t do it today. The lessons that we learned as we organized for BUG is that there are special cases — in this case, the special case is the topsoil from Worcester and using the reserve. But the lessons learned, there’s understanding your environment, understanding the context, and knowing what’s possible in terms of the options available to you.
[00:10:27] By the way, the gentleman down in that photograph on the right there, that’s John Kerry, our new Climate Change Czar in the administration. Back then, he was lieutenant governor for Massachusetts, actually. And it just sort of gives a sense of the breadth and depth of the network that BUG established to kind of get things done. And again, here’s Susan Redlich, who was the director of the Division of Agricultural Land Use, State Bureaucrat. The gentleman here is Jack Powers, a poet. owns Stone Soup Poetry Shop, a bookstore on Charles Street. These were the people that worked for BUG and and got BUG’s work done. They’re shown here providing coffee and sandwiches to these folks who hauled the topsoil from Worcester to Boston. Personal contact, networking, critical to everything that bug did back then. No virtual venues. And I will say that there’s a — I’m still sort of trying to figure out the pros and cons. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of advantages and being able to use technologies like this, Zoom, especially in this particular era. But there is also something to be said about that person-to-person contact that BUG epitomized.
[00:11:41] We, as you can see, maybe not from this letter, his was an encouraging letter from the city of Boston that said that spaces were made available to create community gardens for the city of Boston. If you look down the last paragraph, they stressed the work had just begun. They had to put together a plan, a neighborhood open space land trust plan. Land trusts are really integral to both community gardens and the urban agriculture movement, and actually, for a lot of the work we do at Schumacher. You can see from this the BUG wasted no time and I think it was October of ’89 that they got the letter in February of nineteen ninety. They came up with this open space plan for a neighborhood open space land trust. And the skills, and again, the network and the work that was done to me suggests that there’s also a lot to be gained by having to go through the struggle. There is always sort of an argument, well, why aren’t the comparison with some programs in the UK where there’s an allotment program where citizens are given the opportunity to rent land and it’s available to everyone. I think that’s good, but that type of program doesn’t address the systemic problems and doesn’t lead to systemic change, and that there are systemic problems that we’re trying to address. My feeling is sometimes we’re better off going through the struggle and learning what it is that we can do.
[00:13:02] Celebrations were always a part of what we did there. We wanted to let people know when there were successes. I think that’s sometimes one of the problems we have is that we work hard when you’re part of a cult struggle. These days, I’m not sure we celebrate enough and help people understand and acknowledge the success of their work. Here’s our guy again Mel King, this time it’s just highlighting the fact that he also, among other things I mentioned, working to preserve agricultural land, taking that policy for food and agriculture and implementing it through policies in the state legislature. He started a statewide for fruition program. I called him sort of our original permaculturalist, there are orchards planted not just in Boston, they’re around the state. They’re far west as Amherst, I believe. But they’re also just a line of a bunch of fruit and nut trees in the city of Boston. That was the positive part. One of the things we did learn, though, is that trying to create sort of the management and continuity of those trees and orchards, which require a lot of care. There wasn’t an organization that was in place. So many of them went unharvested. And then, as you probably know with fruit and nut trees, that can become a nuisance. When you start having fruit trees, you know, cars, that could be an issue. But anyway, this was published in the Boston Globe and the idea was they wanted not only to highlight the fact this had been done, but they wanted the community to know where they might be able to go out and maybe perhaps adopt some of the trees that have been planted as part of the fruition program.
