As interest in urban farming has grown across the country in recent years, the demand has made way for companies like Green City Growers to share knowledge and expertise with people who want to raise their own food.
When it started seven years ago, it was a West coast idea transported to New England, but that didn’t mean the path was well worn. CEO and founder Jessie Benhazi said remarkably few businesses like hers exist in the U.S., which she modeled after landscaping companies.
“We specialize in intensive growing methods and optimizing space,” Benhazi said. “That’s what you need to consider when you’re in a city. How can you work with what you’ve got?”
She said their small farms fit around developments and adapt to whatever space is available. That’s the way it has to go because she doesn’t want to see it come down to either installing a garden or putting in new apartments.
“You can live in a city and farm, too. Clearly, people want to do that,” she said.
In its first year, Green City Growers got a call from b.good – a fast-food chain that makes “real food” from ingredients grown on its property. It wanted help maintaining a garden for the restaurant.
Later, when b.good grew, it integrated Green City gardens into its growth, Benhazi said. It started by growing tomatoes on a rooftop at one location. This year, Green City Growers work at 11 of b.good’s restaurants.
Similar to other charitable urban farming initiatives across the country, Green City Growers takes advantage of the chance to teach as many people as possible about growing food in an urban setting. The company is involved in inner-city programs and includes education in many of its projects.
But unlike those other initiatives, Green City doesn’t have to compete for grants or hook volunteers. With its own revenue stream, it can give back to groups that have a hard time finding funding.
“We make as much money as we can so we can funnel that back into our programs,” Benhazi said. “We have a company that is accountable to our employees and the environment, doing good for the world and for our community in a way that can sustain itself.”
From Fenway Park to Assembly Row
Green City Growers has raised more than 150,000 pounds of organic produce in 160 different locations taking up less than two acres of space in each, Benhazi said. The company installs and maintains the small farms, including providing seeds and plant starts. It’s up to each client how much support Green City provides after installation. Some want consultation while others require regular maintenance.
Its clients range as much as the size of these small farms. While the average garden for a family or business is around 100 square feet, Green City Growers recently installed a 5,000-square-foot rooftop farm at Fenway Park. Fenway Farms provides 20 percent of produce needed at the park’s seasonally focused restaurant.
Green City Growers also installed a rooftop farm at a Whole Foods location, which is the largest in New England, Benhazi said. It produces 7,000 pounds of food annually, and it’s sold right there.
“There’s no other grocery store in the country doing anything on that kind of scale,” Benhazi said.
Green City Growers has installed gardens at assisted living facilities, schools, and a YMCA. The company works often with businesses that want a garden for their employees. Benhazi said it’s a popular idea that gets workers outside and teaches them to grow their own food. In many instances, the food is donated after harvest.
One such garden, commissioned by a developer, serves the Assembly Row neighborhood, where apartments, restaurants, and businesses bring a lot of different people together.
SmartBear, a software company, sends its employees out of the office through a wellness program that includes lessons from Green City Growers. The program is considered a part of the employee benefits package.
But the 10-bed garden does more than provide an outlet for software workers. The restaurants and residents use it, as well. Papagayo Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar grows mint for its mojitos, said Matt Ehrie, general manager of the property. He works for Federal Realty Investment Trust – the developer.
“It complements our neighborhood,” Ehrie said. “It’s been a nice addition to what we’re doing.”
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Assembly Row photo by Marie Macchiarolo
Fenway Farms photo by Augusta Nichols-Even