City’s Focus on Urban Agriculture Grows with New Ambassador Program

It may still technically be winter, but gardeners know it’s never too early to start planning for the next growing season. And with new urban agriculture initiatives on the docket in Somerville, it seems that spring is just around the corner.

Green City Growers and the city of Somerville are kicking things off by teaming up on an ambitious program to train 15 urban agriculture ambassadors this March and April. The intensive, hands-on education program will teach participants everything they need to know to successfully plan, plant, maintain and harvest a garden in an urban setting.

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The course is being funded by the city and is free to participants. In return, they will volunteer for 30 hours at various urban agriculture sites around Somerville.

“It’s the perfect way to start getting the community involved,” said Jessie Banhazl, founder of Green City Growers. “And it’s an affordable way for the city to get a lot of people on the ground.”

Applications for the program were due in mid-February and the response from the community was overwhelming. About 100 people applied to become urban agriculture ambassadors, indicating that there is a lot of interest in this type of educational instruction.

“This is a program we can expand,” said Adrianne Schaefer, the city’s urban agriculture intern. “It’s a great step to empower people regarding food and connecting with each other.”

Additional sessions of the program may be planned for later in 2013 or 2014, creating a whole team of urban agriculture ambassadors that can fan out throughout the city to work on various projects.

“It’s a great way to plug things back into the city. The ambassadors will pass on knowledge, like in a viral approach, to help foster civic engagement,” Schaefer said.

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During the intensive four-week program, the ambassadors will learn about soil, light, building raised beds, selecting crops, maintaining the plants, pest control, harvesting the crops and more. For certain topics, like beekeeping and chicken-keeping, Banhazl will call in other experts from around the city.

Banhazl runs a similar course in Dedham and thought one would work well in Somerville, where urban agriculture has been a hot topic during the last several years. With the city of Somerville on board, it was time to make the idea a reality.

“It was something we always wanted to do,” Banhazl said. “We slow down in the winter, so seemed like the perfect time of year. We’ve been working with the city of Somerville and I proposed a bunch of urban agriculture projects that they could invest in.”

The city was eager to help Green City Growers train its residents who could then educate others and put their knowledge to work at various urban agriculture sites in Somerville.

“I’ve been very impressed with the mayor. He has a very exciting vision, a very cutting edge vision,” said Schaefer, who added that this is all part of the same idea behind Shape Up Somerville, the farmers markets and the urban agriculture ordinance passed last fall.

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For those who aren’t able to participate in this initial ambassador program but still want to learn more about urban agriculture, Green City Growers is coming out with a book in the next month that will provide detailed information on how to successfully grow food in the city.

“It’s all about how to do this on your own,” Banhazl said. “It’s a wonderful resource for people growing their own. It’s based off our experience growing food in hard to use spaces and getting the most out of it.”

The book will be available on Green City Growers’ website as well as a the Winter Farmers Market and the Union Square Farmers Market.

As for the future of the urban agriculture ambassador programs, Banhazl said she was very impressed by the high interest in the pilot and hopes to expand it.

“It was already popular before it even got started. I’m so excited by response,” Banhazl said. “Urban agriculture is having its day in the sun.”

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