Growing Change at Serving Ourselves Farm
by Rebecca Hansen
Crossing over the long, aging bridge to Long Island in Boston Harbor, you have no choice but to slow down. The speed limit is 10 miles per hour, which gives you time to appreciate the sunlight glinting off the water on either side, the
crisp smell of the sea air. Just a couple of miles from Dorchester, it feels worlds away from the rush of city life. This is the way to Serving Ourselves Farm, an organic, four-acre farm that acts as both a seasonal food supply and a job-training program for homeless people who also reside on Long Island.
When I arrive, I am greeted by Erica LaFountain, the farm manager. Although new to the position, Erica is not new to farming. After apprenticing at Red Fire Farm for a year, she moved to Boston and began coordinating a community garden. Two years ago she started at Serving Ourselves as assistant farm manager. Now in the top job, Erica has
ambitious plans for the coming year. Although the growing season is just getting started, she has an expanding task list and assures me there will be plenty for me to do as a volunteer. Before putting me to work, however, Erica gives me a quick tour of the island.
Within a cluster of several brick buildings, once home to a resort and a chronic disease hospital, the Boston Public Health Commission runs several social service programs in conjunction with the Friends of Boston’s Homeless. In addition to the farm, this includes two shelters and two transitional housing programs. Participants in the transitional
housing program also have the option to enroll in the Serving Ourselves Job Training Program. The program aims to help homeless people find independence through education, job training and life skills development. Vocational paths include commercial laundry operations, clerical/administrative or working on the farm. Remarkably, over 70 percent of their graduates obtain permanent employment and housing through these programs.
The farm was begun in 1996 at the suggestion ofMayorMenino, and now produces an average of 26,000 pounds of organic produce each year. In addition to providing high-quality produce to the residents of homeless shelters both on and off the island, it forms a critical branch of Serving Ourselves. Clients who choose to work on the farm gain a
solid base of knowledge that can lead to jobs in fields such as horticulture and landscaping. “The training isn’t just about seeding, weeding and harvesting,” says Erica. “When they leave they can set up and maintain irrigation systems, prune tomatoes, grow seedlings in greenhouses and save seeds for next year. It’s a very thorough training.”
The farm also works closely with the clients in the Culinary Arts program by providing a host of vegetables and herbs which are used to teach skills such as pickling and drying. As we walk through the large, gleaming kitchen, Erica is stopped by Christopher, one of the Culinary Arts clients, to get her opinion of the day’s pie, pumpkin and made from scratch. Erica assures him that it is excellent, and I agree after being generously offered a piece. In the fall, the pie will be made from pumpkins grown on the farm.
It was clear that Christopher was deeply invested in his work, something that Erica says is true of most clients in the program. “They take a lot of pride in their work,” she says. In fact, everyone I spoke with referred to the pride that the clients in the job training programs take in what they do. And, after just a few hours of working on the farm myself, I gained a deeper understanding of its source.
My first task was to move some perennials from outside into the greenhouse. Most of the plants had put down roots into the soil beneath their pots, and I tore them delicately from the earth. There were centipedes, spiders and dozens of roly-polys under a few, a sight which brought back visceral memories of my childhood in rural Virginia. It had been ages, I realized, since I’d really gotten my hands dirty, something I didn’t even realize I was missing. Following Erica’s lead, I carefully placed any earthworms back into the pots when I found them hiding underneath. I didn’t relish the way they felt between my fingers, squirmy and damp, but I knew they would do good work for these plants, which suddenly mattered much more than my own discomfort.
Later, I planted onions and seeded parsnips, which gave me the opportunity to really work with the soil. As we pressed the tiny onion sets into the earth, I felt concern for each one, taking great care to place them at the prescribed depth of 1½ inches. As we made our way down the row, I knew I would have to return in the summer months, to
make sure that they’d all grown into healthy, productive plants. Indeed, there’s something remarkable in knowing that the future of these plants is so directly linked to your current actions; every seed you cover, every worm you transplant, strengthens your investment in their future.
This sense of pride and the connection to the earth is part of what makes the program so special.This season’s group of clients had not yet started on the farm when I was there, but Erica attested to the power of this relationship. “The majority of our clients have histories of substance abuse,” she says. “I’ve seen how the combination of healthy hard
work and quality food has ended a 30-year addiction. It’s the lesson of treating your body well in return for the work it performs. Of course, they have to want to change for the program to work, but they’ve signed up for a summer of dirt, sweat and bugs. I think that’s evidence of their willingness.”
