If you want to eat more local food, you have choices. You can grow your own in your back yard or at a community garden. You can forage wild foods or glean food, like picking the apples that your neighbor doesn’t want. You can shop at the farmers’ market. Or you might buy a share in a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm and pick up your share every week during the growing season.
Most CSAs are on small farms outside the city, with weekly boxes of produce delivered to “drop-off” locations in your neighborhood. But increasingly, some are located right here in the city. A few weeks ago, I toured one called Growing Lots, guided by Stefan Meyer, a very interesting guy I have known for several years.
Stefan grew up on a conventional farm in southwestern Minnesota. He was, as he put it, “bathed in Roundup as a child.” (Roundup is an herbicide.) At age 18, he left his father’s turkey operation forever, vowing never to farm again in his life.
Along the way, however, he studied permaculture and other sustainable food practices in Oregon. Now his father grows corn and soybeans and laughs at him, since he [Stefan] grows sweet corn and edamame (soybeans eaten fresh), among the many veggies at Growing Lots.
Like nearly all urban farms confronted with high land prices, Growing Lots owns none of the 2.5 acres they use. They farm on a converted parking lot owned by Seward Redesign, on a vacant lot owned by Coastal Seafoods (also in Seward), and on the edge of an Afton farm being transitioned to organic. The Seward Redesign parking lot was covered with impermeable plastic, then topped with 10 to 15 inches of mixed topsoil, compost, and composted manure.
Growing Lots pays no actual rent, instead working unused land that would otherwise be an unattractive patch of urban blight. It is a win-win situation for both the urban farm and the land owners. But not owning land can also lead to a bit of instability. Seward Redesign has promised them another three years at the 22nd Street location. But if that property is eventually needed for something else, Stefan and his fellow farmer Mike Pursell will have to move all that wonderful dirt somewhere else. In lieu of rent, the folks at Seward Redesign and Coastal Seafoods owner Suzanne Weinstein get paid in veggies and a useful and pleasing land use. And at the Afton location, the trade is with the labor it takes to clear away some particularly invasive weeds so the land can eventually be used for an organic farm.
Growing Lots is now in its fourth year, selling 70 full CSA shares, as well as selling a bit of surplus at the Midtown Farmers’ Market. They have drip irrigation everywhere, and a new 64- by 20-foot high tunnel, which potentially adds another three or four weeks of growing in the spring and again in the fall. (A high tunnel is a bit like a greenhouse, except that it is an unheated temporary structure, usually with plastic covering instead of glass.) They host a couple of bee hives on the roof, courtesy of Beez Kneez, a new business that keeps urban hives and delivers honey by bicycle.
Urban agriculture is not a way of getting rich quick. At 70 full shares, the entire operation just barely brings in enough to pay Stefan and Mike Pursell a salary, yet it’s enough that for the first time they can farm without relying on outside income.
Money is not the biggest obstacle to running a farm business in the city, however. Bigger still would be access to land. Even vacant land, foreclosed land or tax-forfeited land is hard to come by. Minneapolis is getting a lot more sympathetic to home gardening, with better rules on hoop-houses, raised beds, frontyard veggies and the like. But even with all the vacant properties around town, there is a natural competition with those who want to “land bank” the property for future high-density development; such development produces more profits or taxes than growing greens would produce. So businesses like Growing Lots rely on good-hearted friends like Coastal Seafoods or Seward Redesign.
Access to water and difficult regulations are also major concerns. For the first time this year, Growing Lots is able to get metered water from a nearby fire hydrant. Installing their own city water outlet would have cost thousands. And the regulations are beginning to ease, but they are still sometimes difficult. The high tunnel can be over 6 feet tall, because the lot is in a commercial area, but they are still required to cover and uncover it twice a year, due to city restrictions.
They have bees on the roof, which has only been legal for the past few weeks, but they are not allowed to keep chickens on the property, since nobody lives there.
We all need to eat, so it makes sense to have a reliable supply of food. Right now, our food is cheap, dependent on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and it travels great distances to get to us. We might want to think about how fragile this system is. This might lead us to consider becoming more local and more self-reliant with our food supply. Which is why I am so grateful for folks like Stefan Meyer and the exciting experiments at places like Growing Lots.
Now, to the calendar:
Wednesday, Aug. 7, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Tomato and salsa canning,” NE United Methodist Church, 2510 Cleveland St. NE, Mpls. 612-821-2358 or http://www.excotc.org/class/tomato-salsa-water-bath-canning-class
Saturday, Aug. 24, 1 to 2:30 p.m. Free. “Pruning trees and shrubs,” St. Louis Park Library, 3240 Library Lane, St. Louis Park. 612-543-6125 or http://www.hclib.org/pub/events/
Friday, Sept. 13, to Sunday, Sept. 15. $100 per adult. Foraging weekend “Midwest Wild Harvest Festival,” 11815 Munz Ln., Prairie du Chien, WI. 715-354-9936 or http://wildharvestfestival.org
Saturday, Sept. 14, 10:30 a.m. to noon. Free. “Pruning trees and shrubs,” Edina Library, 5280 Grandview Square, Edina. 612-543-6325 or http://www.hclib.org/pub/events/