Farm in the City
Urban farms are popping up all over the metro, from abandoned city lots to restaurant rooftops, bringing a fresh twist to local food.
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The New Urban Farmers
Right outside my door, I pick berries for breakfast. At noon, I harvest a simple salad, along with herbs and eggs from the chicken coop that I whip into a frittata. In the golden light of late afternoon, I pluck a veritable cornucopia of vegetables and set them straight onto the grill for a dinner I eat right in the garden, surrounded by softly clucking birds and a dense forest of trees, shrubs, and knee-high plants laden with blooms and fruits.
At least that was my vision when I bought a little Cape Cod fixer-upper in south Minneapolis last year. I’ve started breaking up the concrete that surrounds the house, stripping sod and planting edible perennials. Still, I have a ways to go to turn this place into the lush Garden of Eden-style urban homestead of my dreams.
“Maybe you need to pull out a rib and make a man to do all the work,” my friend Tom, a landscape contractor who has helped me get started, said when he heard me describe my vision. My mother, who grew up on a North Dakota farm and knows all about the labor that goes into growing food, thinks I am rather, shall we say, idealistic. But I’m on a mission. Living in a place where I can grow my own food feels like part of my genetic encoding. My body craves it. And in the long run, it will save me money, which these days seems like a good plan.
“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land,” Abraham Lincoln once predicted. I’m hoping to at least supplement my living—with lower grocery and doctor bills—from my small piece of land.
Although I’ve gardened before, I don’t quite have all the skills I need to take things to this level. So I looked around and found there are people all over the Twin Cities who can help remedy the situation, like permaculture designer Dan Halsey of SouthWoods Forest Gardens in Prior Lake who teaches homestead and landscape design, and Krista Leraas and Dina Kountoupes of Harvest Moon Backyard Farmers, who design, plant, tend, and harvest gardens for people who don’t want to or can’t do the work themselves. They also act as gardening coaches for people like me who do.
When Krista and Dina walked around my yard with me, I asked for advice about how to grow as much food as possible on my 1/8-acre lot. As we passed the silver maple that spits seeds and attracts box elder bugs, I said I was thinking about cutting it down.
Dina nodded. “Or,” she said, “you could tap it for maple syrup.”
I considered slapping my own forehead. Right! The maple tree is a food source!
We found good spots for asparagus and garlic, a plum tree and a cherry tree, mint, chives, and daylilies (whose unopened buds are delicious sautéed in a little tamari). And just about everywhere seemed like a good place for berries: elderberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants.
When Krista pointed out a spot at the front of the house where more berries could grow, I felt an I-don’t-want-to-go-and-get-all-excessive panic arise.
“I don’t want to get too berry-heavy,” I said.
Krista turned and looked at me square in the eyes. “You don’t?” she asked. “You have a freezer don’t you?”
Now I felt silly. I remembered a winter weekend I spent on a farm in North Dakota, home to one couple and five deep freezers. Except for wine and a little oil, everything we ate for three days—and the food was mouth-wateringly good—had been grown and raised on the farm, most of it right in the family garden. Oh, the garlic and potatoes; the kale and blackberries!
“Yes!” I said, finally beginning to grasp the whole point of what I was trying to do. “I do! I do want to get berry-heavy!”
THE GROWER CHEF
Nick Schneider spent years cooking at Cafe Brenda. Now he shares his love of cooking and growing food all over the Twin Cities.
“I really never saw myself becoming a chef. But I’m someone who loves to work with my senses and I fell in love with cooking. I apprenticed in an Italian restaurant, where I saw things I’d never seen before: fresh tarragon, fresh sage, and fresh beets—nothing out of the can. I started growing a couple years after that and it snowballed really fast. It became an addictive habit. My garden helps me cope with my cooking addiction and vice versa. They are almost inseparable activities.”
In the last few years, I’ve spent time on farms and I’ve grown food in gardens, but I thought I ought to see how an urban homestead actually worked before I started digging. So, I visited Aimee and Jeremy McAdams, who have an old-school homestead near Powderhorn Park in south Minneapolis.
When the economy interrupted their careers in library science and architecture, the McAdams decided to put some of their do-it-yourself interests to work. Jeremy started growing and selling mushrooms. Aimee began sewing. Together, they dug up, reshaped, and planted their yard with as many edibles as possible. They have strawberries, celeriac, and basil. They have two scrappy cherry trees that produced 18 pounds of fruit last year. The tomatoes did well, too.
“I think it’s the rabbit poop,” says Aimee, referring to manure they found for free through a local listserv. The chicken poop—from the hens that lay delicious eggs in their stylish coop—doesn’t hurt either.
Aimee and Jeremy make urban homesteading look rather idyllic, just as I’d hoped. But I had to ask: “Isn’t homesteading hard?”
Jeremy, in his quiet, reflective way, thought for a while. “We only do things that are easy,” he said.
I didn’t believe him. “But you’ve tried difficult things, right? You’ve had some disasters?”
He had told me earlier that while they didn’t have their own cows or goats, they did buy farmer’s milk to make cheese (self-sufficiency is an urban homesteading myth—you become more connected to others when you’re building a resilient ecosystem rather than less). Certainly, I thought, making cheese was hard. “Wasn’t it hard?”
“We made microwavable mozzarella,” he said. “It was easy.”
Curried cucumber pickles are easy, too, and Aimee and Jeremy make them every year. But the canned cauliflower experiment? “Easy, but I didn’t care for it,” said Jeremy. “So I didn’t do it again.”
Easy and tasty are matters of perspective, I realized.
Aimee, creator of the Adventures in Urban Homesteading blog, agreed. “The first year we had chickens, we had to spend a lot of time figuring it out. Then they just became part of how we live.”
Sometimes, Aimee says, she feels like a homesteading fraud. “Our life feels so normal and natural. But then neighbors come by and say, ‘Hey, milking the cows?’ And I realize we’re doing something different.”