A Real Piece of Dirt

As urban farming takes root as a movement, Patty Spence ’80 cultivates Boston’s growing interests.

Patty Spence ’80, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston
Mike Lovett
Patty Spence ’80, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston

Decades before the term “urban farming” was invented, relatives of Patty Spence ’80 were tilling whatever small patch of land they owned. Soon after Spence’s immigrant Jamaican grandparents settled in Boston in the 1920s, their vegetable garden threatened to swallow up their entire yard. In the 1980s, her parents bought the vacant lot next to their Dorchester triple-decker so her father could grow vegetables there.

Today, as executive director of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston (UFI), Spence leads a flourishing nonprofit, founded in 2012, that trains city residents to become urban farmers and entrepreneurs, and manages seven small-plot urban farms and one greenhouse in Boston.

Ironically, she has little time to devote to her own garden. “I just throw down the seeds,” she laughs.

Behind the easygoing self-deprecation and the oversize glasses she often wears is a down-to-earth professional who works farmers’ hours — which is to say all the time — to promote sustainable urban agriculture in Boston’s Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods. “Let’s get everybody growing food on their porch and in their backyard,” Spence says.

One of UFI’s showcase farms is tucked behind the hulking metal shell of the Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center, on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester. Only a few hundred feet from a divided highway clogged with 18-wheelers, rows of soldier-like garlic plants stand at attention, tomatoes grow fat and juicy, and collard greens open their deeply veined leaves to the sun.

In 2013, a year after Sportsmen’s got underway, urban farming in Boston got a big boost when former Mayor Thomas Menino signed Article 89 into law, expanding zoning to allow commercial farming on ground-level plots, on rooftops and in freight containers.

Since then, UFI has gradually converted small tracts of vacant housing lots, about 8,000-12,000 square feet each, into commercial farming enterprises, either through leases, public/private partnerships or purchase. The Garrison-Trotter Farm, on Harold Street in Roxbury, was the first one approved under Article 89 zoning. Astoria Quarter-Acre Farm, on Flint Street in Mattapan, was added in 2017, along with Woodrow Avenue Compact Farms, in Dorchester. The jewel in the crown, the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm, on Norfolk Street in Mattapan, opened this year as a training farm and farm center following a $3.7 million renovation by Historic Boston Inc. and two UFI partners, the Trust for Public Land and the North Bennet Street School.

In 2016, working in collaboration with UFI, Sara Shostak, associate professor of sociology at Brandeis, designed a Health: Science, Society and Policy capstone class in which students interviewed local residents and conducted other research that helped shape the revitalization of the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm.

Last year, UFI’s farm operation sold some 13,000 pounds of vegetables, including 3,500 pounds of tomatoes and 1,000 pounds of peppers, at farmers’ markets and to high-end restaurants. At the height of the summer season, UFI farms supply up to a dozen local restaurants with custom salad mixes, collard greens, kale, tomatoes, herbs and other produce.

Soon, UFI will begin offering farmers in the community leased urban farmland at a reasonable rate through a newly formed community land trust.

Spence, who exudes youthful energy and vivaciousness, is a hard-nosed manager, a practical life counselor and a tireless administrator. Her pastor at Jamaica Plain’s Bethel A.M.E. Church calls her a “pothole filler,” someone who when she sees shortcomings in the community, repairs them. “I’m always looking for the holes,” she says. “Nine times out of 10, it involves people.”

She lives in her childhood home with her son and her 88-year-old mother. She attended the Shady Hill School, in Cambridge, and Milton Academy before enrolling at Brandeis, where she majored in African and Afro-American studies, and minored in political science.

Mike Lovett

“Brandeis gave me the ability to gain all these academic skills, as well as the opportunity to bring diverse people together,” Spence says. She was instrumental in bringing Harvard Law’s Charles Ogletree to campus to speak, and she helped create the Third World Program coordinator position to foster greater understanding among students.

After graduation, Spence donned a power suit and pumps, and went to work as a major-accounts representative — a “hard-core salesman,” as she explains it — at Xerox and Digital Equipment Corporation. Fifteen years and two children later, she needed to step back from her demanding corporate career. As a divorced single mother, she wanted a job with greater flexibility, one that would give her more time at home. She went to work for the Boston Public Schools in a variety of positions and started a nonprofit that brings speakers into fifth-grade classes at three schools.

Spence was recruited to lead UFI in 2014 because of her blend of corporate, community, fundraising and marketing skills. Her style is earthy and grounded, practical and professional. Spending an afternoon touring the UFI farms with her is like catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years — the conversation is easy, full of laughs and personal history.

It’s no surprise, then, that warmth and compassion are UFI’s trademarks. Trainees often enter the program with a back story filled with struggle. “So we create a family for them,” Spence says. “We never know who will join the farmer training program, and we are here to help our people. We create an atmosphere of sharing and feeling OK about it.”

Each year, the nonprofit trains 30 city residents in its nine-week program, then selects eight to 10 students for a 20-week urban farming program, which covers everything from entrepreneurship and integrated pest management to beekeeping and composting. By the end of the program, participants have developed a business plan for becoming a farm manager, an entrepreneur or some other urban agriculture professional. Each summer, 500 volunteers from around the city help out for as little as a day or as long as the season — weeding, harvesting and otherwise getting into the dirt.

On this warm early-summer day in Mattapan, Spence is out on the sidewalk, chatting up a passerby like she’s known him forever. She tells him about the activities happening at the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm and invites him to an upcoming UFI barbecue. He’s the fourth or fifth person who’s stopped to talk over the past couple of hours. Each one has been invited to explore the farm.

It’s all part of Spence’s most important job: growing people.

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