Skip to content

If the land could speak: Community gardens on land with social justice roots

Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Pat James

Community gardens grow on all kinds of land. Many gardens start as derelict lots, long abandoned by owners who sometimes reclaim the property after community gardeners reveal its beauty and productivity.

Schools and parks are common sites for community gardens, and some uncommon sites include rooftops, repurposed factory buildings and piers.

Here in the Valley, several community gardens are located on land with stories that resonate with the social justice roots of each garden.

Just Roots is a nonprofit organization that manages the Greenfield Community Farm on land that was once the Greenfield Poor Farm. The Poor Farm was established on land sold to the county by Justin Root (inspiring the nonprofit’s name) in 1849.

The barn at the Greenfield Community Farm is the original barn on what was the Greenfield Poor Farm, which operated until the mid-1950s.

Workhouses and poor farms were common in the U.S. starting in the colonial era. Intended as punishment for poverty, they required long hours of work in return for a bed, a little food, and no pay. Poor farms grew their own food and usually had some to sell, but their purpose didn’t include rehabilitation or job training. Going to the poor farm meant relinquishing all personal property, and most citizenship rights like voting and freedom of movement. Residents were referred to as inmates, and for many, it was the last home they ever had. Some elders may remember grandparents’ dark references about ending up at the poor farm. The creation of Social Security and other public welfare initiatives in the 1930s meant that most poor farms closed before WWII, though the Greenfield Poor Farm remained in operation until the mid-1950s.

Since 2008, Just Roots has managed the 61-acre property as the Greenfield Community Farm, which includes a 600 member CSA and a 60-plot community garden. Farm Manager Meryl Latronica noted that the community garden’s impact is opposite of what it might have been when it was a poor farm. “The land holds our collective wellness,” she said, adding that during the recent pandemic, many folks found that community gardening enabled safe ways to connect with others and with the land.

The Northampton Community Garden on Burts Pit Road is on land that was the kitchen garden for the Northampton State Hospital. Founded in 1856 as the Northampton Lunatic Asylum, the land included a working farm and greenhouse that provided work and therapy for the patients. Life in the Asylum was far from idyllic, however. Throughout its history, the hospital was severely overcrowded and under-resourced, despite almost constant construction of new buildings.

The Northampton Community Garden started around 1974 when neighbors Rich and Linda Winnick obtained a small parcel of land to start a community garden. By then, conditions in the hospital were nothing short of horrific. In 1975, patients at the Northampton State Hospital sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It was the first class action in the nation to claim that residents of a state hospital had a constitutional right to receive mental health services in the least restrictive environment possible.

The landmark case, Brewster v. Dukakis, was settled in 1978, and by the mid-1980s most of the hospital’s functions ceased, and patients were “de-institutionalized” — released to live on their own. Similar closures happened throughout the U.S., adding to a burgeoning homeless population that also included Vietnam era veterans.

In 1996, several student activists were arrested for trespassing on the hospital grounds as part of a failed protest demanding that some of the empty buildings be repurposed as transitional housing for unhoused people. Members of the local Food Not Bombs chapter, the activists were threatened with criminal prosecution if there was another similar demonstration.

The City of Northampton maintains ownership of the 6+ acres on which the community garden is located. It is managed by a volunteer garden committee under the auspices of the Northampton Department of Recreation. The 415 plots are rented by about 275 gardeners, many of whom remember the State Hospital and the activism that led to its closure.

Grow Food Northampton’s Organic Community Garden was launched in Florence in 2009 on land once cultivated by the Pocumtuc and Nipmuc Indigenous tribes and later known as Broughton’s Meadow. In the 1840s, the Northampton Association for Education and Industry (NAEI), a utopian Abolitionist community, acquired the land, and the village of Florence became a haven for those escaping slavery, and for the abolitionists who supported them. Several of their members created a small farm to feed themselves and to demonstrate that textiles and sugar could be produced without the labor of enslaved people.

Later, the land was owned privately by the Bean and Allard families who sold their family farms in 2009. Concerned about the loss of agricultural land and open space to commercial development, grassroots organizers helmed by Northampton residents Lilly Lombard and Adele Franks, raised funds from hundreds of Northampton residents and beyond, then partnered with the Trust for Public Land and the City of Northampton to purchase the land.

Grow Food Northampton formed as a nonprofit organization in 2010 and acquired the 121 acres that are now the Grow Food Northampton Community Farm, including a 7-acre, 320 plot Organic Community Garden tended by about 425 gardeners. The land and surrounding homes are part of the historical tour of Underground Railroad locations offered by the David Ruggles Center.

All three community gardens have missions that call for equitable access to land and food, with the underlying belief that gardening in community is one way to foster people’s connection to the source of their food. If the land could speak, it might remind us that transformation from systems of imprisonment for poverty and illness, and racist oppression, to systems of empowerment, is possible. But we have a long way to go. Land access remains difficult for many, especially young farmers of color. Too many people still have little access to affordable, fresh, healthy food. The number of food insecure individuals doubled in Massachusetts during the pandemic.

If the land could speak, it might also remind us that most of us are on land stolen from Indigenous communities, and that the harms and responsibilities of that theft remain with us to this day.

Pat James is manager of the Grow Food Northampton Organic Community Garden.

Back To Top