In Holyoke, Massachusetts, a postindustrial, slightly down-on-its-heels town in the beautiful Pioneer Valley, the Nuestras Raíces organization is something of an urban marvel. The agriculture-centered nonprofit is a thriving community center for Holyoke’s large Puerto Rican population, which moved there for now-vanished jobs in the 1960s and ’70s at local paper mills and tobacco farms.
Profiled by Corby Kummer in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, Nuestras Raíces has grown in its 15 years from a simple proposal to make a community garden out of abandoned, drug dealer–infested lots into a network of enterprising food-centered projects: There are now nine community gardens scattered throughout Holyoke, but there’s also an artisanal bakery; a Puerto Rican restaurant that cooks with the vegetables and fruits from the gardens, and a nutrition and health center that teaches families how to do just that; and a 30-acre farm with livestock that’s only a mile from downtown.
That farm is home to dozens of tiny “incubator farms”: After attending an eight-week training program, aspiring farmers can rent a quarter acre for $25 a month; they can receive microloans, too. (Teenagers pay nothing.) As Daniel Ross, the remarkable young director of Nuestras Raíces, says, “During the summer you’ll find a dozen guys sitting on tables and benches, shelling beans and telling lies about the size of their tomatoes.” Grandfathers who grew up on farms in Puerto Rico teach schoolchildren how to plant crops. The farm also hosts a petting zoo, a farm stand, even weekly pig roasts. It has, Kummer writes, “a look, and a life, as close as people in the Puerto Rican community can come to the villages they and their families remember.”