Farming out the back yard

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2009 - 9:43 PM

Professional gardeners are nurturing their clients' ag skills along with their produce.

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Some busy people rely on personal chefs and personal shoppers. Attorney Catherine Turner has a personal farmer.

About once a week, Stefan Meyer bikes to Turner's south Minneapolis home to tend the crops he planted last month in her back yard. He pulls weeds, applies organic fertilizer, makes notations in a garden journal.

Turner can't wait for the day when she can snip her first fresh greens and toss a home-grown salad. "I'm super-excited," she said. Yes, she could garden without hired help. She's grown her own veggies before but never on this scale. "This garden has been planned and engineered for greatest yield," she said. "Next year, I'd like to do it myself. Hopefully, some of his [Meyer's] wide breadth of knowledge rubs off on me."

Many in the Twin Cities are producing food with the help of a pro this growing season. Interest in home-grown produce is up because people want to eat locally and organically, and they could save money in the long term.

This spring, at least two new residential farming services were launched, tapping into a small but ripe niche market.

"It's going gangbusters," said Joan James, co-owner of A Backyard Farm. James and her partner, Coleen Gregor, are longtime gardeners who were inspired to turn pro after hearing about similar businesses on the West Coast. They distributed fliers in St. Paul's Mac-Groveland neighborhood early this spring, and quickly picked up more than a dozen clients, most of them seeking complete garden maintenance (starting at $35 weekly) as well as installation.

"People want to know where their food is coming from," James said. And after the initial first-year investment of a few hundred dollars to have their garden installed, many customers also hope to start saving money on their food bills.

"We try to coach people on what has the best cost savings," Gregor said. "Heirloom tomatoes are $6 a pound in stores. You are really going to get your money's worth growing those. And basil. It's very expensive to buy enough to make a batch of pesto."

Turner turned to another service, Backyard Harvest, a new pilot program of the Permaculture Research Institute-Cold Climate. The program, launched this spring, attracted more customers than it could handle, said coordinator Krista Leraas. "We had to turn a lot of people down." Backyard Harvest's 15 full-service clients pay about $1,000 to $1,300 for a season's worth of farming services, including design, construction, soil, plants, maintenance and harvesting. Garden-coaching services, at $30 an hour, also are available.

Turner spent $1,300 for her 120-square-foot, flower-shaped garden, and considers it a bargain. "I got all materials, all his [Meyer's] time and all the vegetable plants," she said. She expects to produce more than she can eat, and will give the surplus to family, friends and the local food shelf.

New twist, old practice

The age-old practice of growing your own food is acquiring new cachet around the country.

"There's a buzz around it," said Turner's sister, Jennette Turner, a natural food educator who teaches at local co-ops. "Michelle Obama put in a vegetable garden, and some of my neighbors are turning their entire back yards into vegetable gardens." Experienced gardeners are expanding their efforts, she said, and "people who have never done it before are trying it."

But hiring someone else to tend your garden? Some think that seems over-the-top and a bit elitist.

"It strikes me as bizarre," said Paula Pentel, urban studies professor at the University of Minnesota. "You're paying someone to crop your land for you. It fits with the trend of people wanting local food, but part of growing your own food is understanding how it's grown." On the plus side, "at least they're being exposed to how it's done."

That's the point, say proponents. Minnesota may be an agricultural state, but many of its residents are transplants or a generation or two removed from their rural roots. There's a knowledge vacuum when it comes to growing food, and personal farmers help fill the gap.

"We don't know anything about gardening," said Jennifer DeMeglio, who hired A Backyard Farm to install and to maintain two raised beds at her St. Paul home as an early Father's Day gift for her husband, Michael. "Food you grow yourself is a whole lot better, and we want to do it right." But with two full-time jobs, a toddler and a baby on the way, "this would be a lot for us to take on," she said. After the initial investment, "the cost will pay off. It's less expensive than doing a crop share."

Rebecca Abas of St. Paul tried growing vegetables last year. "It was a miserable failure," she said. "I'm kind of a city girl. I had too many tomatoes. They ended up rotting, and the weeds took over. It was just pathetic." This year, she hired A Backyard Farm. "It's not a rich person's thing," she said. "I told them, 'This is my budget,' and they came back with some options so I could afford it. They show you how, let you do it with them."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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