Folks gathered around at 2013 Harvest Festival Mill City Grows Lowell

Mill City Grows and Grows

One of the best things about working on this blog is the way it encourages Chris and I to get and stay involved in the Lowell community. It’s so easy, too easy, to get bogged down in grumpy facebook threads and the discouraging daily grind of city news. But there’s still so much going on in Lowell that’s exciting, encouraging, and even inspiring. Mill City Grows is a great example of the best of Lowell: diverse community members working together to make the city a better place for everyone.

Children pressing cider at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Prepping apples for cider press at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Why a Mill City Grows post now? I won’t bury the lede too far. It’s because their big, annual celebration of local foods, the Harvest Festival, is this Saturday. As previous years, it’s in their original community garden location, Rotary Club Park in Back Central, just about a ten minute walk south of downtown. It’s the culmination of the growing season and all that Mill City Grows does throughout the year: education, farmers markets, and community gardening. Mill City Grows takes over the park and provides an afternoon of games, demonstrations, and food. They and their partners provide hands-on activities involving cooking, bicycle safety, a “stone soup” table in which every participant contributes an ingredient and gets a sample of soup and a cider press demonstration and sampling.

Chris and I got to sit down and chat with co-founder Francey Slater and learn a little bit more about the Mill City Grows story. She said that she and co-founder Lydia Sisson had the idea for years. They had been working as an educator and as a commercial farmer outside of Lowell, but felt there was a great opportunity and need in Lowell:

There was this amazing opportunity in Lowell, given the cultural richness of the city, and the food culture in the city, and… there was a lack of opportunities for residents to get involved in growing food and in accessing healthy, fresh, and local food.

Lydia Sission and Francey Slater

Lydia and Francey, co-founders of Mill City Grows (Photo: Jen Myers)

She noted that culturally-appropriate food was also difficult to find. However, their opportunity came in 2011, when Back Central was the focus of the City Manager’s neighborhood impact initiative. Among other things, the initiative funded a project that the neighborhood itself identifies. That year, Back Central Neighborhood Association identified a community garden. The neighborhood nor the city knew how to create a community garden, so they brought in Francey and Lydia, who jumped at the opportunity.

They worked with the city and neighborhood group to recruit gardeners throughout the fall, and in the spring, they worked with the city’s Department of Planning and Development and Department of Public Works to build the garden. The first garden snowballed into new gardens and new programs, including school education, urban commercial farming, and a mobile market. Each new program was a response to a community request. The staff at Mill City Grows has many ideas, but rather than imposing those ideas, they have used community feedback to choose their focus areas.

Lowell’s support was critical. We didn’t realize how close the partnership with the city government was: it allows Mill City Grows to use designated city land and have access to water and inclusion in the blanket insurance. This has really helped Mill City Grows get started, as raising money for land leases, insurance, and other necessities is often a roadblock to new organizations.

Mill City Grows West 3rd Garden

West 3rd Garden (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Chris and I nearly lost count of how many different dividends that initial investment paid. The gardens are used by a diverse population of Lowell residents-Francey says that at least eleven languages are spoken by their gardeners. She said, “It’s a fascinating world tour to walk through, to see things I don’t recognize or see gardeners harvest parts of plants I would never think or know were edible.” The education is both cultural and practical, as community gardeners learn from one another and from the organization:

Education has always been something that we weave into every aspect of our programming, whether it’s the very technical “when to plant this seed”… to the more theoretical “how do we build a more just, more sustainable food system?”

The benefits that go beyond the gardeners: the community impact of transforming the physical spaces is difficult to quantify, but it is impossible to deny that changing a vacant lot to a raised-bed garden with folks bustling about improves the vibrancy and confidence of a neighborhood. Francey has said she has seen entire neighborhoods transform after a lot has been turned into a garden.

Apples at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

The larger community benefits as well. Francey mentioned that during the Market Basket problem, many people had trouble finding fresh vegetables within walking distance or at an affordable price, while local farmers were not able to move their stock and were losing money every day. This brought up questions to Francey on how much the community can rely on its food system when a single entity was so important. She said food banks saw their demand increase during the crisis, and she actually saw a measurable increase at Mill City Grows markets. She suggested one simple thing anyone can do to help food security:

Even if it’s one simple crop, learning how to grow a small patio garden is something we can all do.

The more direct support to farmers and local food grown and shared, the more an impact to the food system can be blunted. Of course, there are many other ways to support Mill City Grows. If you can’t make it to the Harvest Festival event, there are other ways to get involved. They’re one of many vendors selling tasty fruits and veggies at the Lowell Farmer’s Market in City Hall Plaza every Friday afternoon.  After we chatted with Francey we headed over there and stocked up almost everything you’d find in the produce section, but fresher and often tastier. It’s also important to note that many booths can take EBT/SNAP and WIC. The Farmer’s Market goes on through Halloween, so check it out, and follow them on facebook here.

Vendors selling produce at Mill City Grows Lowell

Mobile Market at Lowell Community Health Center (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Mill City Grows also does this really cool thing called the Mobile Market, where their mini Farmer’s Market van sets up around town. This is an excellent resource for those of us that the regular Farmer’s Market time doesn’t suit. The schedule is on their website here, and you can also get updates on what they’re up to by following them on Facebook or Twitter. They are always looking for volunteers, from folks who can help staff the markets to longer-term skill-specific projects such as web design.

Finally, there may be a new garden coming, so stay tuned to Mill City Grows, and maybe you can start your own plot!

Harvest Festival activities include:

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

  • Rotary Club pumpkin decoration
  • Boys and Girls Club face painting
  • Lowell Community Health Center Teen Block nutrition-themed carnival
  • South Bay Early Childhood Education toddler games
  • MCC and YWCA zero-waste activities and information
  • Murkland School arts and crafts
  • Raising a Reader scavenger hunt
  • Lowell Bike Coalition bike safety and maintenance demonstrations
  • Photo: Jen Myers

    Photo: Jen Myers

  • Next Step Living home energy information
  • Lowell Parks and Recreation kids’ games
  • Lowell National Historical Park pop-up museum about “connecting with your roots”
  • Mill City Grows cider press, stone soup, garden tours, and mobile market and popcorn station
  • Spiceventure, UTEC cafe, Sweet Lydia’s, Brew’d Awakening, and other food vendors
  • Music, live-painting, garden awards, and more!
Cider Press at Mill City Grows

Cider Press at 2013 Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Community Gardens

Community Gardens at Rotary Park (Photo: Jen Myers)

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