Eastie Farm’s new “zero emissions” greenhouse is tucked down a narrow alley, a block from the expressway, in a gritty East Boston corner. The gleaming structure rises amid gardens landscaped with native plants: milkweed, choke weed, huckleberry, mountain mint, paw paw saplings, and two large mulberry trees.
The ability to cram urban permaculture farms into improbable spots and transform these forgotten spaces into vibrant, welcoming, community education and food distribution centers is the genius of Eastie Farm, which Civil Eats first covered in 2019. On an early fall day, the site buzzes with activity. A dozen or so residents with young children line up for their community supported agriculture (CSA) shares while staff quickly sort through boxes of green beans, apples, pumpkins, and corn purchased from local farms. Inside the greenhouse, electricians complete the circuitry for the geothermal energy system that will pump heat, from 450 feet below the surface, to keep plants warm during cooler months.
Season extension—providing fresh, local, nutritious food throughout the winter months—is an overarching goal, as is adapting to a changing climate reality, which is rare for this type of program.
Eastie Farm’s greenhouse will enable the urban farm, which manages three mini-farms and four school-based gardens in East Boston, to extend its growing season and provide a winter classroom for its environmental education program. It expands the organization’s ability to increase food security in the largely immigrant community, with a median household income below the rest of Boston and the furthest average distance to a grocery store.
It is one of 20 greenhouses built at Massachusetts farms over the past two years to increase the availability of locally produced food in underserved communities. A state-funded food security infrastructure grant program, launched at the height of the pandemic, helped pay for the greenhouses, along with 487 other infrastructure projects, ranging from food delivery trucks and freezers to farm equipment to a public housing authority’s vertical farming initiative. The $58 million program aims to make local, fresh food production more efficient and accessible and to mitigate future crises by better connecting local producers and harvesters to a resilient food system.
Ashley Randle, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, says the program is a national model for “how to shore up infrastructure to build a more robust, resilient food system and local economy.” While it’s too early to measure the program’s impact, she says, “It truly has been transformational to our local food system in Massachusetts.”
Season extension—providing fresh, local, nutritious food throughout the winter months—is an overarching goal, Randle says, as is adapting to a changing climate reality, which is rare for this type of program.
“We’re hearing more and more,” she says, “especially after the last two years with the two weather extremes, that the crops that typically used to survive or thrive in the region may have shorter growing seasons now, or shorter time to harvest, and so farmers have to adapt to those changes.”
Zero Emissions Greenhouse
Climate resiliency is core to Eastie Farm’s mission, in part because it’s located in a neighborhood that’s vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise. When the urban farm got the idea to build the greenhouse, it resolved to power it entirely with renewable energy, said Kannan Thiruvengadam, Eastie Farm’s director. “We wanted to do something that’s good for the community, but without compromising what’s good for future generations.”
Commercial greenhouses rely on a heat source, such as propane gas, to keep crops warm in winter and grow seedlings in early spring in cooler climates. Greenhouses also use electricity to power large fans for air circulation and ventilation and grow lights during winter. Energy use varies by size, design, and location, but fuel costs are generally greenhouses’ third highest cost behind labor and plant materials.
Geothermal-powered greenhouses are more common in regions with hot springs, but they’re rare in the East, which only has “low temperature” geothermal resources—that is the earth’s constant heat of about 55 degrees Fahrenheit at a depth of 10 feet or more. Eastie Farm’s geothermal system will harness this heat year-round, keeping plants warm in winter and cooling the space in summer when temperatures outside can top 100 degrees. Providing that natural cooling will reduce the need to run fans in the summer.
Eastie will grow its own seedlings and greens like kale, arugula, and spinach in winter, Thiruvengadam says. It’ll also eventually grow subtropical and tropical fruits, such as Zapote and avocado, and tree saplings in response to community requests.
The environmental and community education programs being planned at the greenhouse are equally important, says Sebastian Teveres, manager of one of the urban farm’s sites. Teveres says he teaches East Boston elementary school children how to “come back in tune with earth” when they’re feeling stress. “I’ve seen the change that it has on kids.”
Built of glass, polycarbonate, and metal, the elegant 1,500-square-foot greenhouse was designed by Dutch company Gakon Netafim. Its energy and water management features include a roof that opens to let hot air out in the summer; two layers of shades for passive heat management, including blocking solar energy on hot days or retaining the sun’s heat on cold days; and gutters that run across the roof’s ridges to channel rain or snow into a 500-gallon, black rain barrel tank inside the greenhouse. The tank provides irrigation water and acts as a thermal mass, radiating solar heat absorbed during the day at nighttime.
Water overflow will be diverted into a mini-aquifer Eastie created by excavating and replacing impermeable clay underlying the site with a fill that allows water to percolate downward. “We won’t be sending water into the city’s storm drains,” Thiruvengadam says.
Winter grow lights and the geothermal pumps will be powered with 100 percent renewable energy through the city’s Community Choice program.