With planting season looming and no place to sow her seeds, organic farmer Jessica Mutunga posted an earnest plea on a neighborhood social network: Can I use your yard?

After her recent move from Oregon, Mutunga looked forward to tapping into the Twin Cities' robust appetite for locally grown food. She soon discovered the farm-to-table movement has created intense demand for affordable urban farmland across the metro area.

"It was much more challenging than I anticipated," said 33-year-old Mutunga, who plans to raise and sell vegetables on an acre of yard space she cobbled together from several homeowners.

Consumers, concerned about climate change and pesticides and food safety, have become much more willing to pay higher prices for food grown locally on smaller, sustainable farms. This "local food economy" as it's been called, can be measured by the soaring number of farmers markets, which have quadrupled in the Twin Cities over the last 15 years, and by the grocery stores and restaurants where "locally grown" has taken root as a critical marketing pitch.

"There is a real desire for local food," said Jesse Davis, of the Minnesota Farmers' Market Association. And the Twin Cities, he said, is known nationally as a local food hub.

That has set off a scramble for the land to grow those vegetables and fruits, especially 1- to 10-acre parcels close to metro area markets. Only about 30 percent of the seven-county metro was still being farmed in 2010 — the most recent data available — according to the Metropolitan Council. That number was much smaller in a place like Hennepin County, with a total closer to 12 percent, and projected to shrink.

"Land access is one of the biggest challenges for new farmers," said Laura Hedeen of the Minnesota Food Association, which provides land to immigrant and minority farmers through a certified-organic "incubator" farm training program in Marine on St. Croix. The program's goal is to move them onto their own land — if it can be found.

Newly sprouted farmers are looking for acreage anywhere they can. Some have hunted for the right acreage for years. Others have snatched up community garden plots for their commercial enterprises. More than 20 new community gardens were planted in the metro area in 2016, according to the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Gardening Matters. Last year, it counted 608 community gardens in the Twin Cities, up from 166 in 2009.

Open land in first-ring suburbs is often costly, a problem exacerbated by post-Recession development, said Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association.

"You almost have to travel at least an hour outside of the metro area to get something affordable," Hang said.

Agricultural matchmakers

Several groups are trying to make the land searches easier.

In 2015, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture launched Minnesota Farm Link, an internet tool with searchable property listings. Farm Link helps match retiring farmers with those starting out. Its listings include conventional farms as well as specialty urban operations.

In the metro area, the list is relatively short. The goal is to get the word out to landowners unaware of the growing appetite for their patch of earth, said Becky Balk, who helps oversee the program.

Organizations like the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service and the Land Stewardship Project, a sustainable food and farming nonprofit, also compile listings in digital clearinghouses.

But not all landowners are plugged into these kinds of resources. This disconnect is especially pronounced among "absentee" landowners, or those who don't live on the land and who may not even be in Minnesota.

That's why Karl Hakanson, an educator with the Hennepin County Extension Office, is trying to join forces with one such landowner in the metro area. Just one.

He's looking for someone willing to rent small parcels of land to this new crop of local growers.

"It's hard to hook people up," Hakanson said.

If he can bring one landowner on board for what he envisions as a pilot partnership with a beginning farmer, Hakanson thinks more will follow. Once budding farmers know where they can grow crops each year, it makes business expansion more feasible, Hakanson said.

Moses Momanyi understands the challenges of renting, having leased land at various locations for five years before finding a farm to buy about an hour north of the Twin Cities markets where he sells his produce. Momanyi, 39, said he doesn't miss renting, despite the commute from his home in Cambridge.

"I want land where I can do whatever I want, as far as farming is concerned," Momanyi said.

A growing market

The Minnesota Farmers' Market Association estimates that there are about 60 farmers markets in the Twin Cities. Some 180 farmers markets have taken root across Minnesota, up from 45 in 2002, according to the Minnesota Grown program, a partnership between the state ag department and food producers. The figure may be conservative, as Minnesota Grown only counts member markets that are involved in its program for a fee.

Some vendors now worry about market saturation, adding urgency to the farmers' quest for open soil within reach of the cities.

Mhonpaj Lee has yet to find an ideal location to grow her organic produce, despite searching for about eight years. Lee currently rents 4 acres from the Minnesota Food Association in Marine on St. Croix.

"It's been very difficult for us," said Lee, who even got her real estate license to aid her search.

Mutunga, who lives in Hopkins, got fruitful if unconventional leads from Craigslist and the social network Nextdoor. This year, she will work about an acre of land spread across two side-yard plots in Hopkins and some land in Carver County. Mutunga trades shares of her harvest for use of the land.

Her dream, though, is for acreage in the metro that she can call her own.

"We're looking to buy some land with a house," Mutunga said. "The market is just crazy right now."

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751