Building community around an urban farm

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August 27, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Tim Sturrock
Tim Sturrock

He calls it an urban farm, but Mike Smieja’s yard looks more like a jungle — a thick, tangled sprawl of vivid green highlighted by peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower and dozens of other vegetables, including tall stalks of corn that can be seen blocks away.

This year, the 38-year-old Smieja began taking advantage of new city zoning rules allowing for urban agriculture. He filled his garage with seedlings, expanded his garden to 2,200 square feet and is teaching free gardening classes and helping neighbors with their gardens. When he walks his dog Roscoe, he carries his abundance of vegetables and passes them out to passersby.

While many people talk about sustainability, Smieja is one of a new brand of gardener who is making local food as local as possible and challenging the conventional definition of home gardens. Smieja, who began selling his produce in late August, says he also hopes to grow his community with his green thumb.

“We have a community that is growing apart rather than together. I think that by creating this, I can offer people food, invite people to come to my garden, put myself out there and say I welcome you to my home and to my community,” said Smieja, an agriculture student at the University of Minnesota. He also works for the university’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnership.

Built like a wrestler, with close-cropped hair and an affable demeanor, Smieja said he’s always been drawn to business and was encouraged by the new zoning regulations, which allow for sales and ease other restrictions on market gardens.

He’s spent the summer seeing what works in the garden and meeting neighbors, something that happens far more often that it did in his six previous years on the property. As many as six people stop him in his garden everyday to ask about it or just look, he said.

Buchanan Street Farm, as it’s called, also has facilitated some first-time meetings of long-time neighbors, Smieja said.

“I had zucchini that went crazy, and I gave a couple to a lady down the street, and I also gave some jelly to a guy down the street,” he said. When one neighbor returned with zucchini bread and the other with the empty jar, the pair met each other for the first time after being neighbors for 10 years, Smieja said.

In the spring, when the block was filled with the industrial sounds of Smieja tearing up his yard with a Rototiller, his neighbor Tanya Silver wasn’t sure what to make of the new project. Silver didn’t know, either, if she’d be happy with the results sitting just across the street from her house.

“I just didn’t know what his vision was or what it would it look like,” she said. “Look at it now! It’s beautiful.”

Smieja is the neighbor whose voice breaks when he talks about how his tomatillos fought their way through his spice garden. But it might surprise some to know that he’s also the neighbor who, before becoming sober eight years ago from drug and alcohol addiction, was convicted of several felonies, mostly for theft.

After several stints in rehab, Smieja said he’s quite different from “the tornado in everyone’s life,” that he was.

“You could call this penance but really it’s more preventive,” he said of his gardening and community involvement. “The more I give, the better I feel about life and the more I feel connected to my community. When I feel better about myself and what I am doing in life, there is less of a chance that I am going to reach for drugs and alcohol,” he said.

Smieja grew up in Glen Lake grudgingly helping his father garden, although that reluctance to garden changed in early adulthood. “It was one of those things I learned to love and it took me time to grow into,” he said.

 After years running and owning several businesses including two coffee shops, a printing company and a marketing company, at 33 he enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College before transferring to University of Minnesota’s College of Agriculture. He will graduate this fall with a degree in agricultural science and marketing. He plans on getting a master’s in plant sciences afterwards.

He makes most of his income these days taking care of other people’s gardens and working for the university’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships in marketing and social media.

Andrew Sieve, owner of Hazel’s Northeast café, located six blocks from Smieja’s house, said finding local food can be difficult, but Sieve made plans to buy Smieja’s vegetables after meeting him earlier in the year.

“You can get local food, but it might be 60 miles away. The definition of what local is right now, is not something that is universally agreed upon,” he said, adding that Smieja can offer bulk and proximity. “This is as local as it can get.” He also plans to hire Smieja to help build a rooftop garden above the restaurant.

Smieja said he doesn’t have a plan for Buchanan Street Farms down the road, but said he plans to stay involved in farming one way or another.

“In five years I hope I can be a guide to help the family farm and urban farm stay alive,” he said.