The late summer daze

It has been months since we last wrote.  Our heads and hands have been away from electronic communication, save for the late night frantic copying down of restaurant orders or checking the radar for oncoming thunderstorms.  We are currently harvesting a wide array of crops three times per week while preparing for a bountiful fall.  For the past six weeks (and continuing through September) we have been preparing land, planting, and weeding fall salad greens, brassicas, carrots, beets, and our last successions of basil, dill, and cilantro.  We spent a late July day in Stillwater, dismantling a greenhouse that we found on Craigslist.  We plan to erect the greenhouse in the city this fall, as a prototype for what we hope is the development of more intensified growing in heated greenhouses and hoophouses.

There is a certain repetition that begins to intensify this time of the farm season.  The sound of ice cream trucks driving by, hauntingly crying “Fur Elise” while another tomato plant is lifted from the ground, clipped, and pruned.  Afternoon chatter turns to evening barbecues that turn into nighttime walks while we often continue to pick a last tray of tomatoes, clean up the packing area, or hoe a final row of tomatoes.  I oscillate between entrapment and enchantment this time of year.  The desire to be freed from the daily toil of the farm, the incessant demands of plants and plant-eaters while also feeling deeply at peace with the glint of light passing through thousands of tomato leaves, the meditative action of lightly dragging a hoe through the soil hour upon hour.  I have been thinking about how much of human discontent comes from our internal circumstances as opposed to our external circumstances.  In years past I have allowed myself to become consumed by worry, by distraction, by wanting to leave the work for something else.  This year I attempt (however feebly), to settle into the act of farming, the inevitability of endless August days, the lived experience of crop failures, crop successes, personal failures, personal successes.   Time will tell if this outlook will increase the quality of our produce.

We have been especially grateful for the wonderful people that have kept this farm humming and singing day in and day out.  Three summer interns, Abdul, Angela, and Olivia will all be leaving the farm shortly.  Angela, a University of Minnesota horticulture student, brought tenacity and energy to each day she worked.  She made beautiful flower bouquets and worked harder than most.  Unfortunate for us, she is headed back to school.  Olivia, a McGill University student and Minnesota native, connected with us through PLACE, a non-profit housing developer exploring greenhouse integration into housing developments.  She has provided a calm, unwavering intelligence, willing to tackle unwieldy projects (the bicycle powered salad spinner) even if the results are less than promising.  Abdul, a Somali, former print factory worker, and current University of Minnesota horticulture graduate student, will be sorely missed.  Abdul worked in the Ministry of Agriculture in Somalia until civil unrest erupted in 1992.  He is now hoping to gather agricultural knowledge and skills in the United States so that he can return to Somalia to begin his own farm and teach his neighbors.  Abdul is curious, good-natured, and established a beautiful experiment of cowpeas while on the farm.  We are hoping each of the interns will keep pursuing their agricultural interests and stay connected with Stone’s Throw Urban Farm.

Plans are in the works to spend the fall building more high tunnels, harvesting hardy crops through December, and making investment decisions including the purchase of land.  Please stop by the Mill City Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings or our weekly on-site farmstands on Tuesday afternoons (3-7 PM) at 625 Dale Ave, Saint Paul and 2820 15th Ave S., Minneapolis.  We have lots of stories and lovely food.  

Many thanks for your interest and support of our farm,

Alex

Greens! An Ode from Caroline

A Salad Advocacy PSA

We’ve made it to July farm subscribers! While my ideas for blog posts are generally inspired by the political threads tying together a non-contiguous farm in the city, on this rambling Sunday I feel compelled to highlight some on the ground happenings.

The month of June has been a salad jubilee- greens bursting out of the ground, our refrigerators, and lunch boxes. While it’s temping to wait out the season for some of the more charismatic bounty of fall, I want to advocate for salad- the early, tender, and unsung hero of the season. Since the urban farm began working within the context of a larger urban-rural cooperative this past season, we have been able to focus on space intensive and perishable crops that make the most sense to grow in the city. Salad is one of these crops and accordingly a significant amount the farm routine is an ode to these lovely leaves.

 Should you be unsure of how to best ingest, here are some of the farm’s favorite preparations to prevent malaise:

• An anonymous salad and donut lunch eaten at the farm this week.

• The Larsen family PB(G!) & J sandwich.

