Growing Community and Produce in Lowell


Photos by Kristin Teig

It's a bright, summery Saturday morning, and two young Mill City Grows staffers are carrying blue bins off a post-industrial loading dock into a white pickup truck. Inside, Francey Slater is gathering up a few more odds and ends from the organization’s newly-leased office, located in one of Lowell’s ubiquitous brick factory complexes. The bins are filled with vegetables grown by Mill City Grows, and are bound for a farmers market. Slater gives the staff directions to the market’s location and then heads out there herself in a creaky car.

In a few minutes, the three are setting up shop in the driveway of a bank in a sliver of downtown Lowell. The neighborhood provides an economic snapshot of the city. There’s a vacant building across the street, with a hip eatery just to the right of it. Down the street from the market there’s a military surplus store, a chain restaurant that specializes in fried chicken wings, and a bustling Asian restaurant. While there are variety stores nearby, there is no supermarket close by; all but one of the city’s supermarkets are located on the outskirts of city limits.

As Slater helps arrange vegetables in baskets, she says Mill City Grows has five regular markets throughout the week, and several more pop-up markets during the season. The timing and locations of the markets are geared to target sections of Lowell’s population who may not be able to make it to the city’s multi-farm market, held on Friday afternoons.

Slater and Mill City Grows co-founder Lydia Sisson have spent the past four years networking with institutional partners, from banks to schools, to boost access to fresh food for those who lack it, either because of income, logistics, or both. That includes a sizeable section of Lowell, as a recent food assessment found that four out of every 10 Lowell residents self-reported they didn’t have regular access to fresh produce.

“We look for a strong partnership with an organization that helps us reach our target market,” Slater says. “A lot of our markets are at healthcare centers.”

A few passersby begin to notice the produce on the tables. A woman who lives across the street inquires about tomatoes, but it’s too early in the season. A Spanish-speaking family pauses in their walk to ask about the market’s hours. Dennis Kearney, a medical biller who lives downtown, spies honey and maple syrup on the table and slows down for a look. As he pays for honey sticks, he playfully declares how much he hates vegetables. Nonplussed, Slater suggests buying some carrots and roasting them in maple syrup. “Then they taste just like candy,” she says.

He asks her about the market, and within minutes they are talking about whether it’s possible to boost the organization’s growing space by farming on rooftops of vacant buildings. Kearney gets a flier for the market to give to a friend who is an Iraqi refugee. He thinks Mill City Grows fills a big void in Lowell’s food ecosystem.

“Specifically for immigrant communities,” he says. “It’s not just going to reach white, upper-class hipsters.”

A half hour after the market starts, Slater leaves to check on a community garden workday project at the Rotary Garden, the city’s first community garden project. The 40 boxed garden plots are located in the Back Central neighborhood, near a skate park. The community garden stands on a section of park that went through many unsuccessful iterations, including a basketball court, volleyball court, and a swimming pool. Mill City Grows had just established contact with the city when calls came for a community garden; city officials were happy to hand the project off to the organization, which helped create protocols for establishing other community garden projects in the city.

“Now there’s a program where any group can apply to start a community garden if they have the location of a city-owned property and if they have the cohort of people who are interested and understand the responsibilities,” Slater says.

The Rotary Garden is bustling with activity. There is good-time music in the background, and (store-bought) watermelon on the picnic table. It’s the tail-end of the work party, and volunteers are wandering from plot to plot, asking each other questions and oohing and ahhing over what’s growing. A tongue-in-cheek debate breaks out over the compostability of watermelon rinds and oak leaves.

The gardeners are a diverse crowd; Slater says there are 12 languages spoken among the plot-keepers. 63% of community garden applicants through Mill City Grows are low-income families, as the organization moves low-income applicants towards the front of the line. There is a long waiting list for plots within the organization’s four community gardens.

To keep the gardens healthy, Mill City Grows trains some gardeners to oversee the management of several of the raised beds of others who can’t make it every day. These managers are responsible for keeping an eye out for bugs or thirsty plants. One of these managers is Flavia Navarro, an immigrant from Brazil, who happened to notice the initial work being done to establish the community garden. The project reminds her of home. “I used to live on a small farm in Brazil,” she says.

