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Land Access

3 Dec

I wrote this blog post this summer while in Minneapolis. It sat unfinished and unnoticed until today.

I attended the Land Access sub-committee meeting of Homegrown Minneapolis. In its 3rd meeting, they are starting to address the questions of how and who can get land. Some of the points raised in the meeting allow me to talk about some issues that I have wanted to cover but have not yet addressed.

Issues of privilege and discrimination affect gardening and urban farming in ways not always recognized. With the current trend in urban farming it is easy for people to forget the long history of growing food in cities. For decades people have gardened as a way to bring down grocery costs. This was often done in community gardens in low income neighborhoods. These communities have long struggled with city policy makers who have not been welcoming of the gardens. Often the city finds a “higher use” for the land that has a community garden and so takes it away. In communities without access to traditional levers of power efforts to stop the change are not usually successful.

Fast forward to the present day where white, often college educated people have”discovered” the glories of urban farming. Because they do not face the same levels of discrimination and have more privilege than people of color, their ideas have received more traction. This brings me to a question that was central to the conversations happening at the Land Access meeting. How can the recent surge in interest in urban farming result in equitable access to urban agriculture?

Loose networks of acquaintances and relationships can help someone find land. Maybe it’s a friend of a friend who owns a commercial building with an unused back area that is suitable for farming. Or maybe it’s a friend who is high up in the park department and helps you get through a request for a community garden. Either way issues of race and class are relevant here. Whites are more likely to own land and thus able to lend some of it out to a friend. Whites disproportionately have positions of power within organizations. To create an equitable urban farming and gardening community these issues must be dealt with explicitly. The solutions and actions taken by the committee must work to break down historic racial and class barriers to access.  (For further discussions of race and food systems look at the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Malik Kenyatta Yakini, the founder, has written and spoken eloquently about this)

     One solution presented was a catalog of city own vacant land that could be used for urban agriculture. This allows someone looking for land easy access to many options without resorting to personal connections. This is a great idea. It turns it already exists. Since no one at the meeting had heard of it, outreach clearly needs to be done.

     Another important issue is land tenure. Many urban farms do not have long term control of the land. One worry is that a network of community gardens helps build community and stabilize the neighborhood, so people move in and the increase in land value convinces the city or privately owned landowner to sell the land on which the community garden sits. In essence, an act of community building end up displacing the relevant community.

Though this blog has some unfinished thought (which I will finish later), I thought I would end with a timely example of the struggles of not having sufficient land tenure. The land on which Cherry Tree House Mushrooms has been farming has been sold and so Jeremy has to move immediately. He needs volunteers to help him move the operation from Dec 4th through the 8th. If you can help, please let him know


Vermicompost Construction

13 Aug

Today I return from a rather long break.

For the last month or so, I have been researching and designing a vermicopost system for Growing Lots Urban Farm in Minneapolis. Friday was We Built It day. This post will likely be the first of 2 blogs about the vermicompost construction because we didn’t finish today and so there are not pictures of the whole thing.

My first blog talked about compost and I want to talk about it again because I think it is one of the most interesting components of the food system. Organic material waste management is one of the biggest missing pieces in the food system. It is an industry particularly well suited for urban processing. Not only would this industry provide many good stable jobs for an area, but the end product is so useful. If the city composted even 10% of the organic waste stream the amount of compost produced would be enough to start and maintain dozens of urban farms on rooftops of warehouses and in old lots. Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee said that their most important task is growing compost. With little soil or bad soil in cities, good compost is essential. With such a large potential supply of compost, urban farms would have access to cheap compost year round.

Back to the specifics of Vermicomposting. It is composting with the added management of worms. These worms help accelerate decomposition. Vermicompost is the highest quality compost. This makes it an essential fertility component to organic farmers who cannot use traditional fertilizers. It is not cheap, so Growing Lots wanted to build their own system.

I designed a system that allows Growing Lots to experiment with a couple different designs to see which parts would work best for an even bigger operation sometime in the future. The design is two 6 bin systems; each system with several tweaks. Bin system A is 2 by 3 bins. Each bin is made with panels are easily made and replaceable. Each panel is 3ft x 4ft, so each bin is 3x3x4ft. Each panel looks like this:


Each panel is a frame with hardware cloth in the middle. This allows the worms to pass through. This is one of the design variables. System A will have mesh panels, system B will have plywood panels. In system A, one of the 6 boxes will be filled with materials and the worms. As that box goes through its 3-4 month process, the box next to it will be slowly filled with materials. Then as the worms finish the materials in box 1 they will migrate through the screen to box 2 and begin eating that one. They will continue to do this circling through all 6 boxes.