[00:14:33] In 1977, I was working on Thompson Island Education Center. I was teaching as part of South Boston’s forced busing to integrate schools back then. Pretty dicey back and forth on a boat. One day I’m on the boat coming home. And Susan Redlich, the woman I pointed out in the upper left hand corner of the Boston Urban Garden picture, we knew each other through BUG had never worked together, but she took the boat over and wrote. Back with me and asked if I would be interested in organizing farmers markets in Boston. Mel King had procured some money from the legislature to hire a part time consultant. And I’m not sure why Susan chose me, but I guess we looked at our interactions and all and she asked me if I’d be interested. I looked at her and said, I think so. Susan, tell me what a farmer’s market is. And she described it. And I said, yup, I will do that. I was working part time at Thompson Island. I was able to recruit an intern from Buckingham Browne and Nichols, who happened to be visiting Thompson Island a few weeks before. I’m not making any of this up. High school senior. He called me about three days after I accepted this, he said, I met you on the tour. I’m a senior. We have to do a senior project, is there anything that I can do for you? I said absolutely. He came on board and we organized the markets. The first one opened up, I’ll never forget, July 8th, 1979, Fields Corner in Dorchester.
[00:15:55] And I bring this up because it sort of speaks to — and by the way, this was really important to Mel King because he was interested as part of this whole, at this point, it was a movement. I’m not sure it was a system. I’m not sure it was a vision, but it certainly was a movement inspired by Mel to increase our ability to meet more and more and more of our food needs. He never talked about sufficiency, but he did talk about how much is it realistic to talk about — he said if we can get 10 or 20 percent more, that’s pretty major. But he also saw it as a way of building urban rural coalitions because he realized there’s only so much you can do statewide, even with rural farms, and there’s only — and even more limited in terms of what we could do as urban farmers. But working together, we could help each other. And he also realized that by building that kind of coalition, you could build urban support for legislation that was for farmers, or legislation relevant to farms, but farmers have obviously not the numbers that we had in the city. So it was a sort of a win win.
[00:16:55] That first farmers market, I will point out, though, we got commitments from 20 farmers to show up in Dorchester that Saturday morning. We had the Commissioner of agriculture, we had [the media], we had everything there. And at nine o’clock when the market opened, not a single farmer showed up. And the crowds were there, 9:30am, this one, Katchie Berberien from Northborough up — he couldn’t unload his truck fast enough because he’d sold out. That evening, the TV cameras, rather than taking a wide angle shot, showing one farmer in the middle of the street, did a close up. And all you could see were hands exchanging fruits and vegetables and money. And the next week we had twenty farmers and the thing took off. And by the way, that’s Katchie on the left in 1989. And in 2010 he was still selling at farmer’s markets in Brookline. So it really did make a difference.
[00:17:44] I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail here because I’m getting a little short on time. But over the years we’re realizing that — I’ll use the term here, that the markets have become sort of gentrified. And with the introduction of incentive programs to encourage low income people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, like the HIP Program (Stanford Health Improvement Program) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), we’re finding there some tension between sort of the more affluent, and mostly white customers being impatient with the new influx of low income customers who held up the lines because they needed the coupons or they didn’t speak English. And there were just a lot of tension. So we held a workshop recently to try to look at how we could reinstill the culture of inclusion at markets. This is basically, once again, an observation. And just as things evolve and as programs become popular and evolve over time, we’ve got to be flexible as organizers to try to figure out how we can adapt to that.
[00:18:39] In 1980, I was visiting once again Susan Redlich at her office of the Saltonstall Building to return a film that I was showing to a group of students — I was teaching at the Charles River Academy in Cambridge. As I was getting on the elevator, she ran up to me, called out my name, handed me a piece of paper, and it was a job announcement to become education director at this place called the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod. No internet back then, I looked with the library, looked it up. We looked at each other and my family and all, and they said, it looks like a commune. I said, no, I think they’re doing some really exciting work. And I applied and I went. And I felt like, at the time that I was abandoning all the network and friends, not only at the Boston Urban Gardeners, but I was also leaving the city. And so I kind of felt down about that. And I expressed those concerns to Mel King and of course, I should have known, but shortly after I got settled at New Alchemy, one of the first groups that I led a tour for were Mel Kings’s community fellows. He brought them down to the Cape, drove them down there, said take them for a tour. We looked at geodesic domes and Cape Cod Ark and fish farms. And Mel looked at me, and I said, Mel, and he said, “This is my first field trip with these folks,” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “I want them to see what’s possible. And I want them to see that some things are possible that they don’t even know about, didn’t even think about, because that’s the way we’re going to get them thinking, getting them to think in terms of really understanding all the options that are available to them.”
