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Tristram Keefe, Farm Manager at Dorchester’s Urban Farming Institute

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 March Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson, Executive Director

Tristram Keefe

This month it was my distinct pleasure to interview Tristram Keefe. First I had to ask him about his name. He said his parents were never very clear about why they named him that, but as he kid he just asked folks to call him Max.

Julie Rawson: How did you get into farming?

Tristram Keefe: I got my start farming with City Growers in 2011. I didn’t have any training in agriculture; I worked as a cook. My work in food led me there. I never really previously thought about it more than for a couple of plants on the porch. What they were doing was a novel concept and pretty cool. I got in touch with them and started volunteering with them on a regular basis. I grew up on Beaumont Street – near Ashmont Station on the Red Line (Dorchester).

Let me give a bit of a City Growers recap – it was started by Glynn Lloyd and Margaret Connors. They asked, ‘Can we do a for-profit urban farm?’ Glynn Lloyd had started City Fresh Foods which was more of a food preparation/restaurant business. They are an institutional food-production space that does prepared meals for childcare centers, schools, rehabilitation and eldercare programs. They realized that they were buying all this lettuce form California while being surrounded by empty land. They wondered if they could grow some of it here. Some of the first people were Bobby Walker and Greg Bodine. That was the core crew when I joined on. City Growers did it on a for-profit basis but had a hard time making money. There weren’t enough skilled people. I wasn’t one of the people who held the meeting to create UFI, but the idea was, how can we get more people involved and working in the urban farming sector?

JR: When did the Urban Farming Institute get started?

UFITK: UFI was incorporated in 2011. 2013 was the first year that the UFI had its first season and trained its first cohort. I was part of that class. It was a 6-week classroom portion – now nine – and then field work for 20 weeks of the season. It took place on the City Growers Farm. The instructors were Greg Bodine and Bobby Walker – the farmers. Glynn Lloyd and others helped out with the business planning, etc. After the first year UFI partnered with New Entry and the instruction has been partnered with New Entry since 2014. The indoor classroom work was done with New Entry. Bobby, Nataka Crayton and I would do one or two of the classes. This year in 2018 we are teaching without New Entry. In 2017 we did a 50% split. The idea was that we would take over. Our first class is beginning in March and we are now nailing down the people in the class. We are hoping the transition will go well. 

The way that it works with the outdoor piece goes like this: we pretty much realized that the farming and teaching responsibilities need to be separated. There is a farm manager for production and an instructor who works day to day with the trainees. His role is geared toward education. I think it is good that it is stipended. People are being compensated for 20 hours per week with a commitment of 29 weeks altogether.  Classroom work is mid-March through mid-April and them the farming starts mid-May – October.

Bobby Walker and Nataka Crayton are co-instructing in the classroom. Nataka is in charge of the programming – curriculum and making it happen logistically. Bobby is the training farmer.

I am pretty much doing production work at the same time. I am called the enterprise manager. We have extended learning every Wednesday. Each person has a business idea. There is continued classroom instruction on Wednesday every other week and a trip to another farm on the off week. We go to other urban or rural farms or restaurants, and give them a well-rounded experience.

JR: You are located in Franklin Field, yes?

TR: We have sites all over Dorchester and Roxbury but the home base has been in Franklin Field. We are moving into a new “home base” this spring – the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in Mattapan which is an historic Farm dating back to 1786. It will be home to our office space, teaching and community space, as well as almost a half-acre of growing space and a greenhouse.  There will also be a caretaker’s residence in the farm house where Bobby and Nataka will live.  It is a very exciting project.

JR: So, what have you learned in your time as a farmer?

TK: I have learned so much. I knew nothing. I have learned a lot about selling to restaurants and farmers market. I learned about that a little faster than I should have. The pieces that I want to work on are the fundamentals of good growing practices. It is not that hard to make the relationship, but to grow the produce is – having the production being as tight as you planned for.

A lot of the specific things that I have been able to learn about are high intensity, high rotation, and companion planting of crops. I am trying to take some of the great information that is out there and apply it in the urban context. We are farming on a 1-acre scale and having to apply some of those lessons. That is one acre all told in six places. We currently have sites that are in between stages. We may begin at 1 ¼ acre and end at two by the end of this year. We are applying the lessons to a patchwork style of farming – what you can do with rotations, cover cropping, serious record-keeping, standardizing bed sizes, orderliness, etc. We have to consider the physical landscape and everything from who your neighbors are, density of neighborhood, how high the fence is. The microclimates that we have are crazy. As new sites come on, I work on how to adjust. I totally still consider myself a novice farmer.

