EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was first published in the October newsletter of the North End Community Improvement Collaborative.
MANSFIELD -- Since childhood, Walter Bonham has always wanted to grow his own food. He has been able to do just that through his company called The Food Lab as well as his work on his micro farm at the NECIC urban farm.
“The purpose of The Food Lab is to build, grow and feed,” Walter said during a summer interview at the farm. “To build things around farming .. I look at the build part as contracting with NECIC helping to get everything lined up ... and the grow part is growing food but also growing awareness around food, trying to attract more farmers and trying to get the kids involved.
"Just growing aspects around farming and different stuff. The feed part goes beyond just selling my produce but actually catering and going from seed to stomach.”
The NECIC Urban Farm recently celebrated its second birthday and the growth has been phenomenal. The 10-acre site wa s cheaply leased to NECIC by Gorman Rupp and has prospered in its nearly three years of existence. The urban farm consists of six high tunnels, and 30 raised beds.
Walter is one of three urban farmers contributing to the Bowman Street property. The Richland GrowOp, formed in 2018, is a larger collaboration of nine businesses that includes the three micro farms at the NECIC Urban Farm, the Stanfield micro urban farm on West Fourth Street, and five rural farmers.
“Right now our biggest thing is establishing our market, building our brand and learning to become better farmers,” he said of the cooperative. “There have been so many new things that we’ve learned to grow, so it’s those niche things you can’t go to the auction and pay a dollar a pound for.
"It’s all been so new for us. A bunch of us are taking on new crops we haven’t grown before but most of us are getting hands-on training.”
Produce from the urban farm can be found locally at Hudson and Essex. They feature a mizuna salad on their menu sourced straight from Bowman Street.
Walter said he hopes to become a better farmer as this time goes on at the farm.
“I want to learn how to grow new crops, learning more plants and learning more signs and symptoms, and diseases (of plants),” he said. “Just kind of going through my stages of being a beginning farmer.”
The GrowOp is a typical business in its infancy, Walter reminded.
“We’re trying to build our brand and build our market. I feel like as a cooperative we are headed in the right direction,” he said. “We haven’t been around for 20 years and we’re not even well-known yet. We want to start being able to focus on direct sales and start really capturing our audience a little bit better and building our brand a little bit better.”
NECIC has also provided a way for the children of our community to learn about farming first hand with the creation of a hoop house at Malabar Intermediate and Mansfield Senior High Schools as well as regular field trips to the farm.
“You can never go wrong with learning how to feed yourself and picking up these skills,” Bonham said. “Also, one thing about having this urban farm, what NECIC did is, it introduces kids to the whole farming scene and growing scene period.
"So it goes beyond farming, it can get kids interested in soil science, botany, or food management. I think that’s one of the cool aspects of what we’re doing here on the urban side of things, we’re slapping it right in the city.
"It’s like we’re just bringing awareness to more things, not only farming but agriculture as a whole.”