Beyond the Feel-Good of Urban Farming
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Beyond the Feel-Good of Urban Farming

Illustration: Dante Carlos

On a crisp October morning in Minneapolis, Eric Larsen and two of his partners at Stone’s Throw Urban Farm pull shriveled tomato plants from their garden beds. Nearby, hardy collard greens stand tall against the chill air. Behind the farm, a compost pile overflows, bright watermelon visible amidst the brown stems and lumpy compost. Two blocks away, a seemingly endless line of traffic snakes down Lake Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

Larsen, dressed in big galoshes and patched jeans, grew up on a blueberry and Christmas tree farm. But he’s one of a group of young farmers who’ve decided to practice their craft in the city rather than the country, with all the benefits and complications that go along with that.

“We were all living in the city, in these neighborhoods where we saw a lot of unused vacant land,” Larsen said. “We saw the need for fresh, readily-available produce in these neighborhoods, and the lack of access people had to fresh food.”

Stone’s Throw Farm in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood. Photo: Jon Collins

Stone’s Throw farmers sell the produce they grow through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and at farmers’ markets. Although they don’t make much profit, these farmers have a sense of purpose that falls somewhere between agriculture and social activism.

Farmer Robin Major said the presence of this portion of their farm in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, one of the poorest communities in the state, not only rehabilitates the vacant lot, but offers neighbors the opportunity to learn about gardening and fresh food.

“Just talking to the people who come by makes me appreciate what I’m doing,” Major said. “A lot of people know they’re vegetables but can’t really identify them. They know what a carrot looks like when it’s out of the ground, but they don’t know what a carrot top looks like.”

Such urban agriculture efforts, including both gardens and farms, have taken off in recent years. Fueled by grassroots initiatives and the demand for local food, businesses and community gardens have sprouted up on underutilized land across the region.

Children living at Hope Community help prepare the ground for planting a new garden plot. Photo: Bruce Silcox

Part of Stone’s Throw’s success was made possible by a city effort called Homegrown Minneapolis. The initiative helped spur a reform of city zoning amendments in 2011 to make it easier for urban agriculture to both flourish and comply with Minneapolis zoning requirements.

“The city has done a really good job at allowing this to happen; the zoning amendments are great,” said Stone’s Throw’s Alex Liebman. “One way they’ve been really helpful is opening up fire hydrant access for water.”

But even with the zoning changes, the Stone’s Throw farmers haven’t had it easy. They currently operate one tractor on 14 parcels of land spread across the Twin Cities. Their eventual goal is to be centered in one community on either nearby parcels of land or one contiguous farm. They’re hoping a shift in thinking about urban agriculture at the policy level will help them accomplish that.

“There’s a big difference between allowing urban farming in a city and endorsing it and really putting some teeth behind it, saying, ‘This is what we want the city to look like,’” Liebman said. ”

Stone’s Throw is just one of many Minneapolis businesses and groups that are pushing past the feel-good rhetoric that sometimes dominates the discussion around urban agriculture and asking policy makers to embrace a more comprehensive vision of what an urban city in America can look like in the 21st century.

Planting the seeds of urban agriculture

With its extensive bike trails and emphasis on local foods, the city of Minneapolis has become one of the leaders around the country in supporting sustainable projects. Homegrown Minneapolis was launched in late 2008 with the goal of helping the community grow and eat healthier foods. Spearheaded by outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak and his wife Megan O’Hara, the group’s efforts have been successful in helping to turn Minneapolis into a hotbed of urban agriculture.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak with Joe and Julene Singh at the Homegrown Minneapolis farmers’ market booth

“Food is at the center of the history of Minneapolis. We’re the Mill City, and that’s not just a slogan,” Rybak said. “But over the years what happened is that the corporatization and the centralization of food systems really meant that this city and the heartland depended on food sources from far, far away.”

Among the reforms achieved by the initiative were an update to city zoning codes to make legal space for urban farms and gardens that were already sprouting through the cracks around the city.

“With the land that surrounds us, with the land that’s literally under our feet, we have some of the richest growing soil anywhere in the world,” Rybak said. “It’s astonishing that we’d actually have people hungry in this city, astonishing that we’d actually have neighborhoods that are food deserts.”

Rybak said Homegrown Minneapolis has been looking at everything from providing micro-grants to build hoop greenhouses to licensing fresh food carts–anything that allows people in the city to take back some control of their food system.

Rybak said a program where city-owned lots are made available for community gardeners has increased the number of officially-recognized community gardens in the city to about 200. Homegrown Minneapolis’ goal, Rybak added, has been to offer many different options for people to participate in the local food movement.

“It could be you raising chickens in your backyard or having bees. There are ways that you can play some role in a food system that now is blossoming on many other levels,” Rybak said.

Glenda Criss, Hope Community gardener and leader, with fresh basil at Hope’s community garden. Photo: Bruce Silcox

And the mayor himself is playing a role. His family has formed a partnership with some Minneapolis farmers who grow food in the family’s backyard and sell it through a CSA and to local chefs.

“They’re on a plot of land in our backyard that would otherwise be just one more boring piece of land and lawn that we’d be trying to mow,” Rybak said. “Now we’re supporting a couple that’s building a business, we’re providing food to a local restaurant, we’re creating a great landscape that’s a feeding ground for many of our birds and insects. It’s just a whole lot better way to treat the land that’s given us so much.”