In system B the panels will be plywood. In this method the box will be completely filled with materials and the worms added. After 3-4 months the worms will have finished all of the material and ready for a new box. In this system the worms are removed from the top. A piece of hardware cloth is placed on top of the pile with some juicy bit of food for the worms; something like rotten fruit. All the worms migrate above the mesh; then one can simply pick up the mesh and dump the worms in the next bin. The reason for this method it to ensure the worms finish all of the composted material before moving on to the next bin.

Construction will be completed this week and another post will follow up with photos of the final project.

Citywide compost would be one of the smartest and best investments for the City of Minneapolis. Instead of burning our brewery waste, we could grow food.

Connecting to the Land

21 Jul

Urban agriculture can provide many tangible benefits to a city, many previously addressed here: jobs, secure food source, and waste management. Urban agriculture provides other intangible benefits that I think are just as valuable. Growing food in cities provides physical and visual experience of food production that few people see anymore. With less than 1 percent of the population growing food, few people know what potato plants look like or why tomatoes are so expensive. Once one grows tomatoes one understands the high price they demand. This connection is important for many reasons. For children, growing food is a great touchstone for learning lots of science and math. For adults it builds a bridge between rural and urban America. The issues of agricultural America become real when practicing the difficult task of raising food.

The story I want to tell is a type of story often told when talking about urban agriculture, but it’s worth telling nonetheless. The neighbor kids a couple doors down are around 6 or 7 years old. To them our garden is a magical place. Last year the neighbor kid picked his first carrot. What an experience! “Wow, I’ve never tasted a carrot like that. I never knew what a full carrot looked like. Can I pick more?” It seems that there is no better way to get a kid to eat veggies than to grow and pick them yourselves. This year every couple of days the doorbell rings: “Are there any raspberries to pick? What’s happening in the garden?” This year, he is joined by a 7 year old year girl who just moved to the block. I told them our raspberries are not doing good this year, but I have something for them to try. I walk out front and snip off a little fennel for them. I tell them it tastes a little like licorice. He doesn’t like it so much. Then she tries it and loves it. He demurely asks to try again, this time deciding it was good. I wasn’t so sure he meant it until the next time the doorbell rang. “Can I have more of the funnel or well…the thing that tastes like licorice?” Yes, of course.

There are many success stories of programs across the country to get kids to grow food.  The most successful are the school garden programs. The Edible Schoolyard Project was created by Alice Waters in California. The new national Food Corps is helping to build healthy food communities in areas that need it. This includes starting school and community gardens. With the school year running through the winter, indoor plantings of lettuces or seedlings in the spring would be  most feasible. Summer camps where kids could grow and cook food would be so much fun. When I was a kid the St. Paul university campus had a day camp called Farm in the City, where one task was to take care of a cow for the week.

Adults too benefit from the education and learning of watching food grow. Adults too can be introduced or reintroduced to new fruits and vegetables. Adults like fresh vegetables too. When the kale is exploding in our garden we are forced to find new delicious recipes.  But just as important as the exploding kale, is the exploding pest problem. Growing my own food and working at an urban farm has given me new insights into the difficulties of farming. I have new found respect for farmers. Too often city people find little cause in rural and farming issues. They care  little about the farm bill, water runoff, or soil conservation, and are certainly not willing to pay for any of it. This is a way for city people to understand why farmers farm they way they do.  Urban populations might understand the difficulties of organic when their own broccoli is a mess. City culture often derides farming America as stupid and backward. But when city people farm, they realize the intelligence and tenacity of farmers. This matters for the long term political health of the US.

Growing food helps remind us city folk of the difficult path that food takes to get to our plate. This visceral experience provides education and provides a common ground for an understanding of our country.

Public Produce and Civic Agriculture

13 Jul

Here in Minnesota and across the Midwest mulberries are ripening, as are cherries, strawberries. The mulberries are staining the sidewalks all over the Cities. It’s a good time to talk about a different angle on urban food production. It’s whats called civic agriculture or public produce.

Thousands of people in the Metro area grow a little (or a lot) of food in their yards. Many blogs and books have been focused just on this subject. There have  been national news stories of families getting in trouble for planting in their front yards. This is all signalling a shift in culture towards more interesting use for all that grass. Edible Estates is a great book by artist and landscaper Fritz Haeg chronicling his journey of transforming others’ front lawns. Exciting, but not what I want to talk about today.

Edible Estates. This is the transformation of a front lawn into a feast.

