The Local Harvest

Share this:
September 26, 2011
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Taking stock of opportunities and challenges as urban farming takes off in Minneapolis

There are smells commonly associated with agriculture: the heady reek of compost, the mineral tang of tilled soil and the sweet scent of chlorophyll that perfumes the air on a humid summer day. Not on that list is flame-broiled beef.

But the grill smoke was there, wafting in the air above agriculture’s new, urban frontier: a vacant lot wedged between two apartment buildings on pothole-wracked Nicollet Avenue, just down the block from a Burger King. Beyond the sidewalk sprouted rows of green beans, bok choy, salad greens and beets in one of six city plots tended this summer by Uptown Farmers, the pioneers
of Minneapolis’ urban agriculture movement.

It’s a green movement, sure, but green like an unripe tomato — not quite mature, yet. That’s beginning to change.

The Uptown Farmers stand debuted at the Mill City Farmers Market in 2008, and since then a handful of other commercial growers have started farming within city limits. Profits, so far, are small, but an entrepreneurial spirit and an evangelical approach to fresh, local food spur the growers on. A miserable real estate market has stalled development of vacant residential lots, freeing up farm space.

The growers will gain a new level of legitimacy this winter if the City Council approves zoning ordinance changes that will, for the first time, define urban agriculture in city code. For now, many occupy a legal gray area: tolerated and even encouraged by the city, unless neighbors complain.

“We’re not pursuing enforcement action as we figure out what these [urban agriculture] uses are,” said Aly Pennucci, the city planner who is leading the zoning text amendment process.

Still, creating a legal framework for commercial agriculture in Minneapolis is just the beginning, explained Nate Watters of Uptown Farmers, also known as “Farmer Nate.”

“Most urban farmers have figured out how to grow lots of really beautiful food and … they’ve figured out how to sell it, because people are all looking for it,” Watters said. But there are trickier problems, such as figuring out how to earn a decent living from urban farming, and that means raising profits, which, in turn, requires long-term access to farmland, not piecemeal arrangements with property owners.

“I call what we do a sustainable hobby,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s a sustainable business; that’s what we’re trying to move toward.”

Defining urban farming

The last of the summer’s beet crop was ready to be harvested from Uptown Farmers’ Nicollet Avenue plot on a Thursday afternoon in late August.Watters, who at 30 years old is lean and wears a scruffy, orange-tinted beard, squatted between two rows of beets, pulling them from the soil with both hands.

“We’ve had a really good beet year,” he said as he shook the dirt from the red and golden orbs, dropping the largest ones into a plastic bin. Undersized roots were left sitting on top of the soil; in the ground since May, they weren’t going to get any larger.

“They are really good for compost,” he explained, tugging at the collar of a ratty green T-shirt. “We’ll just till them in.”

Julie Aponte — a hipster-farmer in her pixy haircut, aviator shades and soiled white western shirt, the collar casually half-flipped — worked toward Watters from the other end of the beet rows, taking shelter under an oversized straw hat. A bit older than Watters, Aponte started Uptown Farmers with John Seitz, a long-time coworker from The Wedge natural foods cooperative.

Agreements with landowners differ from site-to-site, but “most of them are like this,” Watters said of the Nicollet plot. “We farm, we keep it looking pretty [and] do the landscaping in trade for the use of the land.”

In four growing seasons, Aponte had not run afoul of city inspectors, but said she preferred “to keep as low a profile as possible because … it seems like the more is said the more complicated it gets.”

The complications arise from city zoning code’s relative silence on matters of urban farming. That puts urban farmers in a tenuous position, and also makes it difficult to know just how many commercial growing operations are running in Minneapolis, although the best guesses suggest it’s about five to seven.

Pennucci said the zoning amendment headed to the City Council in a few months will recommend two new land-use definitions: one for “market gardens,” or commercial growing operations on the scale of the many existing not-for-profit community gardens; and another for larger “urban farms.”

Urban farms would be restricted to industrial- and commercial-zoned properties, but could combine growing, processing and selling in the same location. Market gardens would be allowed in a wider variety of zoning districts, including residential, but would face more restrictions on lighting, signage and opportunities to sell onsite, for instance.

Pennucci expected the amendment to touch on other issues, such as the hoop houses farmers use to extend the growing season. Currently, those fall under the same “accessory structure” rules that, for example, limit the size of garages on residential lots.

A zoning code amendment also could touch on aquaculture — or fish-farming — and aquaponics, a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, among other topics.

The benefits of local

Minneapolis is in the “second wave” of U.S. cities to remove barriers to urban agriculture in this way, after locations such as Detroit, Seattle, Cleveland and Milwaukee, said JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of the Local Food Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Berkenkamp served on the steering committee for the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative, which set the city on this path by making it a priority to increase the amount of locally grown food produced, distributed and consumed in the city. In this case, “local” — a very slippery term, anyway — doesn’t just mean commercial urban agriculture, but also encompasses the small suburban farms who stock most of the city’s farmers market booths.

