• Entrance to the Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm
  • One of the Farm's young volunteers explores the gardens
  • Harvest of leafy greens to be brought to one of the city's food pantry programs

Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm is Focused on Community

Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm is Focused on Community

In an ever more urban landscape, the Hurley Street Farm is an oasis of growth for Cambridge locals looking to connect with their community.

If you’ve ever eaten a peach in December, you know that even produce that can be grown in New England is often shipped to your local grocery store from afar. According to a summary produced by the USDA, 3 states: California, Arizona, and Florida, accounted for just over 75% of profits from U.S. grown fruits and vegetables in 2017. However, for those in search of local produce, fresh fruits and vegetables may be closer than expected.

To find out a little more about local growing in urban areas and the impact it has on the Cambridge community, I ventured to nearby Hurley Street Farm, a 3000 square foot community growing space located on private property a few blocks from Kendall Square.

I ride up to Hurley street on my bike, passing by a park where crowded voices emanate from small congregations of children and young teens. I’m not entirely sure where I am going and the street’s appearance does little to assure me that I am heading in the right direction. Hurley street looks like any other city neighborhood with little space spared between houses and even less between house and sidewalk. A bit further down, though, a child’s sized chalk-board and a banner welcome me to the Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm.

The farm’s founder, Steven Nutter, gives me a tour of the gardens and helps me answer some questions I have about urban growing. Today they are harvesting most of what they call their “cool weather crops,” or leafy greens such as lettuce and Kale before the July heat sets in. One woman has filled a basket with kale which will be donated to East End House, a local food pantry, and distributed this same day.

Nutter explains that they try to partner with the food pantry as often as possible but that some crops are not grown on a large enough scale for that to be possible, “We don’t know what our yield is going to be every year...you can see...we have like seven pea plants. That’s not really enough to share. It’s really just there for snacking and to have some diversity in the space.”

The produce is also free to just about anyone who is willing to stop in and lend a hand. “Even if you don’t work here, you can just come in and take whatever you want during our volunteer times. We ask that people do something. There’s always weeding and things to do and we want the participation. But...we have plenty.” Nutter explains.

This come-and-go-as-you-please atmosphere is one of the ways that the Hurley Street Farm differs from Cambridge’s other 13 community gardens. Nutter tells me that for many of the other gardens people have to wait their turn to get a plot, “one of the things about [our] model is there’s no waiting list: anyone can get involved at any time.” Nutter believes that this is appropriate to the local culture as, “We have a very transient population in Cambridge...I think that’s an opportunity to make something that’s not so committed as a community garden with your own individual plot...we just want to make spaces to bring people together and...have them discover the growing cycle and what that means.”

This set up not only puts less responsibility on individual growers, it also allows the Farm to lend itself out to a more diverse array of people. In the past, the Farm has worked with grade schools, universities, and major companies such as Google and Biogen who come for a day to learn and volunteer. “We’ve had a lot of different groups come in. We’ve had classes from the Kennedy Elementary school come down, we’ve had City Sprouts come over many times. East End House has an after school and summer program...we have BU first year students...but we also have adults...corporate volunteer days.”

I ask Nutter what some of the difficulties urban farmers face and he tells me basically what I expected: limited space means limited output. “I think the first thing is...space...In New England, we used to grow most all of our food around the city in Boston… we started moving that food production out west because you can have a thousand acres that’s just really flat...here it’s...hard to have that kind of efficiency of scale” and, he notes, “in an urban space it’s even more compressed.” However, he proposes that, in some ways, this can be seen as an advantage. “It’s a limitation,” Nutter says of the confined space, “But, it’s also something that we can use to our advantage...What that means is that it takes a lot more labor than machinery because it’s just harder to get machinery through that smaller space. So...while it’s a limitation from an industrial standpoint, from a community standpoint it’s not because we get to bring more people together to do the work.”

Nutter considers the closeness that this type of manual labor inspires is, arguably, the biggest impact the farm has on the community. “A lot of the people, even the people here today, they didn’t really know each other.” To prove his point, we are just now interrupted as a carrot wielding toddler wobbles past. Her mother follows and introductions are exchanged.

As much as the community relies on the Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm to bring it together, the farm relies on the community for more than just the tilling of its soil. The Hurley Street Farm is funded mostly by the sustainability organization Green Cambridge, but many others readily reach into their pockets to promote the space as well. “We get donations from major donors, from the city’s Department of Public Health, through individual donations...and we’ve had a few grants in the past as well” Nutter tells me.

In addition, there is the allowance of use of the land on which the farm resides as the lot is, quite literally, someone’s backyard. “[the] people who own this house happen to have this large backyard and so they shared it with us and we have...a use agreement with it...they come out when they are here and read a book or something like that.”

As Nutter and I begin to wrap up our conversation, I have one last question for him. He has referred to the farm multiple times as a demonstration space, so what does he see for the future of urban farming in Cambridge? “We just want to rethink how we can use this space and use it more collectively” he tells me. “It’s a prototype for a couple different things. So, one...there is public space that we’re...from a food production standpoint or even a green space standpoint [underutilizing]...there may be an opportunity for us to build a larger farm in a more accessible place. More central to the city, too, that can bring people together.”

The Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm, I have learned, is more than an oasis of growth among an industrial landscape; it is a central force, reaching out to bring members of an often disconnected community into orbit with each other. It is a suggestion of a future where an urban mother can bring her child to unearth the patterns of natural life and where development can mean more than layering cement.

For more information on Green Cambridge and the Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm click here or stop in during their volunteer hours: Sunday 12-2, Tuesday 10-12, Thursday 5-7.