Nina Escriva dunked heads of a large Chinese cabbage called pak choy into a tub of water, one after another, cleaning off mud at the base so they could be bagged and set aside.
It was a sunny, cool Friday morning on Frogtown Farm in St. Paul. A group of nine workers, including volunteers and staff, moved through rows of ripe produce, harvesting buckets full of vegetables that would be distributed that evening at a local food shelf or sold the next morning at the market.
Escriva was taking advantage of a new program this season to help at the farm once or twice a week in exchange for a share of the harvest. She’s lived in Frogtown for five years while attending Macalester College. Without a yard of her own, she looked to the farm for a place to spend time outside, to get her hands dirty, and to work alongside other people.
“It’s very genuine community here,” she said. “They really care about agriculture, food production … about access to food.”
Frogtown Farm is a 5.5 acre organic urban farm that started in 2013 by Trust for Public Land, the City of St. Paul and the Wilder Foundation. Bordered by Minnehaha Avenue to the south and Victoria Street to the east and surrounded by trees, the farm features neat rows of vegetables surrounded by patches of weeds and grasses growing long and unwieldy. It’s hard to believe it’s just two miles from the state Capitol.
The farm was founded because the community wanted to preserve nearly 13 acres for green space, rather than see a new housing complex built. In addition to plots for growing certified organic crops, a community garden area allowed neighborhood residents to plant and harvest their own food.
In the years since, Frogtown Farm has worked with community groups such as the Asian Economic Development Association, the Urban Farm Garden Alliance, and Public Art Saint Paul to plan how they would serve Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods. The groups want to build and support a system that includes more people growing food and finding quality fresh food in local stores, restaurants, schools, and other institutions.
They believe that improving access to growing and eating good food will help address health and economic disparities in the two mostly low-income neighborhoods, whose residents are nearly all people of color.
This season, the farm added new community-oriented programs designed to draw more neighbors. A weekly event invites anyone to help with projects, like planting, weeding and other maintenance, while a new Saturday market offers the farm’s latest harvest for sale alongside outdoor kitchen demonstrations, booths selling crafts, music and exercise classes, among other activities.
In the new work program, 15 people, including Escriva, each agreed to spend 20 hours over the course of the season helping out on the farm. In exchange, they can pick any five things from the market every week. Reserved for the farm’s closest neighbors – those living in Hamline-Midway, Frogtown or Rondo – the workshare program uses the same volunteers all summer, teaching them skills and relying on their contributions, with the hope that, sometime in the future, the farm will have a pool of people from which they could hire staff, said farm manager Iman Mefleh.
“Agriculture is a specific skill set,” she said. “[We can] start involving people without having them have to leave their jobs.”
‘Farming is half of it’
That morning, while Escriva cleaned pak choy, a farm intern picked beets while other workers harvested tomatoes, broccolini, eggplant and collard greens.
Xinger Zeng, whose internship gives her credit toward her University of Minnesota plant science degree, doesn’t care much for eating beets, she said. But she also didn’t like okra until the farm demonstrated a pickled okra recipe one week. She loved it. “For me, a curious person, I will always try new things,” she said.
She was the first one on the farm that morning, said Skyler Hawkins, field coordinator for the farm. It’s one of the benefits of investing in the same workers week after week: They’re empowered to act independently.
For Hawkins, whose background includes work on a farm that provided transitional job training, building relationships and skills and serving the community are as important as the actual work. “Farming is half of it,” he said.
He said each volunteer is different. Some people have never used the tools involved. Others may have a lot of gardening experience but know nothing about how to properly handle food they’ve harvested to sell or how to weed beds on a large scale, Mefleh said.
Christian and Cora Preston, a young married couple who recently bought a house in the neighborhood, gathered broccolini in bunches. They aren’t very good gardeners, Christian Preston said, so helping on the farm is “more successful.”
They go home with a bag of fresh vegetables every week and benefit from others’ expertise in gardening. Those others include Samuel Norris, who has grown his own food at his home in Hamline-Midway for nearly two decades. As he plucks each leaf into bunches of his own, he describes the meal of fried greens and fish or chicken he’ll likely make when he gets home.
While some workshare members help harvest, others, like Jeff Olsen Krengel, show up early on Saturdays to help sell the week’s goods. He likes telling his 7-year-old that the green beans they’re eating were grown across the street. He brings collard greens to work, where he participates in a salad club. He said helping at the farm allows his family to connect with others in the neighborhood.
That’s what Mefleh likes to hear. “When you’re weeding 16 beds together, you really get to know each other,” she said.