• Breakfast salad

In conclusion: enjoy, revere, and eat your salad greens.

Arugula always,
Caroline

A note from our intern, Angela

Farm friends, family, and supporters:

This week, Angela, one of our summer interns from HECUA, has written about her experience on the farm.  I just returned from an exciting and inspirational weekend at Growing Power in Milwaukee and am full of ideas for more infrastructure projects, mushroom cultivation, community outreach.  I will write more later.  We have a busy week ahead of tomato pruning and weeding after so much rain.

With further ado, here is Angela:

Hey y’all, my name is Angela, I am Organic Horticulture student at the University of

Minnesota, and intern with Stone’s Throw. As my time with the farm is just begining

I have already been exposed to the plethera of projects that occur simultaneously

literally on the soil and off the field. On the ground everything from harvest,

processing, packing, CSA coordinating, staking, composing, hoeing, and of course

weeding all goes down. It has been quite mind blowing how everyone plays to his or

her strengths to keep the organism that is Stone’s Throw moving.

With all the rain this week our focus was to weed like crazy, racing to rescue

various plots and put them in a strong condition to outcompete non-crop plants.

Grass tends to be the main target, with once being lawns the grass can come back

with vengeance. As the team weeds together quickly as possible it can boggle the

brain, yet provide therapeutic qualities with the idea we are tending to a crop that

will soon become nourishment for urban dwellers. This thought keeps floating in

my head, and how straight up amazing it is to care for and harvest fresh beautiful

vegetables in a city. It is a practice more commonly done in rural areas, raising

plants that have been crossbred for human perfection, defenseless, and delicious.

Grown within soil that is constantly being rejuvenated with compost, turned by

human hands and critters. It has helped me connect to land even when surrounded

by city infrastructure.

Constantly working outside is physically demanding but has its treasures, in

particular I witnessed pollination on a salad mix crop gone to flower. Letting

crops go is not always a negative in this case is providing much needed pollen and

nectar for environmentally valuable pollinators. While finishing up composting at

the Galtier and Sherburne site in St. Paul, I wanted to take in the wildness of the

overgrown salad greens. Walking closer to observe the clusters of yellow and white

flowers there were bees buzzing. As a lover of these pollinators it was exciting to

see them out foraging the field. Even better they where native, my best guess is a

Miner bee for it being early in the growing season, the smoky wings, and the large

amount of pollen she was carrying. With the weather really heating up and tomatoes

growing rapidly bumblebees should be in masses soon.

Best,

Angela Schuster

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In this picture (from left to right) are Abdul, a University of Minnesota graduate student (you will hear more from him later), Anna, a hard-working, vibrant volunteer, and Angela, your week’s correspondent and weeding extraordinaire 

At Dairy Queen at 8:45 PM last night, covered in streaks of mud and grease, 8 hours since our last meal, Eric and I dove unabashedly into large sundaes and Mint Oreo blizzards.  We spent the day racing to beat the oncoming rains – planting long rows of salad mix, arugula, and carrots, weeding more mature plantings of those same crops, transplanting our final succession of tomatoes.  As we pulled up to DQ, stumbling upon a civilized line of girls in soccer uniforms, clean, middle-aged men in “World’s Best Dad” t-shirts, and teenage lovers, it felt like we were returning to an America that we had long forgotten existed, spending our days stooped in the dirt, dutifully weeding carrots or checking radish germination.  Such is June in the bipolar North – sensing long daylight hours and warmth for a limited time, plants take off.  We humans hold on for the ride.

Our crops our looking quite healthy after such a slow spring.  Mid-May nighttime temperatures in the mid-30s stunted many of our plants and we are just starting to see their growth response.  While we usually plan to have carrots and beets by late June or early July, this requires being able to plant in early April.  The cold, wet spring (two in a row!) mean some of these crops will be delayed by about a month.  Other crops such as salad greens, spinach, and radishes are thriving with the steady bouts of rain and mild temperatures. 

