Six green ideas from Northampton
From a giant community farm open to all to a walking school bus, how one Western Massachusetts community is getting serious about the environment.
By Victoria Hughes | FEBRUARY 24, 2013
GREEN PROJECTS are everywhere in Massachusetts. For energy efforts alone, 110 cities and towns from Provincetown to Pittsfield have been designated Green Communities by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs since 2010 and have received more than $21 million in grants. If the Green Communities program meets its long-term goal, all 351 cities and towns will move toward clean energy from renewable sources and maximize their energy efficiency.
Financial support and a committed local government are of course crucial to towns struggling to be greener — but so is the initiative and creativity of the community. And on all those fronts, Northampton, nestled in the Connecticut River Valley, appears to have a winning combination. With a critical mass of activists (they figured out how to create the largest community farm in the state), innovative green entrepreneurs, and municipal leaders who take reducing the city’s carbon footprint seriously, Northampton, population 28,500, is getting things done. Here are just a few ways the city is growing greener.
1. BUILDING ONE BIG COMMUNITY FARM
What if a city could grow enough food to provide for all of its residents? A few years ago, a group of Northampton citizens, with support from the city, commissioned students at the nearby Conway School of Landscape Design to look at the issue. So-called food security brings lots of environmental benefits, such as drastically reduced fuel needs for shipping, as well as protection in a time of crisis, and the group wanted to know where Northampton stood.
The resulting report, published in spring 2010, showed just how precious local farmland was. If all available open space in the city were devoted to agriculture, Northampton could feed only about 47 percent of its residents.
The school’s findings came out as local-food activists had begun working to save a farm that the city was planning to convert to sports fields. Lilly Lombard ran a listserv that helped marshal the troops. “We quickly organized our eaters under the name of Grow Food Northampton to protect that prime land for organic farming,” she says. After a few weeks of political battling with the city, Grow Food turned to the Trust for Public Land, which came up with a solution to the tug of war: Buy an adjoining farm as well, providing for both sports fields and agriculture. The Trust, a national land conservation group, used grant money to purchase both farms, with the intention of selling the 185 acres to the city and Grow Food.
The price tag for the acreage that would remain farmland was $700,000, and Grow Food had about nine months to come up with the money. Its leaders applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, installed Lombard as founding board president, and launched a fund-raising campaign. “We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so we never stopped to breathe,” Lombard says. After amassing 1,400 individual contributions, Grow Food Northampton purchased 121 acres of farmland outright, the city bought the remaining 64 acres for the sports fields and a greenway, and Northampton became home to the largest community farm in Massachusetts.
In spring 2011, Grow Food’s hands-on work to bring more local food to local plates began. It opened the lands for lease and signed a contract for 39 of its acres with Jen Smith and Nate Frigard, Northamptonites who’d been farming for a combined 18 years, to establish Crimson & Clover Farm. The lease specified that Crimson & Clover, today a 300-share community supported agriculture (CSA) co-op, use organic growing methods, prioritize markets within a 50-mile radius, offer farm-education opportunities, and work to help make food available to those in need.
Grow Food looks out for lower-income residents at the 7 acres it has devoted to theFlorence Organic Community Garden, too. Here, Northamptonites can lease 20-by-20-foot plots, and a sliding pay scale ensures anyone willing to work the land can do so.
Lombard, now Grow Food’s executive director, says the land is a work in progress. Crimson & Clover’s role has expanded; it now also co-manages the farm’s 50-acre main field with Slow Tractor Farm. More than 100 new plots will be dug in the Florence garden this spring; the edible hedgerows planted in fall to serve as both windbreak and wildlife habitat will begin to mature. In a new arrangement, nearby Mockingbird Farm’s cattle will graze on Grow Food fields, providing bovine mowing services and manure for fertilizer. This year, Grow Food will add its first micro farm, an acre and a half dedicated to greens and medicinal herbs to be sold locally; more micro farms will likely follow.
As Lombard sees it, the farm isn’t just a “defense against climate disruption,” it’s a unifying force. “There are so many positive aspects to the project,” she says. “It gets people physically active, eating good food, talking to their neighbors, and actively preparing for an uncertain future by strengthening their resource base. All contribute to what I would call community resilience building.”
2. COLLECTING TRASH VIA BICYCLE
When it comes to trash, some Northampton residents go one step greener than recycling. They have their household waste — including recyclables for sorting — hauled to transfer stations by bicycle. Pedal People, a company started 10 years ago by cycling enthusiasts Ruthy Woodring and Alex Jarrett, uses long flatbed trailers hitched to bikes not just to remove their customers’ trash but also to distribute local farm shares, make diaper service deliveries and pickups, and even move furniture. After tens of thousands of miles, Pedal People has grown from a two-person operation into a flourishing worker cooperative with 13 partner-owners serving more than 500 customers. It is one of the city’s officially recognized trash-hauling services. Northampton’sDavid Narkewicz says, “I may be the only mayor in the country signing a trash and recycling hauling contract with a bicycle-powered company.”
3. PUTTING KIDS ON THE WALKING SCHOOL BUS
The Northampton rail-trail system is 11 miles of interlinking biking and walking trails, much of it plowed in winter. Residents use it to get to places like the city center, hospitals, Grow Food’s gardens, and Northampton’s new playing fields. The walking school bus uses part of the trail to get kids to class.
On Friday mornings — sometimes even in winter — 20 or more youngsters, accompanied by parents and teachers, make their way together to the Jackson Street elementary school. The walking bus’s 1½-mile route has two branches that wind through neighborhoods, including public housing. “It has a Make Way for Ducklings look about it,” says school principal Gwen Agna.