[00:20:12] And lo and behold, later on in places like Dudley Street, we’re able to take these concepts and to put them in place. So when I got the opportunity to become executive director at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, I will say of all the things that I’ve done, I feel now in retrospect that I should have paid the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative for the four years I spent there because it was like getting a graduate degree in life. It was just an amazing place, the things they had to to deal with and overcome. People who don’t know the story, I suggest you read “Streets of Hope” by Holly Sklar and Peter Medoff. It’s a history of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
[00:20:49] The capsule thing is that multicultural neighborhood, Cape Verdean, Latino, African-American, white, poor, right in the heart of Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, the community was able to halt urban renewal efforts that the city had in mind for them that was going to have marinas and condominiums. And the neighbors all looked at each other and said, we don’t see ourselves in that scenario. And again, back in those days, urban renewal was called “Negro removal,” and they could see themselves being displaced by that. That’s the whole gentrification displacement piece. They halted the urban renewal effort, Mayor Ray Flynn, who defeated Mel King for Mayor way back when with the envelope. And Ray Flynn, I think to some extent felt that he had lost the support of a lot of the minority community. So he did say to folks, to the community, tell me what you need, whatever it is you need, I will get it for you.
[00:21:47] I’m sorry. Back up one point here. After halting the urban renewal, the slum lords and speculators who had bought up land, tenements and did nothing with them, they were waiting for the city to come in and buy so that they could obviously profit from it. And when they saw that it might not happen, at least the slumlords, basically responded by torching their buildings to collect insurance. So night after night, there were fires. The neighborhood was reduced to 1,400 vacant, burned out lots.
[00:22:17] And that’s the point when Mayor Ray Flynn said, What can I do to help, consultation with lawyers and urban planners, the community asked for the power of eminent domain over all abandoned vacant land, and that was granted. I won’t go into all the details, but it was a major — first time, only time, a nonprofit, grassroots organization was given that power. And they didn’t take it lightly. There were long arguments about what are we going to do with that type of power. That’s the power that governments use to force people off their land or that take towns and destroyed them to create the Quabbin Reservoir so that Boston can have water. What in the world are we going to do with that? But they decided they would set up a form of self governance and they would use it to rebuild their neighborhood. They went through a number of processes. They went through visioning processes and talked about affordable housing, the types of housing that they were looking for. And I got to tell you, it is the best kept secret. It’s not a secret. But if you don’t know about how this community, in some cases, turned traditional planning on its head and rebuilt itself, you’ve got to do it. And it’s also, once again, a testament to the power of organizing and the synergy of getting people together and organizing to a positive vision. Not against something, but for something.
[00:23:34] And I will tell you, though, that sustaining that positive organizing initiative is a lot tougher than it is mobilizing people to fight the fight, because you can always see what it is you’re trying to, at least in some cases, who your enemy is. And we would get into some arguments, what the conventional organizing schools like the Industrial Areas Foundation, who kind of had some issues with that. But it’s interesting, one of the first initiatives, or, not the first, when I got there, the initiative that, after housing, economic development was sort of a goal and urban agriculture was one of the things that was on their plate. Youth were always involved, and that was one of the things that Mel always stressed. You got to get the youth involved. They’ve got to understand this. Youth here are building a physical model of our neighborhood street by street. I think it was one of the first times that a big 3D printer and I think it was Ceasar McDowell in MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that allowed us to use this 3D printer that was the size of a small apartment. And that’s where you got these little sort of models up.
[00:24:32] But that built a sense of belonging, a sense of pride for these young people. And by the way, there’s a town common that was part of the redevelopment strategy, the revitalization strategy for Dudley Street that also became the site for the farmers markets that were held weekly. I’ll get to that in just a second. Before that, it was a site where drug dealing and prostitution happened. At least where there was solicited and when the architects who were hired, John Copley and Lynn Wolf, who organized this, they said, we want to interview the kids and we want the youth to design that square, the town common, so that we’ll actually get used. And it has been successful.