How a local food movement germinates

While the city has been active in making space for urban agriculture, some advocates for urban farmers say it needs to move more quickly to embrace agriculture as a viable urban development. Anna Cioffi of the Land Stewardship Project was involved with helping to revise the city’s zoning code in 2012.

“One of the most contentious things at the City Council was this notion that the city development and urban agriculture were at odds with each other,” Cioffi said. “Our argument was that it’s not either business and housing or urban agriculture–it’s both.”

Cioffi said policy makers need to see past the warm fuzzies of urban agriculture, and start taking it seriously as an alternative form of economic and social development: “Build it into the way that we’re planning and designing our city, build it into the actual infrastructure of the city. Require standards for new developments that could incorporate urban agriculture in the future.”

Cioffi wants to see those making policy begin to look at urban agriculture as more than something to temporarily fill a vacant lot.

“There are people out there doing some incredible work, some really hard work, and they’re doing it pretty much on their own right now,” Cioffi said. “I think it needs to be way more respected and way more valued than it is.”

Valentine Cadieux is an associate researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography, Environment and Society and board member of Twin Cities Agricultural Land Trust, which is currently working to help preserve urban land for long-term agricultural use.

She said policy makers often see an urban farm or community garden as a placeholder until something that earns more tax revenue can take its place.

“The current understanding of ‘highest and best use’ doesn’t really reflect the range of values that people have for the land where they live,” Cadieux said.

In addition to the community building and healthy food aspects of urban agriculture, Cadieux said her research at the university has even shown that there’s an environmental benefit to farming in the city.

“While we’re in a situation in mainstream agriculture where we often need to supplement the fertility of the soil, in cities you have so much fertility that it becomes a pollutant, and we struggle with what to do with all the excess nitrogen and phosphorus we have so it doesn’t go into the river,” Cadieux said. “Getting more productive use of nutrients in cities is a really logical use.”

Inside the hoop house with Stone’s Throw owner/partner Emily Hanson. Photo courtesy Eric Larsen

Cadieux argues that the value of urban agriculture goes far beyond the property taxes that a municipality can reap. In fact, she said it addresses some systematic racial and economic inequities that the city struggles with in disparities on everything from education to home ownership

“Our interest is not just to make sure that white people feel good about supplementing their food,” Cadieux said. “Let’s also address some of the problems with property and try to bring food back to a place where we understand its relationship to land–and our relationship to land.”

She said that a more concrete embrace of urban agriculture would mean an expansion of what we as a society think of as agriculture.

“One of the things that gardening and smaller scale agriculture often give people is an entry point into [agriculture], especially in a place like this, where we have a lot of monocultures as our vision of what agriculture is,” Cadieux said.

It’s a “vision of other ways that can be highly productive to produce foods that are healthy for people and healthy for environments, and ideally to the social system that supports them.”

Putting down roots

Hope Community is a housing development organization located on the corner of Portland and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis. It’s been there since 1977, according to Community Organizer and Program Manager Betsy Sohn. In the 1990s, the neighborhood took a turn for the worse and neighbors who could afford to leave started moving away.

Libby (Nadirah) Osborne proudly displays broccoli she grew at Hope Community’s garden. Photo: Bruce Silcox

“The city was telling us to go down to Lake Street; that’s where everything is happening,” Sohn said. “We were saying, ‘This is where our community is.’ We decided to do what we could to make this a place that people wanted to stay rather than leave.”

In an attempt at keeping the neighborhood from blowing away, Hope built affordable housing developments on three corners of the intersection. The community is currently working to close the square by planning for a fourth development on the northwest corner, only a few hundred feet from a roaring interstate.

The organization has already embraced community gardening, with one garden in a shared backyard and another on a vacant lot that’s too small to build a structure on. Those efforts have been so successful in growing a sense of community, both for residents in their buildings and for those who live nearby, that Hope is planning a 4,800-square-foot community garden along with its new development. Sohn said it’s partly about healthy food as a quality of life issue and partly about fairness.

“This might be something that would be found in another place for another income bracket,” Sohns aid. “People who are working hard in life but are not earning a lot also deserve to have something like this. This is not going to be another disparity between the classes and between races.”

For an organization that serves mainly low-income people, it’s usually hard enough to scrape together funding for the housing developments. The addition of a large garden that lowers the income brought in by the project just complicates funding matters.

Products of vermiculture (worm composting), the result of a collaboration between Hope Community, Land Stewardship Project, Hennepin County Library/Franklin branch, and Urban 4H Program. Photo: Bruce Silcox

“There’s a certain expectation of what an affordable unit should cost and what a building should cost,” Sohn said. “While we might have philosophical support from people, we’ve really had to work hard to make a case for the monetary support.”

To Sohn and Hope Community, including space for urban agriculture in the new development, despite the difficulties, is about more than good intentions.

“A lot of this is about demonstrating that this is possible, that it’s worthwhile, that it’s not going to turn into a dilapidated lot that no one is caring for, and that people value it enough to take care of it,” Sohn said.

Despite urban agriculture’s successes in Minneapolis, city farmers and their advocates are straining for more. The plants are pushing through the concrete. In the process they’re reshaping what it means to live in a city. And they’re pushing urbanites to rethink how they relate to the land they live on.

“Sometimes it’s about changing how people see things,” Sohn said. “And it can be very difficult to imagine something that you haven’t seen.”

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