From urban farming to freedom fighting at Sabathani conference

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At the table after lunch, an excited Dimitri Kaasan draws on a napkin. He diagrams the aquaculture system at his son’s school, Southside Family Charter School. Plants such as herbs are rooted in circulating water that is fertilized by fish (see video for fuller explanation). The students keep up the system through the year and base their curriculum around growing the plants and fish.

“It’s a closed system,” says Kaasan. “It has everything.”

Kaasan, who volunteers for the Minnesota Food Council Network, was one of many enthusiastic conference goers at Digging Deeper 2014 March 8 at the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. Sponsored by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the event brought together gardeners, organizers, community and business leaders to talk about urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture is a growing movement in the Twin Cities to bring food closer to home, including personal, community, and commercial gardens or farms, all inside the city. It’s often more sustainable than buying from a large commercial farm across the world, and can be cheaper, too. And, as many are finding, growing your own food can empower people to fight for a better life.

Michael Chaney of Project Sweetie Pie can attest to that empowerment. Over the years, he’s worked on many social justice issues in the Twin Cities. Currently his Project Sweetie Pie helps to maintain 25 gardens in North Minneapolis with 130 community organizational partners. His eventual goal: create a model for communities around the nation to form community agricultural businesses with livable wage jobs. Chaney says Project Sweetie Pie just received a $40,000, three-year grant from Miracle-Gro to start up another garden project north of Plymouth Ave.

Sam Grant, the transformative organizing director for the Movement Center for Deep Democracy, talked to participants before lunch about two urban farming bills at the state level. The measures, currently being considered for discussion by Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin) in the Agriculture Policy Committee, would bolster state support, change zoning laws and require cities to provide land for agriculture.

These state bills could lead the cities to take more action on behalf of urban farmers, especially those in need of capital and land. Already, it is difficult for urban growers when lending institutions think that the poor are a risk to capital, Grant said, adding, “Well, capital is a risk to the poor.”

Recognizing that good arable land in hard to find in cities, local programs such as the Land Stewardship Project and the Twin Cities Agricultural Land Trust have helped to secure space for farming in the Twin Cities.

Others, such as the community group Transition Longfellow, have started in residents’ yards. This organization, in particular, has a program called, “Chard Your Yard,” where they convert lawn space to raised garden beds for chard. Another group, the Garden Gleaning Project, works with homeowners and farmers’ markets to take their excess fruit and food and donate it to local food shelves for the hungry.

Back at the tables, a woman said she never really liked tomatoes in anything until she started gardening for herself. A man explained how the Phillips neighborhood is trying to reach out to new, potentially longstanding volunteers for their community gardens. Another woman from the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization talked about how her group has been a watchdog for the community, protecting it from unnecessary development that often stands in the way of community gardens.

The conference ended, but its ideas and people are still buzzing, trying to create lives for themselves in their work and food. As Michael Chaney said on a panel, “I’m not a farmer; I’m a freedom fighter.”