And the changes don’t stop there, clients are often eager to share their knowledge with the people around them. “When they teach other people in their lives, including customers at market, what they’ve learned, a ripple effect occurs.” In this way, transformations that begin on the island extend out into the community through each individual who takes part in the program.
Giving clients the chance to share their knowledge and their success is a major reason why the farm sells at local farmer’s markets rather than doing a CSA. “It gives the client workers a strong sense of accomplishment to be able to sell what they’ve grown and to talk to the public about their product and process,” says Erica. “Seeing first-hand how
the public values fresh, organic produce is the final lesson in understanding why we work so hard.”
Another reason they choose to sell at farmer’s markets, says Erica, is because they want to make quality produce available to underserved populations in the area. So, they accept WIC checks at the booth at the Quincy farmer’s market, and bothWIC and EBT (a system that allows recipients to transfer government benefits to a retailer account) at the Dorchester House farmer’s market. “Any farm can make the most money selling at places like Copley Square,” says Erica, “but we’re also about making high-quality food available to populations that really need it.”
The farm also provides seasonal produce to Chris Douglass, chef/owner of three area restaurants—the Ashmont Grill, Icaraus and Tavolo—a valuable relationship for both parties. Douglass, who first learned about the farm through his participation in the annual Beyond Shelter fundraising event, has been buying produce from the farm for years. “I’ve been an advocate and supporter of local agriculture for a long time,” he says, “so the fact that there was an organic farm in the urban area here was all the more appealing to me.”
In addition to having a local source of varied, high-quality produce, Douglass says that, when you know where your food comes from and you have a relationship with the people that grow it, “you tend to appreciate it more, not only because it’s fresh and flavorful, but because you take the responsibility of someone else’s labor more seriously.” I
couldn’t help but think that this appreciation must also hold true for the people in the Culinary Arts program, who not only know the men and women who work on the farm, but also have the opportunity to spend a couple of days in the fields themselves, giving them a full experience of the farm-to-table cycle.
In addition to the clients who work on the farm, the farm depends greatly on volunteers, whether they arrive as individuals, community or school groups, or corporations looking for a team-building experience. Many volunteers are regulars who, like me, want to return to the island after their first experience. One teenager who originally volunteered
with her church group asked that, for her sweet 16, her gift be to sponsor and serve a meal at the shelter with her friends. “Most of the volunteers will recognize this as a perception-altering experience,” says Marie Sullivan, volunteer services coordinator. The opportunity to work and eat with the guests at the shelter puts a much more personal,
individual face on whatever notions of homelessness people might have previously held.Marie often receives notes from volunteers, explaining how their outlook on homelessness has changed.
In addition, volunteering on the farm saves the shelter money at the rate of about $8 an hour, which they can use to fund the much-needed additional beds. The 10 hours or so that I spent at the farm amounted to one bed-night, and everything that comes along with it—meals, access to medical care, case management, housing assistance and educational opportunities. It’s hard to imagine another volunteer experience with so much varied and important impact.
I asked Marie what people seem to find most rewarding about volunteering at the farm. “People enjoy the opportunity to work with the clients,” she said, “and they enjoy being outdoors, the opportunity to dig in the dirt.” As simple as it sounds, I think this last sentiment also speaks to a fundamental truth that we often forget in our busy modern lives, so disconnected from our food and the earth where it grows, particularly when we live in an urban setting.
The experiences of the clients in the program are testament to the power of rediscovering that relationship, as is the strength of my own connection to the farm after spending just a few hours there. “There’s an instant gratification,” Sullivan says, but people also become invested in their work over the long term.
This year, Erica plans to start growing grain on the farm, which the Culinary Arts clients can grind and use to make bread from scratch. She also plans to start an orchard, which the public can sponsor at the level of individual plants: $20 for a blueberry bush to be planted next spring, or $50 for a fruit tree this fall. Like Erica, I am looking forward
to seeing the new trees planted in the fall, although I’ll surely be back out on the farm much sooner than that.
HOWYOU CAN HELP:
In addition to volunteering, there are many ways to support both Serving Ourselves Farm and the FOBH. Along with sponsoring orchard plants, you can also adopt a row of vegetables for $100 or a beehive for $250. The shelters are always in need of toiletries, plain white tube socks and gently used clothing. For more information about how to
donate or volunteer, visit the fobh.org or contact Erica LaFountain at email@example.com or 617-534-2526 x304.
Rebecca Hansen is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston. She
has recently rediscovered the sweet potato, which might just be the
perfect food. You can read more of her work at