Cityview school in north Minneapolis is as urban as its name. To the south looms the downtown skyline. To the east rushes Interstate 94. But the grounds include neatly tended rows of carrots, radishes, leeks and other crops.
It's not just a garden; it's a fledgling farm, the McKinley Community CSA, a nonprofit that provided food for seven households this growing season on a patch of land the school wasn't using.
Project director Jenny Skorupa, who tends the farm with help from volunteers and distributes the produce from her home, hopes to triple its membership next year and eventually "buy our own land." Feeding her neighbors is part of a larger mission for Skorupa, an artist-turned-horticulturist. Microfarms are "part of the reorientation we're going through as a nation -- to organic food, local food," she said.
The term "urban farm" was an oxymoron just a few years ago, before the local food movement spread to the mainstream. But this growing season, small-scale agricultural operations sprouted on plots of earth all over the Twin Cities.
"People are planting in their back yards, taking over vacant lots, using different marketing strategies," said Courtney Tchida, student program coordinator for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), which held its second urban agriculture tour last month, with visits to eight sites. "It's increasing exponentially each year, both in interest and people actually doing it."
Paula Pentel, a teaching specialist in urban studies at the University of Minnesota, also has observed a sharp uptick in interest and activity. "There is a lot of energy around urban microfarms," she said. "I am very inspired by the twenty-somethings I know who are interested in knowing where their food comes from."
The McKinley CSA wasn't the only new farm in town this summer. On the city's South Side, a parking lot in the Seward neighborhood now hosts a for-profit CSA. Farmer Stefan Meyer laid plastic -- "so the roots were not interacting with the asphalt" -- added about 18 inches of soil and established the Growing Lots Urban Farm, in partnership with Seward Redesign, a community-development organization. "They were interested in the economics of small urban farms and what needs to happen to make them economically viable," Meyer said.
Starting small, planning big
A self-described "dirt geek," Meyer grew up in a rural area and "probably will return," he said. But for now, he's an "urban farmer," growing food for seven households using the bio-intensive method, which is designed to maximize yields in a small space. This spring, Meyer planted only half of the quarter-acre he had available to him. "For the first year, we kept it small, with seven members, which seemed like a safe number," he said. But the site has the capacity to grow food for 20 to 25 households, he estimated.
The Alternative Farming Systems Information Center at the National Agricultural Library doesn't keep statistics on urban agriculture, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson. But a search of its database showed a dramatic increase in coverage, from one reference in 1978 to 1,397 in 2009 and 1,355 as of August this year. "The number of articles do show a growing trend," she said.
Urban microfarms are hard to quantify because they tend to be grass-roots efforts that operate below the food-system radar. "You're not seeing it in the grocery store, because these are small enterprises," said Tchida of MISA. "But they're actually feeding a lot of people."
One of those people is Pat Olson, who bought a share, $375 for the season, in the McKinley CSA. "I wanted to help make it a success," she said. The neighborhood has been "a food desert," she said, with no easy access to fresh, healthful food. "Everywhere you can walk, it's disgusting fried things, expired things, overpriced things," she said. "You have to have a car. And for a lot of people, the reason they live in the city is not to have a car."
Olson has grown her own veggies for several years. "But I always get overwhelmed," she said. Since joining the CSA, "I've increased my vegetable eating 300 percent. I'd sometimes buy vegetables and let them rot in the fridge. But when you know the person who grows them, you feel a moral responsibility to eat them. The guilt thing has really fixed my diet."
Farming vacant lots
Uptown Farmers was ahead of the curve. Now in its third growing season, the operation grows organic veggies on three vacant lots scattered across south Minneapolis and sells the produce at the Mill City Farmers Market.
"Our goal is to grow the best-tasting vegetables ever," said Julia Aponte, one of its two founding farmers (there are now three partners). So far, they're just breaking even, but it's a labor of love, she said. "I love being outside, love good food. It makes me happy, and my business partners feel the same way."
She's observed "an explosion of activity and interest" in urban farming. "All the different seminars you can get involved in now -- it's just gone crazy."
Two years ago, Realtor and longtime gardener Susane Moua of St. Paul also decided to try her hand at urban farming. She did some training with urban ag pioneer Will Allen of Milwaukee, and received a small start-up grant from the USDA. When she started looking for land, she looked close to home. "Living in the city, I didn't want to go 30 miles to grow food," she said. "So I thought, 'What about back yards, front yards, side yards?'"
She saw an open field in the West End neighborhood, so she knocked on the door of the nearest house and asked if she could start farming there. The owner agreed, and Moua established City Backyard Farming LLC, a CSA. Last year, she fed 27 households, including 25 paying members, plus her own family and the land owner. This year, she reduced membership to 12 and added a "U-Pick" option. This will be her last year farming for others, Moua said, because she needs more time for her children.
But new urban farmers are being groomed to fill the ranks. Collie Graddick, facilitator of the Co-op Project, is recruiting and training Minneapolis residents to become small-scale farmers, using their own back yards and community gardens. The goal is to help people supplement their income and get healthful, locally grown food into low-income communities, Graddick said.
Ultimately, he hopes to establish an urban farm network. "We're trying to create 25 independent business owners to work cooperatively to support each other," he said, "And put the community label on every kitchen table."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784