A harvest that feeds many communities

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November 5, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Aaron Straka
Aaron Straka

On an otherwise unused plot of downtown land, Minneapolis Community and Technical College students and neighborhood residents helped to feed multiple communities this summer with a new, sustainable garden. And the approaching winter freeze won’t pause their work.

It began with a group of about 11 students, all members of the student-led Urban Farm Collective, who were interested in planting a campus garden. Joined by faculty advisor Katherine Karagtorp of the MCTC biology department, they gave life to the project at 4th Avenue South and South 10th Street this past spring.

Their mission to educate and inspire the community at large has received a great amount of support from MCTC, including President Phil Davis, as well as one of the garden’s neighbors, Gethsemane Episcopal Church. Brian Short, who owns the garden property, allowed the students to adopt the land next to the church.

“There was so much positive reaction to this,” said Karagtorp, who noted “a ton of people” visited the plot as a part of this year’s Community Garden Day on Aug. 11.

This spring, collective members brought in compost and cultivated the small plot of land where they planted their first crops. Bordered by a parking lot and the church building, the garden flourished in an urban environment. Across the street, the glass walls of the Valspar building stand under the distant skyline.

“It was amazing to stand in the middle [of the garden] during the summer, look down at the plants and then look up at the buildings,” Karagtorp said. 

The group reserved seven plots for students, each about 16 square feet, and gave the rest to downtown residents. This summer’s harvest included green beans, tomatoes, a variety of Asian greens known as tatsoi, kale, kohlrabi and more. The plot also included a “sensory garden” reserved for children, a butterfly garden and educational projects.

Karagtorp said they practiced organic gardening, using environmentally friendly fertilizer and pest control strategies. They also installed a compost bin on the site.

Each Wednesday, all the produce harvested by the collective went to the Gethsemane Shelf of Hope, a community food shelf. Donations totaled about 500 pounds over the course of the summer.

“The food goes extremely fast,” said the Rev. Aron Kramer of Gethsemane. “We feed 400 households a month, about three people per household [and] almost 900 of the 1,200 units in the Elliot Park neighborhood.” 

The food grown in the garden helped immensely, Kramer said.

“We’re really hoping to keep collaborating,” he said. “We both serve a mutual mission: serving folks on the margin. It’s a really important piece of the puzzle as we focus on the families that are in transition in their own lives.”

This summer, Kramer told his congregation a story about the day a man approached him to warn him some people were “stealing” from the garden. Kramer replied: “That’s OK. That’s what it’s for.”

The Urban Farm Collective aimed to keep growing even as winter approached. Temporary structures known as hoop houses were raised to extend the garden’s life a few more weeks.

A new partnership between the collective and the MCTC Engineering Club could extend the season even longer. Engineering Club members are planning an indoor hydroponic system at the school that could allow them to keep growing through the winter.

“Some students at MCTC require food from food shelves,” Karagtorp said. “Through the winter and into next summer, we’d like to see how [we can contribute] to our own campus food shelter, too.” 

Mary Ann Prado, the school’s director of Resources and Referral Services and faculty advisor for Students Against Hunger and Homelessness, said she hoped the collective might be able to contribute greens for upcoming fundraisers and donation drives.

“There’s such a need for students to access fresh produce,” Prado said. “Many can’t afford it.” 

The MCTC resource center, which provides food, clothing and housing to students, doesn’t get donations on a consistent schedule. Prado saw the collective’s involvement as a potential source of sustainable support for students in need.

As planning began for the winter ahead and next year, Karagtorp met with the group to reflect on their first summer and was impressed with their ambitious conclusion. The students challenged themselves for next year, and she said they came to a consensus: “It’s awesome what we did and how much we donated, but we can do better.”