[00:25:14] The keystone to our urban agriculture program, to a large extent, was a greenhouse. Let me just show you, this is the evolution of that greenhouse. Brook Avenue garage was an abandoned garage. It was an automobile repair shop. It leaked a lot of oil. The Massachusetts Highway Department had money through its environmental supplemental program that was made available to distressed communities in Boston that could somehow make a relationship between polluted land and oil, because they had to be some relationship. And so we had this site and we saw the Brook Avenue garage held a number of meetings. So the community, what are we going to do with this? Some people proposed, let’s put a park in there, we want more open space. There are a number of options, but we finally arrived at, let’s build a greenhouse. And there’s another shot of the garage. We got the money. You can see here the demolition started. That’s a view of the site from our office at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. And there if you look almost at the center, that thing looks like somebody had just, like, dropped a spaceship down in the middle of our neighborhood. But that’s the greenhouse.
[00:26:18] We partner with the food project. This is another view of it. And once again, it’s built with our partner organization, The Dudley Neighbors Incorporated, the land trust. And it’s just important to stress, I’ve been going through a lot of things very quickly and just about ready to end, but the whole idea is that the community-owned the land, even with the housing, the community, it’s a community land trust. They own the and you lease the land for 99 years. There are a lot of reasons for that, maybe they’ll come up during Q&A. It was a difficult argument for a lot of folks, some of Latino and African-American residents [would say], “What do you mean I don’t own the land?” That’s the source of wealth, that’s how you start to build wealth. And so we had to have this conversation about how we felt that the Community Land Trust was a tool that would help avoid speculation. Because on one hand, residents wanted economic development, on the other hand, they feared economic development and improvement because they saw that scenario of gentrification, the displacement sort of playing itself out, and they did not know how to avoid it. And I will say that the Community Land Trust, at least, certainly has been the answer for Dudley Street. And there’s another shot of the inside of the greenhouse, 10,000 square feet, rented out, I think two hundred residents a year apply and they grow so they can get fresh vegetables in the winter.
[00:27:39] Food Project is an incredible partner in this. They manage not only the 10,000 square foot greenhouse, but they also manage the food lot, outdoor plot, and they teach our residents how to farm. And I do think that urban agriculture, among other things, is going to be a place where a lot of our future farmers in the state are going to be trained to become farmers. This is just a shot of a, I think, a 2013 Boston Globe piece, “Taking Root,” talking about what’s happening in the city and how the city is now sprouting all these urban farming initiatives. So we sort of came full circle — talk about gestation period.
[00:28:15] This is a diagram developed by Pen Loh. Most of you probably know in the Urban Environment Policy and planning at Tufts. And it really talks about sort of the first articulation of sort of the closed loop system for urban agriculture. And Pen and his group have just done amazing things in the Urban Environment Program. But I think this was a way of sort of talking about how we can improve the environment, encourage, create open space and also promote economic development. I will say, as I think Pen stresses in the solidarity economy sort of writings and discussions, that we do need a new economic context for this. These aren’t all going to be your traditional profitable businesses. They contribute a lot more to the community. And somehow we got to factor in and understand how we integrate certain types of initiatives like this so that we achieve the overall goals that we’re trying to meet. I will say that the other thing that’s happened, the city of Boston, Mayor Menino, very supportive. We work with John Feuerbach at the Department of Labor Development. I think it was two years when I came back from my second tour as commissioner of agriculture.
