A farm for the neighborhood

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April 9, 2012
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
Northeast couple launches California Street Farm

Jim Bovino and his wife Jillia Pessenda Bovino first met six years ago performing in a play staged in the California Arts Building in Northeast. They played husband and wife in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”

Now you’ll find them digging in the dirt across the street from the building. They’ve started a one-acre farm appropriately named the California Street Farm and are planning to grow a wide variety of veggies they will sell to area restaurants and through a CSA.

The couple recently returned from Washington state where they worked on an organic farm. When they got back to the city they started to talking to their friends John Kremer and Jennifer Young, owners of the California building, who urged them to start growing food on the lot in front of the building home to the Mill City Café and artist studios.

Here are highlights of a recent interview with the Bovinos:

What are your hopes/dreams for this first year of the California farm?
We hope to feed ourselves and some part of our community by transforming this vacant lot into a healthy and productive urban farm that is able to sustain itself and our neighbors through production of healthy, biologically responsible food.

We envision this farm as a community gathering place and I hope we’ll carve out a space for this to happen in the layout of the lot without compromising valuable grow space. I think it’s important to recognize we are centered in an urban landscape, not a rural one, so we need to integrate ourselves into the neighborhood, be sensitive to the community while enjoying the benefits of being nestled right inside the city.


What’s your schedule for the next couple of months?

Jim put together a small greenhouse in our backyard last month. We just finished setting up shelving and grow lights in the basement. We’ve started seeding alliums, peppers, eggplants, and micro greens. … We will be starting some cool tolerant vegetables in the greenhouse quite soon with the help of heating pads. We hope to build our beds on the lot in April and start planting in May. Other major items on the to-do list are building a fence and hopefully getting our bees set up.


What has inspired you to undertake this ambitious project?

For Jillia, it was our time farming on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington as well as all of the amazing urban agriculture happening in Seattle, where we lived for the previous three and a half years. It really opened her eyes to what is possible and it inspired both of us to want to take what we’d learned there back to Minnesota to start our own thing.

Jim has been growing food since he was a small child with his grandfather. He got back into it in 2002 when he joined up with Elsie’s farm in Ridgeland, Wis., helping in the fields, and marketing produce to local restaurants and coops. …

The community here has been incredibly welcoming to us, it’s been wonderful to work with people who have been doing this for a long time here in Minneapolis, in particular LSP and Stone’s Throw Urban Farm. We are inspired by these folks and hope to do our small part to help Minneapolis achieve a more secure food system, decrease our city’s dependence on fossil fuels and improve people’s understanding of our collective relationship with food.  


What did you learn from your time farming in Washington?

That farmers are incredibly smart and resilient. There were days we were in the blueberry bogs, knee deep in mud pruning and mulching in the cold rain for hours … and I  realized what it actually took to get an organic blueberry in August. It was incredible. I think we should all have to work on a farm at some point in our formative years. We learned how a small farm operates, and the incredible nerve it takes to pick up the challenge of growing food responsibly and dealing with the many unpredictable factors. Jillia also managed several farmers markets in Seattle while working on the farm. This offered insight into what it takes to get products to market and the relationship building required to create an economically viable operation.


Have you done any soil testing on the California building land to make sure it’s free of lead and other pollutants?

Yes. That was the first thing we did once we undertook this project. We took several samples and paid for advanced testing from the University of Minnesota in order to ensure we knew what we were working with and how to move forward to amend the soil for the crops. We tested for lead and other hazardous chemicals as well as general soil nutrient composition. We’ve made a big commitment to the health of the soil by purchasing a great deal of organic compost to add to the soil, have sourced organic seed, are cultivating worms for added fertility, plan to cover crop in spring and fall, and will continue to add organic matter to maintain soil health.  


What’s the most satisfying aspect of organic farming?

Jim: The notion that I’m just that much less dependent on someone outside of my community. I enjoy knowing where my food is coming from and sharing this with my family, friends and neighbors.

Jillia:
For me, it’s the dirty work, really getting my hands in the dirt, combined with the art of farming, which is a beautiful and uncertain thing.

It’s satisfying to see people walk away with a bag full of food that was just picked from your farm and then a real connection happens, and that’s what it’s all about!


What do you think about the recent zoning changes related to urban farming?

While we applaud the Minneapolis City Council for moving urban agriculture forward, and think it is a great first step, several compromises were crafted. Days of sale were lowered from 25 to 15 days per year which is a set back, especially in neighborhoods that are food deserts and it restricts access to fresh, locally grown food. We believe urban farmers can play a large role in food security and economic vitality in our city but in order to do this we need to think of this as more than a “hobby” with city codes that continue to evolve and support us.



Connect with the California Street Farm

For more information and to learn about the CSA, contact californiastreetfarm@gmail.com

Facebook.com/CaliforniaStreetFarm

Californiastreetfarm.tumblr.com

Jillia’s blog: highheelstohay.wordpress.com