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Urban agriculture in MSP: growing, diversifying, sustainable

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Stone’s Throw is leveraging innovative, sustainable practices to achieve impressive economies of scale.

It’s a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in late summer. You hop on your bike and pedal to Midtown Global Market, passing lush yards and bountiful vegetable plots. Once there, you park your bike and make a beeline for Kitchen in the Market, where your weekly CSA share awaits. You peer into your share box, marveling at the perky lettuce heads, just-picked tomatoes and colorful summer squash. You feel like the luckiest home cook on Earth.

The Line

Plenty of CSAs deliver delicious, fresh-picked produce to markets and garden stores around MSP. Why is this one so special?

Because it’s administered by Shared Ground Farmers’ Co-op, a new, growing agricultural collective with “strong commitment to making environmentally sustainable farming a living wage job for any who chose to pursue it,” according to the collective’s website.

Three of Shared Ground’s five founding farms are Latino-owned and -operated spreads in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin. The fourth, near Amery, Wisconsin, belongs to a U.S.-born couple. And the last is Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, an ambitious partnership that cultivates at least 15 individual plots in Minneapolis and St. Paul — nearly three acres of land, all of it USDA certified organic.

As Shared Ground’s only urban member, “Stone’s Throw serves as the [cooperative’s] storefront and distribution arm,” says Caroline Devany, who handles land use and permitting issues for Stone’s Throw. “We also provide many of the perishable crops that don’t require a lot of space, like tomatoes, lettuce and cooking greens.”

Urban farms: New methods, new markets

Stone’s Throw isn’t the only urban farm that contributes to a CSA. Growing Lots, an organic (though not yet USDA certified) urban farm based in Seward, operates its own 22-week CSA, plus a supplemental fall share that keeps the root veggies and other storage crops coming until Thanksgiving.

Stone’s Throw and Growing Lots will be joined in spring 2016 by an even more ambitious urban agriculture operation: Frogtown Farm, a 5.5-acre parcel tucked into a 12.7-acre park between Minnehaha Avenue, Lafond Avenue, Chatsworth Street and Victoria Street in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

According to the Pioneer Press, Frogtown Farm — a collaboration between the Wilder Foundation, the Trust for Public Land and the City of St. Paul — will be one of the country’s largest contiguous urban farms. Frogtown Farm plans to directly supervise production on about three acres, distributing harvested produce to low-income residents through a subsidized CSA and donations to local food shelves. The remaining 2.5 acres will be subdivided and set aside for community use; the Pioneer Press reports that Youth Farm, a Minneapolis nonprofit, is interested in a plot on site.

Given obvious space and resource constraints, larger urban farms like Stone’s Throw and Frogtown have to get creative — and thrifty. Stone’s Throw uses 300 yards, or about 400,000 pounds, of compost each year. According to Devany, the organization is ramping up its use of vermicomposting (worm-aided composting) to speed the decomposition process and reduce the amount of trucked-in soil needed to sustain operations. Stone’s Throw also has a tractor, which dramatically improves tilling efficiency on larger plots.

Thanks to a nearly $60,000 Knight Green Line Challenge grant, Stone’s Throw is building its first year-round growing operation on a plot at 625 N. Dale Street, in St. Paul. According to Devany, the organization’s year-round greenhouse and two season-extending hoop houses will be the first permanent, soil-based agricultural structures in St. Paul. (Urban Organics has an indoor hydroponic operation at the refurbished Hamm’s Brewery site.)

Stone’s Throw and others are leveraging these innovative, sustainable practices to achieve impressive economies of scale. Stone’s Throw plants and harvests from more than 4,000 tomato plants each year, for instance. In fact, the organization produces more tomatoes, lettuce and cooking greens than can fit in its portion of the Shared Ground CSA.

Stone’s Throw sells the surplus direct to the public at two farmstands, one in Frogtown and the other in Midtown Minneapolis, and at Mill City Market in Minneapolis. Stone’s Throw has a growing lineup of restaurant accounts, too; regulars include Ngon Bistro, Lucia’s, Tilia and the Corner Table. These non-CSA sales represent a vital link in MSP’s increasingly robust local food system, not to mention a valuable revenue stream that Stone’s Throw can plow back into its operations.

“Nowadays, many chefs and restaurant owners keep extensive local grower contact lists,” and readily source hyper-local produce during the growing season, says Mark Granlund, longtime arts and gardens coordinator for the city of St. Paul and enthusiastic urban agriculture booster. “Ten years ago, few restaurateurs knew even a single local farmer by name.”

“It’s exciting to see urban agriculture transforming from a theoretical concept into an actual, functioning system,” he adds.

Opportunities for small-scale growers

MSP’s urban agriculture ecosystem isn’t confined to larger growing operations that the mimic sustainable, family- or cooperatively-run market farms (like Shared Ground’s non-urban members) popping up just beyond the region’s sprawl. The most exciting urban ag developments are increasingly found at the smaller end of the spectrum, as individuals and small business owners rediscover the joys and benefits of growing food for their own use — and, often, extra income.

The most visible examples of MSP’s small-scale urban ag movement are community gardens, where single people, families or small groups grow produce for themselves and, sometimes, a small farmers market stall. The region’s community gardening scene has exploded in recent years, with far too many individual gardens to name. Gardening Matters, an urban gardening and agriculture organization, maintains a comprehensive map of community gardens in Minneapolis and St. Paul using data supplied by the gardens themselves.