The concept originated in Australia in the late 1990s and is gaining ground in the United States. Beyond saving fuel, it promotes exercise and helps kids understand there are alternatives to motor vehicles, says Agna. Her school’s students don’t just walk the route, they use any non-motorized means of transportation — bikes or skateboards, for example. While the official walking bus runs only one day of the week, with a “celebrity” leader such as Agna, on many other days it wends its fossil-fuel-free way “driven” by parents.
4. MAKING LOCAL BEER EVEN GREENER
Humans have been producing beer for thousands of years, and until the Industrial Revolution, it was brewed where the grains were malted. Today almost all American beers, even locally brewed craft beers, are made from grains that have been malted — the term for germinating and drying — in the West or Midwest, according to Slow Tractor Farm owners Andrea and Christian Stanley. She and her husband have sought to change that, says Andrea, by “bringing malting home.” When they opened Valley Malt in Hadley, one town over from Northampton, in 2010, they couldn’t find any record of wheat or barley having been commercially malted in Massachusetts for over a century.
The Stanleys hope to brew their own beer eventually. But for now they cultivate grains on land leased from Grow Food and use them, along with grains from other Northeast farms, to produce malt for customers such as the Wormtown and Cambridge breweries in Massachusetts and Good Nature Brewing in New York. So instead of drinking beer brewed from ingredients hauled thousands of miles, Northeasterners can enjoy truly green beer — and not just on St. Patrick’s Day.
5. SUPPORTING FARMERS’ MARKETS
Among cities its size, which typically have one or two farmers’ markets, Northampton stands out with four. “I do not know of any other city of comparable size that has so many farmers’ markets,” says Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a nonprofit in South Deerfield that promotes environmental sustainability and farm success in Western Massachusetts. According to Korman, Cambridge has six regular farmers’ markets and one winter market, but its population (about 106,000) is more than three times Northampton’s.
In spring, summer, and fall, Northamptonites can pick up fresh local produce at the Tuesday or Saturday markets downtown or the Wednesday market in Florence, a village of Northampton. Another Saturday market runs through the winter, so fresh local food is at hand year-round — and it’s not just for the well-to-do. Like a growing number of farmers’ markets, Northampton’s accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) credits, previously known as food stamps. The Tuesday market even doubles the coupons’ values for purchases of up to $10.
6. HIRING A POINT PERSON ON ENERGY
A full-time employee charged with helping city residents and businesses become more energy-efficient is a luxury for many communities. But by participating in an innovative state program, Northamptonites earned the money to pay for it.
In 2004, the Renewable Energy Trust, a state-sponsored public benefits fund, partnered with National Grid to offer Massachusetts residents an incentive to support green energy. Through the Green Up program, customers could opt to pay a premium toward electricity that came from renewable sources. In return, they could get a tax deduction, and their city could qualify for grants to be used for local green energy initiatives. Some 6 percent of Northampton households opted in, and the city received more than $253,000 in bonuses through the now defunct program. The city used some of that to establish a full-time energy officer. Chris Mason, who holds degrees in electrical engineering and resource management, came on board in 2007.
One of only a handful of full-time city energy officers in the state, Mason helps city government, local businesses, and residents become affordably energy-efficient. The city has a $6.5 million budget for renovations of 33 city buildings, from libraries and schools to the mayor’s office, and Mason helps oversee those projects and works with community groups and business leaders to reduce their energy consumption.
According to Narkewicz, businesses’ efforts to save on energy and protect the environment pay off in more ways than one: “City residents are supportive of businesses that strive to be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.” The Taco Bell has stepped up to the plate, so has River Valley Market, a co-op grocery store; they’ve both earned a LEED Gold rating — a building-industry designation for environmentally friendly structures. Other businesses are on the same path. Homeowners, too, are doing deep energy retrofits, and Mason can direct them to rebate programs and other financial assistance.
If Northampton is greener now than when he came on board, “the town’s the hero,’’ Mason says. “They were all gung-ho to be energy-sustainable, but they needed more tools. I just help them find the tools.”
To Lilly Lombard, Mason’s work and all of Northampton’s green initiatives are most significant when they spread and seed new ideas beyond city limits. “There’s so much cross-pollination going on within the Commonwealth — that’s the real take-home,” Lombard says. “The adaptations we have to make to face climate change are so huge that none of us can tackle them as mere citizens or isolated towns. We have to, all of us, inspire, share, and collaborate.”
AN ACTIVIST FOR THE AGES
Everyone in the city seems to know Frances Crowe. At 93, she’s Northampton’s senior activist. In 1951, when she and her now-late husband arrived in the city, her primary focus was on peace and anti-nuclear campaigns. She still works on those issues and was arrested (again) protesting the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in September. But today, environmental concerns sit at the top of her list.
“Climate change is the most pressing issue facing us today,” says Crowe, who buys all her food at farmers’ markets and grocery stores that carry locally grown produce. She no longer travels by plane; she walks almost everywhere in town, resorting to trains and cars only if her feet can’t get her there — and carpooling as often as possible when she can’t walk. Pedal Power’s Ruthy
Woodring mows Crowe’s grass with an old-fashioned human-powered push mower.
“I can’t change Washington, so my chief work is to change myself and educate the community,” says Crowe. And the community applauds her example. Mayor David Narkewicz remembers Crowe’s 90th birthday celebration, when many people marked the event by not driving the entire day. Says Narkewicz: “Frances not only talks the talk, she walks the walk . . . literally.”
Victoria Hughes is a writer and filmmaker in Ipswich. Send comments firstname.lastname@example.org.