After passing New England’s first urban agriculture ordinance in 2012, Somerville rolled out a training program to get residents ready to dig in the dirt. Two successful seasons later, the Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program is back and accepting applications for the 2015 season.
“This will be the third year,” said Kim Schmidt, the Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program Coordinator. “Every year we’ve done it it’s been really oversubscribed.”
The program, a partnership between the city and Green City Growers, expanded to 20 ambassadors in 2014 and will remain at that number this year. Anyone over age 16 in Somerville is invited to apply, and no gardening experience is needed, as the program is targeted to beginning to intermediate gardeners. More experienced gardeners wishing to participate can skip the course and use their knowledge to mentor the ambassadors.
“Last year we had a wide range of people, from their 20s to their 60s,” Schmidt said. “We’re purposely seeking out people from each neighborhood. And purposely trying to get people working in each neighborhood.”
Applications are due on March 13 and accepted ambassadors will be notified starting on March 27. The program, which is free in exchange for the ambassadors completing 30 volunteer hours, takes place on four consecutive Saturdays from April 25 though May 16 at Green City Growers. Three other field visits are required during the season, but opportunities to complete those are flexible.
The training is “happening a lot later in the season” this year, Schmidt said. This will allow the ambassadors to do more hands-on learning.
“When we finish the course, it’s going to be prime time to get out into the gardens,” Schmidt said. “It makes the course even more relevant when you can do even more hands on stuff.”
After the training is complete, the ambassadors fan out throughout the city to complete their 30 volunteer hours. One of the big projects from last year was helping Groundwork Somerville at the South Street Farm. Volunteers also pitched in by running kids’ groups at the Community Growing Center, maintaining the beds at the Council on Aging and those in front of City Hall.
“We added work days last year. Instead of just volunteering with their host, we coordinated with the organizations in town and have the ambassadors do a work day there,” Schmidt said. “The work days were really successful. You learn a lot and see the breadth of everything happening in Somerville.”
The ambassadors also volunteered at the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market, which allowed program participants to see the “food security part of urban ag,” Schmidt said.
“That was really successful, to have local Somerville people who know their community well volunteering at the markets,” Schmidt said. “A lot of our ambassadors have second language skills, so they were able to communicate with the patrons.”
Ambassadors sometimes take on independent projects while completing the programs, like Peter Ungár, who started the Massachusetts Urban Farming Network. This nonprofit works to build a network of urban farmers who grow produce in raised beds that is accessible, affordable and abundant. Ungár is also behind the forthcoming Tasting Counter restaurant, which is slated to open this year at Aeronaut Brewing.
“Part of the hope is teaching people how to grow their own food,” Schmidt said. The program focuses not only on the nutrition and health benefits of urban agriculture, but also the economic side and cost savings from growing your own food.
“People want to live in urban environments but want a chance to grow and realize that it can happen in small environments,” Schmidt said. “In our dense city, it’s just a chance to touch earth and soil and see things grow.”
Schmidt points to the renewed interest in agriculture, and not just in Somerville, to the popularity of the program. Our city’s density also contributes to the excitement about getting a chance to get outside and grow something.
“It’s been really successful. It’s been really well received,” Schmidt said. “The nonprofits have been really thankful for the help. The ambassadors have been a really motivated group of people. Most have paid it forward beyond the 30 hours.”