According to Gardening Matters’ annual Community Gardening in Minnesota: A Snapshot report, nearly 350 community gardens existed across MSP in 2014. Of those, more than 250 produced food. Most are owned and operated by city governments, nonprofit institutions, faith institutions or private individuals.

“[Community gardens] are very creative at finding land to support their activities,” says Granlund, citing churchyards, tax-forfeited and foreclosed lots, and land leased by local businesses.

The communal gardening community clearly sees itself as a force for public good. About 35 percent of food-producing gardens statewide (Gardening Matters doesn’t break out data by city) donate some or all of their harvest to local food shelves. Donations are either made piecemeal — a gardener loads up a few boxes and takes them to a local shelf — or through a specific program, such as the city of Minneapolis’ Healthy Food Shelf Network.

Meanwhile, about 40 percent of all community gardens statewide, and an even higher percentage in historically disadvantaged parts of MSP’s urban core,  “intentionally involve youth.” For instance, Project Sweetie Pie recruits and trains young people to tend gardens in several North Minneapolis neighborhoods.

McKinley Urban Farm, also located in North Minneapolis, caters to kids but accepts volunteers of all ages. McKinley is one of the few community gardens with its own CSA, an 18-week affair filled with produce grown on a handful of vacant residential lots.

Many community gardens don’t donate their entire harvest to charity or operate their own CSAs. In many cases, individual growers at such gardens operate their own farmers market stalls. According to Granlund, folks who cultivate on private property are free to buy a vendor permit at their farmers’ market of choice and sell whatever they grow. Due to public use codes, food grown on city-owned land, including in parks, can’t be sold commercially.

Rebuilding a sustainable local food system

Thanks to organizations like Stone’s Throw, Gardening Lots and McKinley Urban Farm, not to mention thousands of individual cultivators, MSP is closer to developing a legitimate hyper-local food system than at any point in the previous two generations. Much of the region’s progress is down to proactive measures taken by the two core cities in the 2000s and early 2010s, as well as groundwork laid by private and nonprofit organizations as far back as the 1990s.

“Back in the 1950s, [local decision-makers] decided that farming didn’t really belong in the city limits anymore,” says Cam Gordon, a City Council member for Minneapolis’ Ward 2. “It took years to undo that damage.”

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have active “food councils” that engage individuals and organizations on food security and food systems issues. In both cities, the councils’ core duties include ensuring stable, long-term land access — a key issue in any urban center — for growers of all stripes.

Minneapolis’ City Council, along with city agencies, is loosening the requirements necessary for community gardens to secure long-term (three- to five-year) leases on vacant properties — previously, properties “had to be basically undevelopable to qualify,” says Gordon. According to Homegrown Minneapolis, at least 30 city-owned lots qualify for long-term leases. One-year leases are available on each of 29 North Minneapolis lots that have been vacant since the 2011 tornado.

Meanwhile, the powerful Minneapolis Park Board has a parallel urban agriculture program that’s currently exploring the possibility of cultivating food-bearing perennials, like fruit trees and berry bushes, on existing parkland — potentially ensuring a long-term supply of healthy produce for residents without access to farm plots.

In St. Paul, Frogtown Farm — a permanent, public-private urban agriculture resource — clearly showcases the power of land tenure. Though contiguous 5.5-acre parcels are rare in either city, Gordon and Granlund note that there’s an abundance of marginal or unsuitable-for-development land that could well be relegated to agricultural use on a semi-permanent basis.

The Twin Cities Agricultural Land Trust (TCALT) is responsible for much recent progress on the land tenure issue. Conceived years ago as a partnership between “Gardening Matters, the Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota Project, City of Lakes Community Land Trust, Farmers' Legal Action Group, and the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women, among others,” says TCALT board chair Valentine Cadieux, TCALT advocates for community agriculture groups and networks with landowning entities (including Minneapolis Parks) to improve land access and tenure.

“If you look around, there's a lot of green space here, which is part of what makes [MSP] such an amazing place to live,” says Cadieux. “Permission to use more of that land in the longer term for food could create more public gardens and orchards, food production programming in parks and schools and hospitals that's integrated with the food served there, and the possibility for more people to gain a livelihood from growing food in ways that create many public benefits for the rest of us.”
 
Sustainability is a major challenge for eco-minded urban farms, too. In particular, maintaining organic certification is difficult for thinly staffed organizations operating on shoestring budgets. According to Stone’s Throw’s Devany, who oversaw her employer’s USDA certification process, the process took several months and involved more forms than she could count.

“Organic certification is challenging for urban growers because they tend to be so dispersed,” she says. For each of Stone’s Throw’s 15 urban plots, Devany contacted adjacent landowners — often several per plot — to ask about pesticide use during the previous three years. She also had to convince each neighbor to maintain a 10-foot spray buffer, beyond which they weren’t allowed to apply pesticides. Going forward, she’ll have to submit to an annual USDA review of existing properties — and go through the process all over again for each new property Stone’s Throw obtains.

But these challenges aren’t insurmountable. And as the dizzying proliferation of urban CSAs, community gardens, hyper-local farmers market stalls and farm-to-fork restaurants attests, MSP’s urban agriculture ecosystem is only getting stronger.

“As recently as a few years ago, I personally knew almost everyone involved with urban agriculture” in MSP, says Granlund. “Today, there are just too many participants to keep straight.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Brian Martucci is The Line's innovation and jobs news editor.  

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