This blog has already talked about commercial urban farming. An abandoned industrial area turned green. One acre here and one acre there. These farms are working towards commercial viability. Exciting, but also not what I want to talk about today. That’s for the other posts.

Today I want to talk about food in public. I want to talk about those mulberries staining the sidewalk.

The Twin Cities has an incredible amount of green space. Minneapolis has one of the most extensive and best park systems in the country. Every street in St. Paul is lined with beautiful trees. What if it produced food? Food produced in the parks and along streets is less likely going to be annuals like tomatoes or kale. They take more individual care and attention. The city and park board are in charge of many of the trees in the metro area. Fruit and nut trees and fruit bushes are particularly well suited for support by the city and park board. These trees already must be maintained and watered, so little additional labor would need to be added. With a little extra attention we would get a bountiful harvest.

What could we actually do? Along the Greenway, hundreds of new trees have been planted. Many of them crab apple. Those instead could be apple trees. At Kix field along the Greenway, a small apple orchard has been planted and each year they are picked clean. Last week the serviceberry trees were fruiting and every berry within reach was taken. In certain spots this high demand will keep fruit from falling and rotting on the ground. Orchards of cherries along the river in downtown or near the U would certainly get picked clean. Berries and other food bearing bushes make nice borders. At many parks and gardens managed by the MPRB perennial herbs like thyme could replace other edging plants. These permanent high value trees and plants could be dispersed throughout the cities without much additional labor, yet they would create such additional value.

The Beacon Food Forest is a fascinating example of public edible landscaping. It is a 7 acre piece of parkland in the middle of Seattle that is slated for the landscaping you see in the map below. There will be acres of fruit trees from apples to Asian pears. There will also be a berry patch with plants and a place to can the fruit. Rounding it out is lots of space for community gardens. This extensive park will be a place for the whole community to come together and see the benefits of shared space and shared work. Couldn’t we do this in Minneapolis or St. Paul? The suburbs have even more land available to make this a reality.


Civic agriculture is more than just the plants. It will also be about building the connections among people and between people and the land. One way to build community in through the public produce, the other through the processing of the food. Imagine a cider festival every fall. The park has a public apple cider press and everyone comes with their apples and makes cider together. Certainly a pie baking contest will follow. Imagine the community has a honey extractor and everyone can process their honey together. We can then compare the honey from the Powederhorn with honey from the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. It”s a great addition to the feud of the two cities. This is how people create community. As Gary Paul Nablan puts it we are “restorying the landscape”. So to create the next chapter in the Twin Cities, we just need to plant a tree.

Land Stewardship Project and urban agriculture policy

11 Jul

I saw this great article about urban agriculture policy and wanted to share it. It outlines the difficulties of running a urban ag operation when so much of the regulatory framework is completely up in the air. It provides another reason excellent policy needs to be put in place sooner rather than later.

Look for the article on page 20.

The Possibilities of Season Extension

7 Jul

Within Minneapolis these has been a lot of talk recently about high tunnels, hoop houses, and greenhouses. My sense is that there is some confusion over specific definitions and the implications of each building type. Today I am going to define each of the categories and how each is useful for the urban farmer.

The simplest method of season extension is side-dressing a crop with hot compost. As compost ages, it goes through stages; at different stages the compost lets off a different amount of heat. By putting warm compost on the sides of the rows, cool weather crops can be kept in the ground an extra couple of weeks.  This method of season extension needs no policy changes by the city and few people would object to farmers using this method.

Photo from

High tunnels and hoop houses can more or less be used interchangeably. They are made out of metal tubes bent in an arch and covered in plastic. They look something like this if it is in my back yard:

Photo from

For a commercial farm in the city it would most likely look like this:

The rather recent innovation in hoop houses (last 20 years), is changing the possibilities for small farmers and those in cold climates. Eliot Coleman was one of the pioneers of this method at his farm in Maine. We are both at roughly the 45th parallel. (

Growing Lots farm in Minneapolis is building a hoop house right now and will be finished soon. Within their hoop house they are planting 5 rows of heat loving plants like peppers and tomatoes along with some basil interplanted in the rows. This high tunnel will allow them to grow more and better tomatoes in the summer and cool weather greens late into the fall. In Minneapolis 9-10 months of production in a high tunnel wouldn’t be unusual.

