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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Different can be good, but in Minnesota, we don’t want things to be too different. So I called on Audrey Matson to ask her for the best advice on making urban homesteading work for me and my neighbors. Matson grew up on a dairy farm in Finlayson, where her family grew vegetables and did a lot of canning. She always thought she’d move back to the country one day. But when she realized that St. Paul was home now, she started her own homestead in the city. Then, she opened EggPlant Urban Farm Supply, a St. Paul store that sells tools, edible plants, a lot of chicken feed, and supplies for canning, fermenting, dehydrating, and cheese making.
“Aesthetics really come into play in the city, so put some design into the garden, combining ornamental plants with food plants,” she said. “Most important, learn to cook. Part of what goes along with growing food is cooking food, because you end up buying less prepared food.”
I’ll limit my rant here, but I do have to say this: the way we’ve been eating in this country doesn’t compute. We use gasoline to drive to oil-heated stores to buy food grown with oil-based fertilizer that’s been shipped on average 1,500 miles to get here in gasoline-powered trucks. That, to me, isn’t very secure, safe, or even sensible.
Why, I’ve often wondered, don’t we turn our urban and suburban lawns back into orchards and gardens, like my dad’s parents used to have on their little hobby farm in Hopkins? When I was 10, I picked apples at their place, bagged them up, put them in my little red wagon, and sold them to neighbors for $1 per dozen. The rest was made into apple pies and apple crisp, apple sauce and apple butter that tasted so good in winter.
Before Hopkins, my grandparents lived near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. There, my dad built a trailer he could attach to his bicycle to haul his canoe down to the lake. He also remembers hauling water, in a car, to their garden plot at a nearby Victory Garden. During World War II, 20 million Americans helped plant such gardens. They grew about 40 percent of this country’s produce supply.
There are only two remaining Victory Gardens that have been used continuously until today: the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston and the Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis. When I first started walking through that garden years ago, I had no real interest in growing flowers, let alone food. But one day I was overcome by a profusion of color and scent, the bees buzzing, the 10-foot-tall sunflowers soaring overhead. The experience was pretty darn spiritual. And it made me think: if people can create this kind of bounty right here, someday I might be able to do it too, right outside my door.
The owner: Danny Schwartzman, Common Roots Café
The garden: Behind the café in two backyards
When Danny Schwartzman opened Common Roots Café in 2007, he wanted to have a café garden tied to it—not to replace produce from local farmers, but to help city dwellers connect the food they’re eating with the people who grow it and the effort that goes into it. In 2009, Schwartzman bought the two houses directly behind the café, remodeled them into duplexes, ripped out their asphalt parking spaces, brought in good dirt, and planted the garden. A bevy of staff, volunteers, and kids now plant, tend, and harvest it. Schwartzman tells us about the garden, whose produce is served in the café:
Pounds harvested: “Both of the first two years we harvested 1,500 to 1,600 pounds. The third year it was less because we focused on herbs and greens that don’t weigh as much.”
Unexpected benefit: “In the garden, you see all the parts of the plants you can use but people generally don’t use. It’s good for the creativity of the kitchen and staff.”
Favorite garden-grown dish: “Bruschetta with tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and sorrel.”
Most surprising thing: “When I’m out pulling weeds, all different kinds of people—across all demographics and socioeconomics—enjoy walking by the garden and looking at it. Most of them smile. A lot of people in the city haven’t grown food and can’t identify things in the garden, and they have a strong desire to get that knowledge back.”
Weirdest event: “We have lots of compost—it’s good stuff—and we found an earthworm longer and larger than anyone had ever seen before: about 18 inches long and 1/3 inch thick. It was crazy.”
The Farm Next Door
A stroll through a farmers’ market is one of the most pleasing weekend summer rituals in the Twin Cities. One of my favorites is the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, now over 150 years old, where everything sold is produced within a 50-mile radius. That means fresh food. Super fresh. But city dwellers don’t have to go to the market to get such produce. Farmers deliver to local co-ops, and, for years, dozens of farmers have come to town each week to deliver baskets of just-picked goodness to their CSA (community-supported agriculture) members. Now, there’s another change afoot. Urban farmers are bringing the farm itself back to the city. Some people think that sounds idyllic. Others cringe.
“When people think of farms, they think of smelly, polluted, industrial farms,” says Eric Larsen of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, a group of young farmers converting abandoned city lots into aesthetically pleasing micro-farms and selling their produce as CSA shares and at the Mill City Farmers’ Market. “Instead, we’re working toward what urban agriculture used to be 60 years ago.” That’s about when city planners zoned farms, which were integrated into the urban fabric, out of town. Now planners are figuring out how to zone them back in again—in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and elsewhere. In the meantime, urban farmers—whose numbers are growing—have had to be crafty. And sometimes downright ingenious.
With zoning in transition, and good farmland not exactly easy to find, Stefan Meyer and Mike Pursell of Growing Lots Urban Farm made their own farmland. On a few abandoned lots in the Seward neighborhood, they spread plastic out on top of asphalt, hauled in tons of soil, and planted things like pineapple ground cherries, yard long beans, and purple Brussels sprouts—plants without deep roots. The farm has had to move a few times, but for the next several years, thanks to a stable lease from Seward Redesign, Growing Lots can settle in. In addition to vegetable beds, the farm will compost, have a rainwater catchment, a tiered pond system, and mushrooms. People who buy CSA shares can visit the farm, just a short walk from the Franklin Avenue light-rail stop, to get their food.
A West Seventh Street community in St. Paul has a neighborhood-grown CSA, too. With a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, Xe Susane Moua—a former California farmer—knocked on her neighbors’ doors and asked if she could grow food in their backyards, launching City Backyard Farming.
Jeremy McAdams started Cherry Tree House Mushrooms in his Minneapolis backyard, but complicated zoning issues made him move his farm out to Grow! Twin Cities, a model urban farm that aims to be a multicultural growers’ cooperative on Rice Street in Maplewood. There, on carefully stacked logs under a black-mesh tarp, McAdams grows oyster mushrooms and shiitakes, which he sells primarily to restaurants. The location is working out, but this ecologically-minded farmer doesn’t like the drive. “I’d rather farm closer to home,” McAdams says.
People are farming wherever they can. Residents of Minneapolis’s McKinley neighborhood have created a series of pocket farms on vacant lots for the McKinley Community CSA. Karla Pankow and Elizabeth Millard used social media to find volunteers to prepare the ground for Bossy Acres, their urban/rural hybrid farm in Minneapolis and Dayton.