[00:29:21] And this was pretty amazing because this is how you start to create systemic change. We can do the markets and we can do the gardens and the urban farms. But how do you codify that and what Mayor Menino committed to all of us have said, we’re now going to result in the city of Boston to permit commercial farming. And that’s major because if it’s not in the code, not in the zoning code, you may as well forget it, it doesn’t really exist. And so I don’t know if we were the first, but we certainly were among the first cities to actually zone for agriculture. And it was two years
[00:29:53] Because you had to consider every single detail. What would you encounter? I mean, it was composting on roofs, to the size of a lot, so it was arduous, it was painful, but it was also incredibly educational. Just want to point out one of the — so as us old fogies are slowly fading into the twilight, the most encouraging thing is it’s just this bunch of young and energetic urban farmers that are on the scene. Folks from the Urban Farming Institute in Boston, they’ve now got the Clark Fowler farm, which was a — Mattapan was a farm back in the day, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan was agricultural back in the days, right? Because Boston, that was a pretty good distance of travel, and so there was a lot of good farmland. And they are doing some of the most incredible work in the city.
[00:30:42] I’m going to end by talking about the future. They’re going to be some high-tech innovations that are out there. Climate-controlled environments like freight farms and greenhouses are going to be probably needed, unfortunately, if we don’t abate climate change the way that we know that we’re going to need to. Rooftops, this is again taking advantage of, in many cases, of unused or — certainly unused, but also not contested space that’s on the ground. Boston has got some real — obviously there’s a lot of competition for land on the ground. There’s some particularly interesting issues that we had realized in terms of wind and other things there. And this was Boston Medical Center also doing something similar. So, the concern there, though, is that once again, you’ve got now a lot of highly capitalized young people coming in and doing what they should do. They should take advantage of what has been done, particularly the zoning, and all that encourage entrepreneurial activities in the city. But we want to make sure that it doesn’t inadvertently push out the folks who were the pioneers and are doing some of the more conventional farming in the city.
[00:31:45] I’m going to end by making a plug. If people are interested in community land trust, further discussion, we’re going to be having a roundtable tomorrow sponsored by the Schumacher Center. So that’s coming up. In a couple of weeks, the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference, and that’s a joint venture of the Urban Farming Institute and Mass Department of Agricultural Resources. An incredible lineup of folks that are going to be there. So if you want to delve deeply, more deeply into community land trusts, urban farming, that’s there, I’m going to end with this quote. This is how you can get in touch with me if you’re interested, Center for Economic Development. And I will sort of say, Yes, we should all do what the Mel King way.
Organizing for Food Sovereignty Discussion
Julian Agyeman: [00:32:25] Greg, thank you for a fascinating tour through urban agriculture in Boston, and you know what a role you’ve had to play. And Greg, you’re not an old fogey,
Greg Watson: [00:32:39] But as you can see, I’m serious, though. It really is an incredible network and diverse network of unbelievable people.
Julian Agyeman: [00:32:47] Absolutely. Well, listen, we’ve got some great questions coming up. But first one, Greg, I want to ask you, what does food sovereignty mean to you? You know, we’ve got all these academic kind of ideas of what — you know, in a sentence or two. What does food sovereignty mean to you?
Greg Watson: [00:33:02] To me, it means a strategy for meeting food needs that’s developed by the community. And so you sort of separate — food security can also do that, but it can do it in ways that don’t acknowledge how the community benefits from the strategies to do it. So it’s really focusing attention, not entirely, but certainly making sure that the input from the community and the community, like urban farms, for instance, and all are factored into our ways of thinking about meeting future food needs.
Julian Agyeman: [00:33:31] We’ve got some student questions Anna Burry wants to know. Can you say more about maintaining positive energy in the neighborhood and around different initiatives? What have you seen of this?
Greg Watson: [00:33:42] I think and that’s why it’s sort of interesting, the visioning process that was supported by, in this case I think was the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation came in — and it wasn’t just Dudley Street, there were about four other communities, Washington, D.C., Detroit, they’re again, community organizing organizations. And they gave us like six years of money to plan and vision. So the idea there is, is it truly possible to come up with a shared vision? That the community says, this is us, we know what we’re aiming for and we’re driven by that. And then also because you didn’t have the milestones. And that’s why, for instance, it was so important, when we talk about economic development and urban agriculture became one of those concepts, that getting that greenhouse built, getting the food project to play its role in making that happen became a tangible, a real tangible sign that we were moving towards that. And prior to that, well, before I got there, the housing was part of it. And you could see that when that housing sort of took place. So it really is keeping your — I’ll use the cliche, being able to keep your eye on the prize, but being sustained by positive feedback. Because you can see the progress being made.