One thing I want to focus on – I am trying to pay real attention to soil health. That is a little bit of our pet project. Right now we are doing workshops with Dan Kittredge and implementing better practices for microbial inputs, getting away for tillage and decreasing our input costs and increasing the health of the soil.”

JR: Are you working with NOFA/Mass much in this quest?

UFI at Winter ConferenceTK: We did put in an application for the MDAR Soil Tech farmer education program. We definitely have been to the winter conferences and some soil workshops. I would say that it is something that we are all throwing ourselves into now and haven’t done enough of in the past. The more that we learn, the more we are interested. Part one of our workshop with Dan was a real eye opening thing for me. It led me into other research. We are all very excited about doing more.

JR: Will you talk to me about the challenges of working in the city?

TK: I like to say that our biggest problems are flea beetles and weeds. Outside of the pest and weed pressure, you do have a lot of issues around security. We often will plant sunflowers around the sites for something to look at and a bit to block the view. People helping themselves to things is a situation that we face. All of the sites are different – with fences some are short. With some sites you can walk right into them. One site has a 20-foot high fence. We will grow our basic easy to steal stuff in the site with the big fence. At the open sites tomato plants or a bell pepper plants will get picked. Salad mix and rows of Asian greens - people won’t pick those. We can’t just grow salad greens. Certain thing we accept that we lose a certain amount of. If we grow ¼ field in hot peppers, there are just so many that they won’t all be taken. We have had problems with vandalism and folks making a mess. It hurts the morale of us and of the neighbors. We have to maintain this friendly face. The struggle is to balance that if someone comes and takes the head off the kale plant, that is demoralizing.

One thing that we have really learned is the relationship that we have with neighbors is very important.  Not every house is going to have someone who cares about the garden, but if you make friends with the neighbors they will watch out for you. We don’t do this in a formalized way, but we put a big emphasis on community relations in our class. We think that it is important to be a good neighbor and to be friendly to the people that speak to you. It is really hard work. When you just want to get the work done, you might not want to talk to the person who comes by. We take the time to be friendly and answer questions. We are in community and need to engage.

JR: Do you engage neighbors for help?

TK: Our principle behind recruitment is to reach people in the neighborhoods we are in – places around the farm site. We do outreach at the community centers, churches, etc.  It is our primary way of trying to pull people in and get them involved in the work. We give them the first shot to get involved in the application process.

JR: Do you get many individuals to volunteer?

TK: Not a lot of individuals, but we do work with a lot of schools, youth group, corporate groups. We reach out, but it is focused on people in the community. You often have people who want to volunteer and we try to be accommodating. With neighbors of the farm site we have an open door policy to come and help. We definitely give away food to them in return. A lot of the time that is the way you make friends. We have a wonderful older woman who lives across the street. Sometimes she wants a couple of beets, hot peppers, or garlic. Giving away food is definitely a part of it for anyone who volunteers for us. And those who work for us, we give them food too. Pick a few bunches of greens, and take home what you want.

Working in the urban setting can be a lot. Sometimes I fantasize about being out in the country where it might be easier without so many people around.

JR: What one fertility issue will you try to work on in 2018?

TK: I would say that there are two. One is that we have excessive phosphorous issues; I want to address that somehow. That would be the main concern. I don’t think we can completely address that this year. The main thing I have gotten from the research is not to add any more compost. Traditionally we have brought in a lot of compost. At various times we have been aware that we shouldn’t be doing it. I am hoping to get away from it. We selectively lime and use an all-purpose N-P-K fertilizer from Fertrell. Last year we moved away from that and were not using Fertrell but were using kelp meal and blood meal and lime.

JR: What about micro-nutrients?

TK: We have money in our budget to purchase some minerals. That was one of the main take- always that I got from the workshop with Dan. I struggle with other things like the fact that I think we are always going to be using water from the city. We can do rain barrel collection but haven’t been able to create the relationships with our neighbors. This is exactly what I want to learn. I have been farming for five years. I want to take some time to learn some of the fundamentals. I have been looking at some of the resources on the Bionutrient Food Association website. I learned too late about the Soil and Nutrition conference. I haven’t been that good about watching the NOFA webinars. I have a one year old at home. I made notice of the Derek Christianson one coming up.

JR: You can watch our webinars after the fact on YouTube.

TK: As a person who is always seeking more knowledge, that is one of the most exciting things about farming. There is always more to learn.


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