Slater says the organization’s community gardens have strong buy-in from immigrants who have settled in Lowell. “It makes them feel like they are at home to have a little patch of green to grow some veggies,” she says.

Training and enlisting help from the community is a key ingredient to the success of Mill City Grows. This is especially evident with the organization’s school gardening program. Through hard experience, Slater and Sisson have learned they need to enlist at least two people within a school community to get a garden off the ground and keep it running. The inherent problem with school gardens is that most of the growing season occurs when school is not in session.

Slater visits one of the three school gardens they’ve helped establish in Lowell. This one is next to a baseball diamond, and there’s a game afoot; a home run could land a ball in the raised bed. Mill City Grows originally erected a fence around the garden, but the community asked for it to be torn down; there’s been no vandalism. A teacher with a child in the school enlists summer school students to help her tend the garden during the summer.

“It’s really neat to see a neighborhood coming together to adopt a school garden,” Slater says.

Later, Slater visits one of the organization’s two farms, located catty-corner to a homeless shelter and across the street from a massive reclamation project aimed at converting old mill space into a hip shopping complex. The complex’s owner owns the land of the farm plot. He allowed Slater and Sisson to salvage the land, which had been sliding from a garden plot into a vacant lot. Farm soil had to be brought in on top of the capped lot, as much of Lowell’s soil had been contaminated from its industrial past.

“We’re definitely a post-industrial city, so there’s a lot of that legacy left behind,” Slater says.

The farm is one of the few patches of color in a bleak city block, and strawberry plants have sprawled past the fence and colonized the sidewalk. While the farmers must sometimes dispose of drug paraphernalia thrown over the fence, Slater reports that some in the neighborhood go out of their way to tell her that the farm brings them comfort as they walk past each day. As she surveys the plot, she expresses mild frustration that it isn’t more organized.

This plot is one of two farms used by Mill City Grows. The other is a four-acre plot on the outskirts of town. That plot, surrounded by suburban-looking homes and a tech industrial park, is remarkably flat and open, and looks as if it were transplanted from Ohio or Indiana. It features the same kind of critter problems as Midwestern farm plots, including deer that somehow circumvent the fence and groundhogs that must be caught and taken away. The biggest problem, though, is weeds, as for years only a part of the plot was used by a squatting grower. Even though the farm rows are neat and tidy, Slater says the weeds have taken deep root and won’t let go without a fight.

“Our farm manager is deeply troubled by it,” she says with a slight smile.

Among the more standard produce found there, one can find husk cherries and tomatillos growing. Slater says Mill City Grows wants to grow what the community wants; that might not always mean just beefsteak tomatoes or spinach. “We look at our community gardeners and try and get a sense of what we should grow,” she says.

Slater heads back to help with the takedown of the market. As she drives back, she discusses the organization’s plans for the future. There is so much that can be done; Slater receives multiple requests from growers who want farmland to grow produce commercially, for example. New initiatives must be balanced, however, with the need to create a sustainable model for Mill City Grows. It costs about $400,000 a year to run the organization’s current programs; most of that money comes from grants, but Slater hopes to up the percentage of funds that can be raised by produce sales.

“We need to pace ourselves and develop a really strong model,” she says. “We’ve really created our footprint for a while, and now it’s just about strengthening and filling in the gaps.”

Back at the market, Slater learns that foot traffic wasn’t brisk, and she wonders aloud whether Mill City Grows should tinker with the schedule or wait and see what happens for the rest of the season. As they pack up, a board member stops by to discuss the organization’s annual harvest festival. It’s going to be held at a larger venue this year to accommodate growing crowds. Eric Faulkner, who tends a garden plot at the Rotary Garden, also stops by to say hi. He marvels at how quickly Mill City Grows has taken root in Lowell, and is confident it is a movement that is here to stay.

“When [Slater and Sisson] first came up with this idea, they only encountered people who said it was not going to work,” Faulkner says. “But if you just get close to them, you’re going to get sucked in.”

Mill City Grows
150 Western Ave, B Mill, Unit A