Julian Agyeman: [00:34:59] Great. Thanks, Greg. Jessica Brennan asks if you could speak a little bit more about the report you mentioned on farmers markets and cultural inclusiveness. I know this is of great interest to a lot of students, especially students in my food justice class.
Greg Watson: [00:35:13] Yes, absolutely. And I will say I give so much credit to the Massachusetts Food Policy Collaborative, Winton Pitcoff. Basically, they decided we need to do something to — is it possible, first of all, to get a couple of groups together, we were looking for both vendors and market managers, and help us explain what the problem is. And so we got their observations about, again, sort of the jams that were created because you were having to use a new technology. There was particular concern about the customers who needed translation because that, again, sort of balled things up. So we kind of said, all right, is there a toolkit we could put together? Are there enough problems that seem to be common that if we could address signage, for instance, I mean, some simple things in different languages. Outreach to communities and that sort of thing. So what we did is we held one Eastern Mass and one Western Mass workshop that I facilitated and we did SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analyses, we did a bunch of things we interviewed in between, right? Got lots of feedback. And then we put together not just the report, but we put together a toolkit. And the audience for this, the primary audience were market managers and vendors, but also consumers that they were interested in reading it. And so it is available at the Mass Food System Collaborative at their website, or if people want to get in touch with me directly, can also send it to them.
Julian Agyeman: [00:36:38] Great. Thanks, Greg. Greg, one question that I don’t have as well. You know, my theory and I don’t think it’s necessarily mine, but DSNI (Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative), as I understand it, before they constituted the organization, the board, they looked at the demographics of the neighborhood and tried to mirror the demographics of the neighborhood in the board and in the organization itself. So, simple question. Is that why they are so effective, legitimate, trusted?
Greg Watson: [00:37:08] Yeah, I think so. Let me let me say this, and it’s a commitment to honoring a process. And the other thing is Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, The actual boundaries are not an official census boundary. It’s sort of like this is what the community said, this is our neighborhood. So even when we did reports, we had the jury rig that. And I was there for four years, 30 member board of directors, Cape Verdean and Latino, African-American, white, but then the churches, the community development corporations, the businesses, all could have representation on the board. And the board is elected, it’s not appointed. I mean, it’s a neighborhood-wide election. They advertize campaigns with televisions in a window of Dudley Street. The election is held at St. Patrick’s Church. It’s monitored. I mean, it’s like the real deal. And then the work is done by committees. And so in four years, think about this, four years, the first Wednesday of every month, a 30 member board meeting. And never once was there an issue of a quorum. Ever, because, the other thing was that people knew that what they were doing was going to really have an impact on their lives. So it was that representation, true representation. And I think that sort of transparency went a long way.
[00:38:27] And by the way, that didn’t mean, as you well know, that there weren’t some really heated arguments and knock down drag out fights. But even those, the way that they got resolved, really appreciated by the community. I don’t think there’s any question. And by the way, long before I got there, this was people like Gus Newport and Peter Medoff and folks who really cranked a lot of this stuff out. And the community, I mean, Ché Mangin and others who really were the linchpin for all this.
Julian Agyeman: [00:38:54] All right. Thanks, Greg. Rachel Bronner wants to know, or wants a clarification, of whether the land trust owns the land or if residents were able to purchase land through the land trust. And can you expand on how this increased community wealth through land ownership?
