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We Can Grow: building urban gardens, helping gardeners thrive

The nonprofit installs low-cost or free gardens, and supports the efforts with classes that cover growing topics, cooking, food preservation and community engagement.

Photo by Bill Kelley
Mike Smieja created We Can Grow.

When Mike Smieja sold his marketing firm in 2006 and decided to attend business school, he had one solid goal: start a new company that would make millions of dollars. But a zucchini and a jar of blueberry jam changed everything.

While attending school, Smieja kept a small home garden, and occasionally helped his father do a little farming in Grand Marais. During a bumper crop of zucchini, he gave an older woman in his neighborhood one of the nicest ones. Around the same time, he spoke to another elderly neighbor, who mentioned a love of blueberry jam. Smieja brought him some after a blueberry picking session at his father’s, and during the delivery, the other neighbor came over with zucchini bread.

“They started talking to each other, and it turns out they lived on the same block for 10 years, and had never even met,” recalls Smieja. “That moment changed my direction. I began to see the connection between community and food, and I wanted to be part of that.”

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He switched from business school to agriculture studies at the University of Minnesota, and now runs We Can Grow, a program he created that installs low-cost or free (depending on participant income) raised bed gardens, and supports the efforts with a series of classes that cover growing topics, cooking, food preservation, and community engagement.

“The program may be about food, but it’s really about community,” says Alison James, who went through We Can Grow’s first round of classes in April. “These guys want you to succeed, and they provide all the support you need to make that happen.”

The trouble with fresh produce

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While Smieja was putting together his effort, he saw a need for a more sustainable food community, beyond simply growing vegetables. He spoke with people who ran local foodshelves and found that they were hesitant to take fresh produce as donations because recipients weren’t sure how to cook with it. He also heard about a community gardening effort in North Minneapolis that tried to distribute vegetables door-to-door and struggled because of the same issue.

Smieja saw that food preparation and preservation were just as important as growing, so he put together a program that combines multiple elements for the most success.

cooking class
Photo by Bill Kelley
Smieja and partners from First Kitchen cooking school run a class.

The course brings in master gardeners for a basic gardening class, chefs for a cooking class, and experts in food preservation for a class on canning, drying, and freezing. A fourth class in community and environmental stewardship is taught by We Can Grow’s Martin Gordon, who joined the effort late last year.

Most of the participants are low income, and Smieja and Gordon set up a series of scholarships for those who can’t pay. Everyone receives raised-bed gardens, classes, and ongoing support. They’ve made key partnerships with places like Egg/Plant Urban Farm Supply and groups like Hennepin County Master Gardeners, and expect that more partnerships will bloom in the future.

The challenge now is getting the word out. Gordon notes that they both thought the program was enticing enough to be wildly popular from the start, but they find that they’re doing more awareness-building than they thought.

gordon photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
Martin Gordon teaches a class in community and environmental stewardship.

“We don’t have the credibility at this point, and so this first year will be focused on establishing ourselves,” says Gordon. “At the same time, we’re having fun with these classes, watching the incredible exchange of knowledge that goes on with our participants.”

Head of the class

The participants in We Can Grow vary in terms of income levels, age, ethnic backgrounds, and gardening experience levels, and it’s that diversity that makes the program particularly distinctive, believes James.

“To have such a diverse group of people was really fun, and we felt like a community, thanks to the way the classes were so lighthearted and informative,” she says. “There was an instructor for each, but they really felt more like open forums than standard classes.”

James chose to participate because in a previous home she’d had gardens created by Americorps. In that effort, however, she found herself at a loss when the raised beds were completed and the crew left.

“They give you gardens and dirt, and then you’re on your own,” she says, adding that she did manage to grow some vegetables before moving to a new place. Years later, she and her teenage son, Eli, saw California Street Farm start up just across from them, and they decided to start another garden.

“I’m a single mom, and I work really hard on making sure Eli eats a healthy diet, but it’s always a challenge,” she says. “Fortunately, he’s really interested in growing and we cook together, and that’s been a huge advantage.”

James appreciates how We Can Grow classes delivered so much information, but it’s the ongoing support that makes her excited, rather than daunted, by the upcoming growing season.

Raised garden beds ready for use
Photo by Bill Kelley
Raised garden beds ready for use

“As I start growing, I know I’ll have a gazillion questions, and Mike and Martin will be there to answer all of them, and that feels great,” she says. “They don’t just build something and leave, they’re with you. They expect you to be proactive and take charge, but at the same time, they create a wonderful support system for you to do that.”

Smieja and Gordon are already thinking about ways to expand next year, such as offering classes for Spanish and Somali speakers, as well as incorporating chicken coops into the mix. As word gets out about We Can Grow, it’s likely that the program will keep expanding, and that’s just what Smieja had in mind when he ditched business school. He may not make those millions he envisioned, but he’s happy to know he’ll have built a more solid community.

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. Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.