Lilly Lombard: Learning from the Roundup pesticide controversy in Northampton
FILE PHOTO A woman who wished to be identified as Moggie, left, and Lauren Caprio hold signs during a protest of the use of Roundup herbicide on Florence Fields in Florence. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Grow Food Northampton was founded three years ago by citizens who care deeply about our community’s health, especially our ability to grow and access healthy food. More than 100 volunteers ran a six-month fundraising sprint to buy 121 acres of prime Mill River bottomland in Florence to grow organic food for local mouths. With the tremendous community buy-in of 1,400 contributions, we purchased the farmland free and clear in early 2011 — and the Northampton Community Farm was born.
Less than three years later, it is the largest community farm in Massachusetts. Hosting four successful farm businesses and a vibrant community garden, and growing a full menu of vegetables, fruits, herbs, grain and livestock, the Northampton Community Farm feeds thousands of community members, engages more than 500 children in farm-based learning and has donated thousands of pounds of food toward local hunger relief. In 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health presented Grow Food Northampton with its Community Transformation Award.
The farm is proud to be part of the larger Bean-Allard Preservation Project along with the city-owned Florence Fields Recreation Area and Mill River Greenway. Joining voices with recreationists and conservationists during public forums in 2010, the farm consistently maintained that the benefits of managing the entire site organically far outweigh the costs when “true costs” of pesticide use are factored in — costs to our children’s long-term health, costs to our soil and water quality and costs to our organic farmers’ bottom lines.
Backing this conviction, last winter the farm offered to cover the cost of enrolling a DPW employee in an all-day training on organic turf management tailored for municipal land managers. We also met with Northampton’s sustainability and energy officer to explore grants to manage Florence Fields as a model chemical-free site. When it looked like the city was moving forward to develop Florence Fields with the use of pesticides, we asked the city to give us a two-week warning before any such application so we could notify farmers and gardeners.
Grow Food Northampton was, therefore, dismayed to learn by chance in mid August that the contracted developers of Florence Fields were preparing to spray Roundup on the entire 20-acre site. One of our farmers was concerned that the spraying would undermine the time and resources he’d invested in transitioning his adjacent fields to certified organic. Another farmer scrambled to remove her bee colony before the spraying began, worried about the correlation between Roundup and colony collapse disorder. Our community gardeners, especially those with multiple chemical sensitivity who had specifically sought refuge in our “organic oasis,” felt confused and betrayed.
While Grow Food Northampton disagreed with city’s decision to develop Florence Fields in a way that required a heavy application of Roundup, we are optimistic a “community transformation” of sorts can come out of this experience. First, within and outside city government, there is renewed energy and commitment to preserve the Bean-Allard land as the treasure we initially envisioned: a site abundant in healthy food, water, soil and habitat; an inviting, joyful and safe place to play sports or garden; a project of national admiration. Already, upon the mayor’s urging, the Recreation and Public Works departments have met with organic land care specialists to explore organic turf management at Florence Fields and study the experiences of cities like Marblehead and Newton, where cost-effective organic management of municipal land has been the norm for over a decade. This is an exciting first step.
Second, with a spotlight on pesticide use on our municipal land, there has never been a better time to review these 20th-century practices and craft more deliberate policies. Many towns throughout Massachusetts have adopted pesticide reduction policies.
How about Northampton? Upon the recommendation of the Massachusetts Pesticide Reduction Resource Guide, (published by the state Department of Environmental Protection) Northampton citizens, including members of Grow Food Northampton, recently brought their concern of municipal pesticide use to Northampton’s Board of Health, urging it to take a leadership role.
Further, on Dec. 12, Grow Food Northampton will present to the Conservation Commission information regarding other municipalities like Lincoln and Amherst that have written policies regarding pesticide and GMO use on municipally owned conservation land. We strongly encourage citizens to join these conversations.
Rising from the “Roundup controversy” spring great opportunities. We have an opportunity to move deliberately away from a convenient but ultimately costly method of managing land with pesticides. We also have the opportunity to renew our vision for the Bean-Allard land: a slice of Florence meadowland transformed from decades of chemical-dependent monoculture to a diverse and healthy ecosystem where organic food and recreation flourish, and where this humble community moves a little closer to paradise.
Lilly Lombard is executive director of Grow Food Northampton.