Greg Watson: [00:39:10] It’s community-owned. So there is a Dudley Neighbors Incorporated, and that’s the Community Land Trust. And the residents own their homes. They have a 99 year lease. And the reason for that, and one of the things that allowed the organization to do is, for instance, it could as a land trust, we could cap the amount of — and this one could be controversial, but we could cap the nonprofit that could be made on the resale of your property within a certain time frame. And the reason for doing that is we felt that if you could do that, if you could come up with a way that the value of the property was going to increase but not be maximized. We called it optimizing the value of the land to achieve our goals so that a speculator, someone who could say, well, these are really good homes, and they’re built fairly cheap, I can buy these things up, I’m going to sell them. And then that’s what the displacement comes in. And so the land trust — you’ve got to get this sort of agreement that we’re going to manage the land lease and do it for the benefit of — here’s a goal, we can’t guarantee that every landowner will maximize their profits, but we can optimize and guarantee the integrity of the community. At least that’s the thinking. So it’s community first, and that’s where the land trust comes in. And it speaks of one very important point, and that is that we are asking the members of society who had the least opportunity to build wealth, right? To take and not maximize that for the benefit of the community, but they were more than willing to do that. So there was an additional sacrifice you’re asking them to make, but not doing so runs the risk that your worst fears are going to be met.
Julian Agyeman: [00:40:56] Ok, thanks, Greg. Josh McAlinden wants to know a little bit about this agroecology work that you’ve done in Cuba. And his question is really, can you share insights in achieving food sovereignty in that country versus in a capitalist nation?
Greg Watson: [00:41:12] Yeah, I’ll be really quick, But it’s very interesting. Matter of fact, I was actually — it was my last year as commissioner of agriculture the second time, and I was on the board of the Schumacher Center and I had just established our urban agriculture program, our grants program for the state. And one of the board members of Schumacher said, well, that’s very exciting, one of the best examples of successful urban agriculture? And my son, who was a self-taught expert on Cuba, said, Dad, you’ve got to tell them, you got to go to Cuba. So I didn’t say that. I said it’s in Cuba. Next thing I know, we put together a delegation. We go to Cuba to look at their food system. We looked at agroecology, but here’s the interesting thing, I’m glad the question was asked. So we went to see what are they doing, and as we went, and we brought a bunch of people with us, they looked and saw what they were doing from the growing part. The production part wasn’t really that different.
[00:42:00] I mean, they were certainly organic, composting, permaculture, as people who are familiar with know, but they didn’t adopt sort of agroecology or ecological ecology from an ideology point of view or in protest of fossil fuels. They did it because they had to, right? Russia Cut off — I mean, everything was gone. They had no oil. And they said we’re going to — and they were starving. Fifteen pounds or twenty pounds of weight loss per year during that difficult period. So they adopted this and it worked. But what we found, what the African-american visitors on the delegation found, it was the organization. It was the cooperative arrangement. It was the fact that the farmer-to-farmer information sharing. So there were some organizational and structural parts combined with the technical parts of agriculture, that to them sort of said, this is why it works, because of the whole package. And also because of the commitment and the necessity. That’s why I kind of come back even to the struggle here. The struggle [00:43:00] means you’re going to try to find answers that you couldn’t have found elsewhere, but if people are interested in that, you contact me. We have a couple of reports that came out of our three or four trips to Cuba, and there still is an agroecology network going.
Julian Agyeman: [00:43:13] Thanks Greg Melissa Gordon asks, can you tell us a little bit more about your experience as agriculture commissioner? And her specific question is, what role can people like you in those governmental positions of power play in advancing food justice?
Greg Watson: [00:43:31] Well, that’s a good question. I will say now, this is interesting, in my first tenure, right, that was in 1993, I got caught up in something that probably will be a little bit surprising because I was approached by dairy farmers in the state who felt that they were going out of business because they were locked into this thing called the Federal Milk Marketing Order, where they had no control over how much they could charge for the milk because the price of milk, I don’t know if folks realize that it’s regulated by the federal government. And the amount that is charged is based on a formula that nobody — there are more people at MIT that understand — there are more people in the world that understand quantum physics, the theory of strings and whatever, they can understand how milk is priced. Because you cannot figure it out. Price of block cheese in Wisconsin, your distance from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. But the fact of the matter was, it had nothing to do with the cost of production in Massachusetts.
