Read The Mix
Sustainable Farms, Connected Communities
By Liz Potasek
From urban farms to picturesque, gently rolling acreage, sustainable agriculture in the Twin Cities comes in a variety of forms—each with its unique set of benefits and setbacks.
The three farms profiled here, Turnip Rock, Gardens of Eagan and Growing Lots represent a variety of sustainable agriculture models thriving in the Twin Cities. They exist in rural and urban settings, are owned by families and cooperatives, work on land that ranges from a quarter-acre plot to 100 acres of fields, and survive using different business approaches, but they are linked by their dedication to the environment, people, and product they serve. Through their diversity of land use, these agricultural pioneers are building sustainability in exciting ways. From educational workshops to dinners on the farm, each farm is seeking to build relationships in the community it serves in addition to providing a local food source.
New Auburn, Wisc.
Two and a half years after buying their 40-acre farm, Rama Hoffpauir and Josh Bryceson are already in the midst of their second successful community supported agriculture (CSA) growing season—and they’ve been able to support themselves on their farm without relying on outside jobs. But what might appear to be beginners’ luck is actually the result of years of preparation. “We’ve been collecting members and building a core group of members for the past four years,” Bryceson says.
Together, Bryceson and Hoffpauir, who are married, bring more than 12 years of farming experience to their venture. Bryceson comes from a family with agricultural roots, and he wanted to explore ways to make a living on a farm today, which led him to internships at several organic vegetable farms and a job managing a CSA. “I really feel like CSA is graduate-level farming,” Bryceson says. “It’s not something that someone can just waltz into and know how to do right away without any kind of mentorship or going through a couple of seasons with another farm to see how they’re doing it.”
But using the CSA model to operate the farm offers major benefits. “Our farm would not exist without [this] business model, meaning that having money at the beginning of the season is worth a lot,” Bryceson says. “It allows us to know how much to grow and have [some money] come in already and not have to take out loans and pay interest and then also bear all that risk of what would happen if we couldn’t sell 13 acres of what we’re growing.”
The couple has learned that to make a CSA farm work, it’s important to be tech-savvy as well as soil savvy, and staying on top of marketing trends is almost as important as watching the weather. They maintain a website and blog for their farm, and they are aware that the image they present to their customers is important.
In order to mitigate risks of crop failure, the couple plants more than they’ll need, and this year they invested in a substantial irrigation system as insurance against drought. To keep customers happy, they plant about 40 different crops, with an emphasis on the staples that people will want to use, Bryceson said. “We want to give the value in the box, and then we want people to know us, know our farm, stick around to support us,” Bryceson said.
Gardens of Eagan,
It’s early May and despite a warm spring, most plants are just starting to peek out from the soil. But two hoop houses at the Gardens of Eagan are filled with a surprise: rows of plants bearing ripe strawberries, beautiful heads of lettuce ready for picking and thriving tomato plants poised to produce about a month early. With help from the hoop houses, farmers started harvesting the first of May.
The Gardens of Eagan has more than a few hoop houses working in its favor. Thirty years of organic growing does good things to soil, and the farmers at Gardens of Eagan are reaping the benefits of what’s been sowed. The 100-acre farm was farmed by Martin and Atina Diffley before it was sold to the Wedge Community Co-op in 2007.
The farm supplies its produce to the Wedge and other food co-ops and sells some of its harvest at the Midtown Farmers’ Market. Besides producing more than 30 different types of organic fruits and vegetables, the farm also offers educational opportunities for aspiring farmers, school children, and consumers through classes at local co-ops and the Organic Field School.
The management structure at the Gardens of Eagan is unique because employees get to learn about the various aspects of farm management. Some of the farm managers plan to buy their own organic farms someday, and they’ll benefit from the knowledge they gained at Gardens of Eagan. “They can get experience before they have capital to buy their own farm,” said farm manager Linda Halley, who had about 15 years of experience as an organic farmer before coming to Gardens of Eagan.
While the Wedge announced its intent to purchase the farm about three years ago, the purchase agreement allows for a slow transition of ownership over the course of five years between the previous owners and the Wedge.
During the first year of the sale, the Diffley’s shared their knowledge of the land with the new farm managers, and they continue to offer guidance as needed. “It’s important to get to know a farm, the soil types and how water moves across the farm,” Halley said. Through this arrangement, the organic farm can continue its 30-year legacy of agricultural leadership and preserve in perpetuity organic land that might have been lost to suburban encroachment.
As Halley and the other farm managers have gotten to know the land better, they’ve started expanding the crops they grow and looking at new ways to use the land. “We need to take cues from the land instead of molding the land to our needs,” Halley says.
Growing Lots Urban Farm,
While many city dwellers resign themselves to gardening, Stefan Meyer is introducing them to the concept of urban farming. Growing Lots Urban Farm, which is navigating its inaugural season, is dedicated to farming empty lots, abandoned parking lots and other plots of unused land in the city.
Seward Redesign, a nonprofit community development organization serving the Seward neighborhood, initiated the idea and approached Meyer, who has a background in urban farming and permaculture, to spearhead the project in July of 2009.
This year, the farm is being built on a parking lot at the corner of 22nd Street and Snelling Avenue in Minneapolis, and it will be about a quarter acre in size. The farm’s design is inspired by Growing Power in Milwaukee, which has successfully spawned urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago. To build the farm, Meyer will cover the parking lot with a layer of wood chips topped with a layer of dirt.
Grant money has helped get the project up and running, and the farm will operate using a CSA model. Meyer plans to sell about 15–20 CSA shares and operate a small produce stand on the farm one day a week. As the program gets more established, Meyer expects to expand CSA membership, but he doesn’t have plans for a large-scale CSA. “My goal is to never create something too big that I can’t learn every CSA member’s name and know them on sight,” he says.
Meyer is planning to grow a wide variety of veggies and some melons, and he’ll plant them using biointensive growing methods, allowing him to grow more plants per square foot and reap a relatively large harvest for the space. “Urban Farming will never replace rural farming,” Meyer says, adding that the role of city farms is to help people in urban areas connect with the land and provide access to local food.
One day, Meyer hopes to operate Growing Lots from several different farming sites throughout the city. “I want to see a farm that’s actually embedded within the neighborhood, so there’s a whole set of relationships that exist,” he says. “I’d love to see the farm drawing its fertility from the local neighborhood, having a compost pick-up program, or taking compost and waste from the neighbors and actually composting it on-site… I would love to see it as something that’s pushing the boundaries of how we do things.”
Liz Potasek is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor who loves to eat her fresh-fromthe-garden vegetables.