An innovative urban farm that helps feed and educate residents of one of the Twin Cities’ neediest neighborhoods has joined the ever-expanding list of organizations and events slammed by COVID-19.

Frogtown Farm, which has grown and distributed more than 40,000 pounds of fresh produce over the past four years, will not plant or harvest a vegetable crop in 2020. Soyini Guyton, a farm co-founder and board chairwoman, said officials decided they are unable to follow protocols to sterilize equipment and maintain safe distances, and the farm refuses to put workers and volunteers at risk.

“We are a super-small urban farm and don’t have the capacity to do that,” Guyton said, adding that the 5-acre farm also is suspending programming, including classes, farmers markets and its harvest festival. “This is going to transform the way we do stuff. It is not going to be easy.”

Delinia Parris, manager of Feeding Frogtown, which distributes food each week to low-income families and has been the farm’s main client, said she hopes the disruption is only temporary. She hoped the farm would have tapped local experts, such as at the University of Minnesota, before deciding to suspend operations. Frogtown has few nearby fresh produce options, she said, and hundreds of families will be affected.

“Frogtown isn’t a food desert. It’s a food swamp,” she said of a neighborhood teeming with convenience stores and fast food options but little in the way of leafy, green and local. “During the growing season, we purchased 25,000 pounds of food and gave it away, food that’s very expensive if [families] have to buy it.”

Frogtown Park and Farm, a 13-acre park that occupies what was once the hilltop campus of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, opened in 2015 with help from the Trust for Public Land and the city of St. Paul. That first year, workers hauled in more than 200 tons of soil and planted cover crops to protect it over the farm’s first winter. In 2016, Frogtown Farm started growing food crops on a handful of fields that total about 5 acres.

Using what designers call permaculture, the farm’s systems for water conservation, erosion control and even its plant combinations are meant to help the farm survive for generations. A plastic-sheathed hoop house is used to give plants an early start in an otherwise short Minnesota growing season. The plan was to grow enough food for sale that the farm could also generously give away produce to the area’s most needy families.

Operating on leased park space, Frogtown Farm is one of the largest contiguous urban demonstration farms in the country.

But on a chilly day late last week, there was no farm activity to be seen. The hoop house was open and empty. The farm’s windblown fields were fallow. And only a few dog-walkers and their pets trod the park’s winding paths.

Nura Ahmed, who can see the farm from her house, started volunteering at the farm in its first year. In 2017 and 2018, she was an employee, helping plant and harvest greens, okra, eggplant, cucumbers, strawberries and raspberries. She and her children are heartbroken by the decision to suspend farming, she said.

“It’s not only me. It’s really important to this community,” Ahmed said of the farm and its regular classes for children and adults, who learn about growing food, cooking and baking. “It’s such a nice place to have here.”

Source of pride

Caty Royce, co-director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, said the farm has been important to the community for more than just the food it has grown. Since 2009, neighborhood residents have created at least a half-dozen smaller urban gardens, farms and tree parks. At least 10 neighborhood garden plots are expected to ramp up their work to try to fill the void, she said.

But the size and impact of this park grabbed and held the community’s attention — and filled the area’s residents with pride. Frogtown has the least amount of green space of any neighborhood in St. Paul.

“I hope we don’t lose the farm,” Royce said. “Losing the dream of the farm would be the real loss. That would be painful.”

Susan Schmidt, state director of the Trust For Public Land, said the crisis demonstrates the need for accessible open space. And while her group supports the decision not to farm in 2020, “I hope it’s just the one season.”

When asked if city officials are concerned that the decision not to plant in 2020 may signal long-term problems for Frogtown Farm, St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said it is hard for officials to know.

“Once we are all on the other side of this, we will know more,” he said in a statement.

In an interview late last week, Guyton said the plan even before the coronavirus outbreak was to give one of the farm fields a rest to let its soil recharge. Now, workers will still plant cover crops, prune the fruit trees and pull weeds. The plan is to build up the soil and resume farming next year.

But the farm might be facing issues more threatening than a pandemic. In the statement last week announcing the suspension of the 2020 growing season, Guyton hinted that the recent economic downturn is creating additional challenges to the viability of the nonprofit farm. The falling stock market “will shift and restrict the priorities of many philanthropic resources. We have already received word from some of our partners that their funding priories will be changing,” she wrote.

Increasing community needs, she said, have the farm’s board looking for ways to grow even more food for the area’s poorest families.

“Yes, this season is important,” Guyton said. “But the future is more important. Is there a model where we could produce more food for people who are really poor? In crisis, people are even more marginalized. Can we come up with more money to subsidize for the people who have nothing?”

“We don’t know,” she added. “And if anyone says they know, they’re lying.”