[00:44:25] While we showed up that first time around, we actually challenged the federal milk marketing order. And we got all the way to the Supreme Court, where we lost. But what we came up with really would have helped the dairy farmers. In terms of environmental justice, I think one of the things that we can do, and it’s being done now, we started it when I was there. But now Rose Arruda has really taken it, and that is access to land. I mean, you know, 98 percent of the agricultural land in the United States is owned by whites. And it used to be a lot more blacks-owned land, but they were cheated out of swindled, duped out of the land to the point now where it’s just again, and that no matter how you look at it, land is the source of wealth. So if you want to start talking about that, but also addressing issues about “food deserts” — I have a friend Karen Washington, a farmer in New York, she doesn’t like like “food desert,” she calls it “food apartheid”. She says desert sounds like it’s a natural phenomenon — this is anything but that. So I think those are the sort of things, when you think about growing your own, nearer to the source, farmer’s markets, that sort of thing, but also land access, I think starts to get at some of those issues of economic and environmental justice.
Julian Agyeman: [00:45:33] Great, thanks, Greg. Well, I think we’ve got time for one or maybe two more questions. Peter Guralnick is asking about food waste. Do you have any information about what you do with vegetable leftovers from the market? I’m assuming she means from our farmers’ markets. Now to ZERO get involved with this kind of thing?
Greg Watson: [00:45:53] I think they are now. As a matter of fact, if you saw the scenario that Pen put together, they play — but I think he’s dealing more, here’s interesting, more with sort of like the big waste that comes from the Chelsie wholesale market, right? The wholesalers where you’ve got volume. Because, and this was interesting, quick story, Brookline, 1979, was a site that wanted to establish a farmers’ market after Dorchester and South End.Their Chamber of Commerce opposed the proposal to establish a market because they feared — they saw the farmers’ market as being the same as the even Haymarket. They thought people were going to come in, sell the stuff, and then they’re just going to be the stuff left behind. The rule of every farmer’s market in the state is, it’s not so much a rule, is that most of the farmers recycle and compost their own stuff anyway. But there is nothing, no waste left behind at the market. And we’re encouraging on-site composting as much as possible as a way to improve their overall economics as well.
Julian Agyeman: [00:46:53] Greg, I’m going to ask you the last question, I think. What really surprised me was how super involved a real diverse coalition was at the beginning of all of this, because, you know, the traditional narrative and in some ways it’s the dominant narrative, is that this is what upper middle class folks. But this was a really, truly a multicultural coalition. Why do you think that was
Greg Watson: [00:47:18] The short answer?
Julian Agyeman: [00:47:19] Yup, the short answer.
Greg Watson: [00:47:19] Mel King.
Julian Agyeman: [00:47:22] Yeah.
Greg Watson: [00:47:22] Just, there was so much integrity and you could feel and see where he was coming from and the sincerity. And he just did it and we followed. It really was — and I’m not saying that always it’s one leader, but then I think, you know, mirroring him was sort of the Boston Urban Gardeners and this whole idea, literally, of a rainbow coalition. But Mel, you have to give him the credit for setting that tone.
Julian Agyeman: [00:47:45] Well, Greg, this conversation will continue. And I’m sure our students and our other guests have been energized by this. Can we give Cities@Tufts a warm thank you to Greg. Thank you very much.
Greg Watson: [00:47:58] Oh, and thank you for the best questions I’ve ever gotten. Thank you so much.
Julian Agyeman: [00:48:02] Thanks, Greg. Well, so next week, February 24th, we have a slight difference. We’ve got our thesis award presentations. Rachel Downey and Megan Morrow will be talking about their writing and discovery processes in addition to sharing the main findings of their innovative mixed methods research projects and then back to normal colloquia on Wednesday, March 3rd, with Professor Setha Low talking about, “From Spatializing Culture to Social Justice and Public Space: A Journey from Research to Action.” Thank you very much. And again, Greg, thanks so much for your presentation.
Greg Watson: [00:48:37] Thank you for inviting me.
This article is cross posted with permission from Shareable.net.