Berkenkamp said local food satisfies a growing consumer desire for greater transparency in the food system. Consumers rattled by food safety scares crave closer relationships with farmers and a better understanding of how they raise plants and animals.

“I think people are also realizing that locally grown foods that are fresh and are grown nearby, are not bred for shipability and that kind of thing, taste better,” she said, and that means people may choose to more eat of them, which has implications for fighting the obesity epidemic.

Food that travels less distance from farm to market has a smaller environmental impact, Berkenkamp added, and the money spent on food grown close to home is more likely to circulate in the community. Urban agriculture, in particular, offers other potential benefits to inner-city neighborhoods.

Said Berkenkamp: “I think we’ve also seen here in Minneapolis some of the strongest support has come from people in neighborhoods that have really been affected by predatory lending and foreclosure issues, who may be living next door to blighted properties or vacant lots and that kind of thing, who are looking for something positive to happen on that land.”

Community impact

Concrete Beet Farmers runs a stand on Sundays at the Uptown Market, but it grows most of its food on a plot in the Midtown Phillips neighborhood just a few houses north of the Midtown Greenway. It is a lush garden — between one-quarter and one-third of an acre — rising from tender salad shoots at one end to big, bushy tomato plants at the other.

Before this spring, it was mainly used as a dumping ground and shortcut to the corner bodega. The property owner, Tim Springer, former executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, said he regularly trucked away old auto parts on his pedicab.

“They’re making a huge impact,” said an enthusiastic Tom McComas, who owns a rental property across the street. “My tenants who live there said they love this garden because it’s so beautiful, and they feel safer, because [the farmers] are always out there.”

McComas, a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher, bought a half-share of the farm’s community supported agriculture, or CSA, program. On an early September afternoon, he and Springer joined a steady stream of shareholders arriving for their weekly allotment just-picked vegetables.

“I have a family with three kids, now, and we’re trying to eat better,” McComas explained. “And this CSA makes us try vegetables we wouldn’t ordinarily buy.”

Growing those vegetables are a group of six farmers all between the ages of 21 and 25, three from farm families. Four of them attended Macalester College together.

They lease the land for the equivalent of Springer’s annual property taxes, about $700. But how much they’ll earn after expenses, and what they might be able to pay themselves, was still an open question.

Said farmer Erik Larsen: “That’s something we still haven’t decided yet, because it will depend on what we want to contribute to next year’s crop.”

Emily Hanson, who earned some income this summer running a gardening program for girls, guessed a stipend from her farm work might amount to “a couple hundred bucks.” Asked if she could work another summer for almost nothing, Hanson responded: “I couldn’t, emotionally, do another summer.”

“I want to do this full-time,” she added.

Seeking permanency

It’s a similar story over at Uptown Farmers, where Watters — a new father  — estimated they might earn $3 an hour this year. A favorite phrase of his is, “We eat like royalty; we get paid like peasants.”

Uptown Farmers and Concrete Beet Farmers aim to increase their profits by joining forces next summer as Stone’s Throw Farm, a new urban CSA. They hope to attract 100 shareholders, Watters said.

That’s one step toward success, but the bedrock issue for urban farmers remains “land permanency” — knowing that the land they farm will be there next year, even if they don’t own it.

“Then you can talk about putting in perennial crops like fruits, which make a lot more money,” Hanson explained. “… Doing intensive vegetable production, no matter how intensive it is, it’s really hard to make it profitable.”

“Money talks,” Watters said. “There’s not a lot of money” in urban farming, which means a rebound in the real estate market puts all of their farmland at risk.

Both groups of farmers participated in talks hosted by local nonprofit Gardening Matters that may be leading toward a solution.

Urban Agriculture Alliance Project Coordinator John Brosnan said an alliance of farmers, foundations and nonprofits had developed plans for a land trust to “buy, hold and lease land long-term for agriculture” in Minneapolis. The program just needs a home, probably with another local nonprofit.

In the coming months and years, the larger debate in City Hall and in the backyards of Minneapolis is not likely to be whether or not to allow urban farming. It’s more likely to be how we prioritize land use: development, or farms producing fresh, local foods?

“It goes back to priorities,” Watters said, standing under the sun in his tiny field. “If you really want to prioritize money, we’re not your option. If you prioritize the healthier city, education and a beautiful city — ”

Aponte interjected: “Ecotourism, perhaps — that kind of money-generator — we could contribute to that.”

Said Watters: “We’ll have to prioritize that and see what happens.”