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An ‘artist co-op’ for urban farmers

This is the second season for Grow! Twin Cities, an urban agriculture project bringing together people sharing wisdom and resources.

Karla Pankow of Bossy Acres

It’s the smell you notice most when first stepping inside the Maplewood greenhouses of Grow! Twin Cities. A pungent blend of soil, decomposing compost and whatever else lingers in places where plants have long been grown, the earthy aroma is both acrid and enticing, especially toward the back of one greenhouse in which an 85-foot-long compost pile is being tested as an eco-friendly way to produce heat in the winter.

This is the second season for Grow! Twin Cities, an urban agriculture project started by five local food activists looking to create a “model urban farm” by bringing together people and plants as a community in which they hope wisdom and resources can be shared. “We’re working to build a co-op of small- to mid-size high-quality growers who can operate together,” says Russ Henry, one of the group’s founders, and owner of the organic gardening and landscaping company, Giving Tree Gardens.

Though it is loosely modeled around some of the same community food principles embraced by the Milwaukee-based non-profit Growing Power, Grow! Twin Cities is a unique venture. And the idea had been percolating quite awhile when, last April, the group decided to rent the former site of Ziittel Greenhouses, which they’d been eyeing for months. Well known for being a longtime family-run operation that specialized in flower production, Ziittel’s business has tapered off in recent years as Alice Ziittel, now in her 70s, continued operations on her own before deciding to rent to Grow!

Building a Community

Located just off Rice Street, the 13-acre, partially wooded property includes a wetland that attracts wildlife, as well as a large, open field just behind the greenhouses in good sun. In short, it’s the perfect spot for creating a community of urban farmers. The biggest priority now is finding renters for the greenhouse space.  

“We were all just getting our feet wet last year and trying to figure things out, so we didn’t have a lot of renters other than ourselves,” recalls Marianne Carolan, who runs Grassroot Growers along with two other Grow! founders, Starr Carpenter and Jeanette Lieberman. In addition to heirloom tomatoes, Grassroot Growers offers a variety of vegetables, herbs, and flower transplants at wholesale prices to local garden centers, as well as groups holding plant sales and fundraisers. The fifth founder, Collie Graddick, works with the local food system cooperative Community Table.

Happily, Carolan says, word has spread about Grow! Twin Cities. Several renters have already signed on for the 2012 growing season, and more are coming to tour the greenhouses all the time. So far, groups joining Grassroot Growers and Giving Tree Gardens include: Bossy Acres, Cherry Tree House Mushrooms, Open Arms of Minnesota, Metro Blooms, and Cook Water Farms.

Starting Small

It’s cold in the Grow! greenhouses now. But that didn’t stop Karla Pankow and Elizabeth Millard of Bossy Acres from cleaning out the space they rented and hauling in some supplies one morning earlier this month. (In her non-ag life, Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.) “We’re really excited to be here,” Pankow says, just before heaving an enormous bag of soil mix off her should and onto an empty table. This will be the first full season for Bossy Acres, the organic farm Pankow and Millard started in August of last year after renting some land in Dayton, Minnesota.

Because it was so close to fall, they prepped the farm’s soil but opted to put off planting until this season. They knew it was the right choice, but Pankow was “dying to plant something”. So they started out small by growing a variety of microgreens in three raised beds and a hoop house in the backyard. It took some experimenting to understand things like what soil mixes work best and how often to water. It wasn’t long before Pankow and Millard, who are new to farming, were selling their microgreens at local farmers’ markets and other venues.
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Pankow credits social media with much of their success. “It’s been our backbone,” she says, pointing out that Facebook and Twitter have not only made it possible to connect with other farmers. Both have allowed them to build a community of supporters so large that Bossy Acres has sold all 30 shares of their 2012 CSA. They have also contracted with a major grocery chain to begin supplying their stores with pea shoots and sunflower shoots this spring.

 “We aren’t big enough to grow microgreens on a large scale, but we can do pea shoots and sunflower shoots, which we love because they’re so delicious and full of nutrients,” Pankow says. In addition to using their greenhouse space for growing pea and sunflower shoots, Bossy Acres will soon be starting seeds so that transplants will be ready to move to their farm in the spring. “We feel like things are really falling into place now,” she continues. “It really helps that there are so many small, urban farmers moving in here so we can all work together.”

Like an Artist Co-Op for Ag

As more and more people rent space in the greenhouses, Grow! Twin Cities will continue to evolve. Classes may be offered on site. There may also be some retail hours. Eventually, Carolan envisions the co-op functioning like the artist warehouses in Northeast Minneapolis. “Except in our case everyone will have a common interest in growing and urban agriculture, and they’ll come here to set up their projects.”

In addition to experimenting with ways compost might be used to produce heat, Grow! is also experimenting with using solar power in the greenhouses. One small solar unit has already been installed and the hope is to eventually generate enough solar power to run things like grow lights and a small space heater to help extend the growing season.

For now, since the Grow! Twin Cities website has not yet launched, the group’s Facebook page is the best place to find out what’s new or inquire about renting space. One not-to-be-missed event this spring is the plowing of the fields by draft horses. “We don’t know exactly when that will happen yet because it depends on when the ground gets dry enough,” says Henry. “But it’s definitely going to be an event and we’re planning to sell tickets to help raise funds.”

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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. Jon Spayde is the managing editor of The Line.