In 2009 a debate raged in Northampton.
On one side, local athletes felt that the playing fields in town were insufficient to their needs and wanted the city to invest in finding new ones. On the other side were advocates of local agriculture, who, in the face of the global financial and energy crises, were concerned that the city wasn’t doing enough to protect land suitable for agriculture. They feared that if the larger systems that feed us failed, there wouldn’t be enough land available to raise food for city residents.
Evidence of the athletes’ plight was easy to document—any given weekend you could find too many teams vying for too few playing fields—but the agricultural advocates had a harder row to hoe.
While few doubted that local agriculture had been transformed in the last century, the food systems that exist now are what people are used to, and to some it seemed alarmist to suggest that they were threatened. Fine dining, supermarkets and fast-food joints weren’t going anywhere soon, so how could preserving farmland take precedence over creating new soccer fields?
That was the conundrum Northampton agriculturalists and locavores faced, according to Lisa Depiano. Depiano is a co-founder of the Montview Neighborhood Farm in Northampton and a certified permaculture designer and teacher. There was data on global trends concerning food security, but not much had been done to document Valley food resources or demand.
“No one really knew how much food we could grow, or what it would take to feed the city. I went to meetings where this topic was being debated, and while there were a lot of strong opinions on both sides, no one was talking about an overall, longterm plan. We had no comprehensive information, and there was no vision,” she said in a recent interview.
Because of her background in local agriculture, Depiano was in contact with many others in the city working individually on these issues, and while they shared a common interest, they hadn’t yet found a common goal.
“We understood Northampton was one small part in a much bigger food share, but we wanted to break the problem down into something that was manageable locally,” she explained. “People wanted to understand what they could do in their own backyards and neighborhoods.”
Depiano and her colleagues had read the Conway School of Landscape Design’s report on food security in Shelburne Falls, and agreed that such an approach might work for them. After two weeks of fundraising among these diverse groups, they were able to secure the school’s services. The report was presented last summer and received enthusiastically.
“I usually am a little wary of reports,” Depiano said. “I think of them as things that get written and then sit on a shelf collecting dust. I see this as a living document, though.” She views the plan as long-term; it’s a key tool in getting people excited about what they themselves can do to contribute, even in small ways.
Depiano is also an active member of Northampton’s Ward 3 Neighborhood Association, a community group that acts as an advocate for issues of concern to residents who live in a part of the city that abuts the Meadows and includes the Tri-County Fairgrounds. In part inspired by the report, the ward held a garden tour last summer to help increase awareness of what was already happening in city gardens. Depiano has also presented the report to city officials, whom she says “seemed interested.”
On January 12, NorthamptonMedia.com reported that though the Fairgrounds were moving ahead with plans to rebuild the horse barns on the site to accommodate the annual Morgan horse show, a more extensive, $40 million redesign that included a convention center had been abandoned. According to NorthamptonMedia.com, the Fair’s general manager, Bruce Shallcross, said they’d decided to discontinue the development chiefly due to neighborhood opposition.
Depiano said she was relieved to hear there was now a new opportunity to rethink the Fairgrounds. She recognized the importance of the horse show, but felt certain a solution could be found that had more long-range vision and better addressed the agricultural needs and interests of the region.
“We have some of the best agricultural soil in the country,” she said. “It’s a huge gift to us. The report helps put the city on the path to protecting it instead of exploiting it. It helps us re-imagine Northampton in a post-oil future, one where we create our own energy.”
This story accompanies “Learning How to Eat, Again.“