In a business like farming where the margins are thin, this season extension tool can be very helpful. As a “temporary structure” the city regulations only allow a high tunnel to operate for 6 months per year. This doesn’t match up with the needs of the farmers and this city policy needs to change. The city should allow for year-round use of these structures. There is some push back to the loosening of regulations because of concerns over visual appeal. Some argue that they do not want to see 10 ft tall plastic structures in residential neighborhoods. Though I would say that the tunnels look better than an abandoned lot, I get the point, however the policy should still change.

One good solution is the construction of greenhouses. This will become a more viable option as urban farms mature and have the money to build. They will also need secure land access to warrant such an investment. But land access is next week’s topic.

Greenhouses fit the style of a residential neighborhood better by being built out of more traditional housing material. They provide many of the same benefits as hoop houses with a few new ones. One added benefit is the ability to build inside of it. At Growing Power some of their greenhouses have large fish tanks in the middle. These large tanks filled with thousands of fish produce an additional year round source of food and income. These fish are part of a brilliant system called aquaponics. This is the fusion of hydroponics, the practice of growing plants in water, and aquaculture, the practice of farmed fish. The nitrogen wastes from the fish cycles back into layers of plants growing above the fish. These plants filter the excess  nitrogen, providing filtration for the fish and extra nutrients for the plants.

GP greenhouseThese fish tanks have the added benefit of helping regulate temperature. The large tanks absorb heat in the summer, keeping the greenhouse from overheating. In the winter the tanks radiate heat keeping the greenhouse above freezing without any additional heat source. This seems like a practical evolution of urban farming that will start to become more common in the next 10 years.

Though urban farming will never feed 100% of a city’s need, it can do quite a bit. Right now urban farming doesn’t have yields that are particularly higher than rural farms. These solutions and more will help to make future urban agriculture grow more healthy food per acre. It will take ingenuity and time to find the best solutions for each place. Please support those in Minneapolis and across the country who are doing just that. Spending years researching and practicing different models of urban farms looking for a new way forward.

More Resources

6 Jul

So every Friday I post a new blog entry. Because of the 4th of July making this week wonky, I am behind schedule. So I am going to cheat a little bit. Today I am going to post some resources for those who would like to dive a little further into the topics I address here. I will review some of the books I have found most useful for writing the blog so far. This list will also foreshadow some future blogs so get excited. Because this is cheating and not a full post, you can expect a full entry tomorrow on the topic of season extension mechanisms like hoop-houses and greenhouses.

Food and the City by Jennifer Cockrall-King

I have already referenced this book and will probably continue to do so. This book provides a great overview of urban agriculture trends. She starts with Paris in the 1800’s to show that urban agriculture is not just a new fad. It is a tradition rooted in the history of cities. Though she has a focus on Western cities she visits a wide variety of cities with different histories and justifications for implementing urban agriculture.

She spends a chapter on Milwaukee, showcasing Growing Power Inc. Will Allen started a truly remarkable endeavor and Coackrall-King does a good job of showcasing his work. It is important to note, however, that Growing Power uses a non-profit model which makes them difficult to emulate for farmers who want to run commercial operations.

Detroit’s food movement is move about economic security and that it clearly demonstrated in the book. Detroit is home to some of the largest, most ambitious and controversial urban agriculture projects. In a city that is struggling so much, all the ideas are on the table. Detroit will be a city to follow in the coming years.

Overall, one of the better, more engaging books on urban agriculture. Worth buying.


Hungry City by Carolyn Steel

This is a more academic and scholarly approach to the topic of food and cities. Steel follows how the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food shaped the physical layout of London. It’s a fascinating reminder of why Fish St. is called Fish St. and Butchers’ Lane is Butchers’ Lane. Food in cities used to be much more visceral: the smells of fish, the sounds of bleating sheep being led into the city. The book provides a good food history, that is applicable to any city. Each city was shaped by food in a different way that shapes how it functions today. Though an equivalent book has not been written for Minneapolis, we have the Mill City Museum.  This is a much more fun way to learn much of the same history. If you would prefer to read a book, pick up a copy of Grain Merchants, Minneapolis Grain Exchange by Dave Kenny at the library.

Worth buying. Get Grain Merchants from the library.





Public Produce by Darrin Nordahl

A short book outlining a great idea. There are many spaces in cities that are in the city’s domain that could be producing food. Gardening is good, urban farmers are good, but the city could be farming too. He argues, and I agree, that public produce has a important role to play in the cityscape. This will be the focus of a later post, so I won’t dwell on this book now. Just imagine city parks and city streets filled with apple, pear, and nut trees.

Get this one from the library. A quick read full of ideas, but not full of details that would have you wanting to own it.






Those should give you plenty of reading for now. Once you finish reading these book you will see food every where you go in the city.