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Three Twin Cities urban farms to merge
Three urban farms in Uptown, Phillips and Frogtown are merging to create a larger farm called Stone's Throw Urban Farms. The merger of Uptown Farmers, Concrete Beet Farmers (in Phillips) and Pigs Eye Urban Farm (Frogtown) most likely will become official by the end of October, with individual organizations dissolving and merging into one larger LLC, according to Concrete Beet’s Eric Larsen.
Larsen says the decision to do the merger came about in August, when the three farms decided to partner on a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant. Out of the grant process, the farms decided it would make sense to work together financially, to share certain costs and better manage the land and resources, so they “wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel three times over,” according to Larsen.
The ultimate goal of the merger is to realize a position where the farmers can pay themselves a livable wage, according to Larsen. In the past, they were working on almost a volunteer basis, he says.
While details are still being worked out, the merger will allow for three full-time workers and four part-time workers, with duties divided up between planting, selling the food at market, public relations, coordinating the CSA (community supported agriculture — see sidebar), maintenance, bookkeeping and volunteer coordinating, according to Uptown Farmers’ Nathan Watters.
What's a CSA?
Here's a definition from Local Harvest:
"Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. "
Watters says for the last four years Uptown Farmers has been able to grow really great vegetables, with a wonderful market at Mill City Farmers’ Market. “But we are still a sustainable hobby,” he says. “It’s not an actual livable wage-paying job.” All of the farmers at the three different farms have other places of employment, he says.
So what’s a livable wage? Watters says each farmer may have a different answer. For him, he’s looking to get somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000 per year. During the summer months, he works 35-45 hours per week. Of course that changes “if you want to raise a family, or have expensive tastes,” he says. “Most farmers don’t make much more than $20,000- $25,000.”
The three farms are pretty similar in their current structures. Two of the farms — Concrete Beet and Pigs Eye — have been selling through a CSA model while Uptown Farmers has been selling through Mill City Farmers’ Market, according to Larsen. Under the merger, Stone's Throw Urban Farms hopes to increase their CSA to 100, while continuing to selling to Mill City, and hopefully partnering with Bon Appetite Catering, according to Larsen.
Before the merger, all three farms had similar ways of growing food, adhering to organic practices and creating farm space out of vacant lots.
Nathan Schrecengost, from Pig’s Eye Urban Farm, says the three farms all follow organic practices, and don’t use pesticides, but are not certified. “Any customer that buys from us at market — we tell them our practices.” People who live near the farms can actually walk down the street and see how the food is grown, he says.
While it would be nice to be certified organic, Schrecengost says it’s nearly impossible in an urban setting, because the rules require a buffer zone, so that all of the neighbors would have to be on board as well. There are other certifications that exist, that Schrecengost says may be a possibility in the future, such as Certified Naturally Grown, which is a grassroots organization that is a little more attainable for a farm in an urban setting.
The merger will help the three farms better manage the land. This past year, Pigs Eye farm had the most amount of land but only had one main person working, according to Larsen. The new structure, which will include three people from Uptown Farmers, three from Concrete Beets and one from Pigs Eye, will allow a better distribution of labor resources to all three sites.
Nathan Schrecengost, who was handling Pigs Eye Farm, says he’s grateful to get some help, not just with working the land, but with the administrative duties. “For me,” he says, “I’m not a money or finance person. I just want to grow food.” Schrecengost says that the larger land mass means more opportunities to sell to large wholesalers.
Schrecengost believes the farmers are moving into new territory embarking on this merger. “No one’s ever really taken it to this level,” he says. It’s all very new, but the goals of the group are clear- to grow the best quality food as possible, and make it available to anybody who wants it, he says.
“We want to make this new farm an example of how urban farming can actually be a livelihood,” he says. “Right now all three farms aren’t sustainable. This could be a model for the Twin Cities as well as regionally and nationally.”
The merger will also allow the farmers to consolidate political forces. Larsen says Concrete Beet Farmers have been involved with the Minneapolis Agricultural Policy Plan, in addition to attending city council meetings and meeting with city planners. “We’re fostering a good relationship with the city,” he said. Changes in Minneapolis city ordinances for urban farming include future changes such as offering an option to have on-site farm stands, as well as having permanent structures like green houses and hoop houses, which extend the growing season. Minneapolis’s new policy will also allow more composting, allowing the farms to make their own compost rather than bringing it in from the suburbs.
In the coming weeks, Stone's Throw Urban Farms will be legally filing with the state as an LLC, and making announcements to the three farms’ members. Over the coming months, they’ll start signing up new CSA members. “We don’t have an official launch date,” says Larsen. “We won’t make a big announcement.”
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.