Land access remains a major issue for the development of our farm (and urban farming in general).  After spending the last several years with various lengths of tenure and lease arrangements, we are feeling more and more strongly that the farm needs to begin acquiring more permanent parcels of land.  We feel stifled by the year-to-year agreements and renter status of so much of our land.  Without land tenure, basic soil health practices such as mulching and cover cropping can feel cumbersome and pointless rather than rejuvenating and necessary.  When the farm began, we started with a basic inquiry: Can urban farming be a successful, vegetable production business that simultaneously beautifies the city and engages urban residents in on-farm education and the development of a more just food system?  We are still deep in the process of answering that nuanced questions with other questions.  What scale does the farm need to be to meet those goals?  How many people should it employ?  What is a good wage to be making?  How can we build the farm on all fronts: financial, environmental, and community?  At what points do these different aims clash and compete with each other?  Land access and long-term tenure is at the core of many of these issues and would foster the development of improved soil management and therefore high-quality, high-yielding crops, sustained community presence and relationship building, and diversification of farm plots to become more complex, ecological organisms (i.e. integration of perennials, native pollinator habitat, etc.) 

We are currently approaching the land issue in a few ways.  We continue to advocate politically that urban farming is an integral piece of the city and that land needs to be dedicated to food production for all people for diverse types of production (community gardens, production farms, experiment stations).  However, this a slow moving target, challenging many of the existing presumptions regarding urban planning and development.  Lately, we have been developing more detailed financial models of our farm plots and production and then factoring in mortgage payments and taxes into these models.  For a long time we have said that, due to the tax structure and land prices in urban areas, urban farms could never afford to own land.   With clearer data regarding increased production with hoophouses and improves soil, we are beginning to rethink that original assumption.  We believe that we may be able to purchase vacant land and, with the construction of a large hoophouse, increase revenue enough to 1) pay mortgage payments and land taxes and 2) increase overall farm income.  We hope to purchase a few spaces at the end of this year to test our prediction.  The farm is also searching for an industrial space to serve as a “home base” for the farm.  This space would house a year-round greenhouse, larger scale composting operation, processing space, and workshop.  It would root the decentralized plots that comprise the rest of the farm.

As always, we are grateful to the employees, interns, volunteers, and community members that make our rag-tag operation a reality.  This time of year we are often running at full speed with tunnel vision, focused on production, production, production.  Please make sure to give us a holler or stop by our plots to chat!  Many thanks for your support and patience as our CSA season gets underway.

- Alex

Transplanting

What a whirlwind spring can be!  We have spent the last weeks running through the city, popping plants into the ground between rainstorms, furiously weeding away young lamb’s quarters, troubleshooting a few soil issues, tightening bolts and fixing engines.  Days have been long as the sun is finally beating down upon our plots and warming our soils.  This coming week, we will begin to install irrigation systems at our sites and catch-up with transplanting.  Last week we planted about 4000 tomatoes, several hundred peppers, 500 feet of basil, and lots of fennel, onions, and lettuce.  We were blessed by our energetic employees, Kristi and Caroline, our University of Minnesota horticulture intern, Abdul, our HECUA intern, Angela, and a wonderful high school volunteer named Kaia.  In one day we planted over 40 trays of tomatoes by hand, thanks to all of these people.  While farming can be quite stressful and often solitary, I am continually amazed by the power of urban people to transform land into food production areas.  Our farm is supported by many, many individuals who come to help us, walk by and comment on the work, or just drive by with their trunks rattling with the latest rap beat, breaking the monotony of weeding and reminding us of the ever-present spontaneity of the city streets.

This time of year is stressful as well.  The baby plants we have taken care of for so long have now departed from the nest to live in the rougher elements.  They are not longer sheltered.  They withstand strong winds and downpours.  Cold weather a few weeks ago stunted many our our lettuces, fennel and brassicas.  Just now, they are beginning to recover.  Farming in the city presents unique challenges which can be hard to solve:  What is the best way to manage 14 different lots with different vegetables?  How do design good irrigation systems with low water pressure (often borrowed from neighbors’ houses)?  When volunteers come to help, how do we best plug them in to a hectic operation, ensuring that they have a positive time and that they are benefitting the farm?  How do we improve our soil in such idiosyncratic conditions?  Only through patience and being present with the land and people around me do I even come close to developing a clear understanding of these challenges and potential solutions.  As I slowly become a more experience farmer, I hope to worry less and breathe more.  I am lucky to have partners and employees who are patient and persistent, reminding me to do the same.

We are excited for the beginning of the CSA in a few weeks and to have more bounty at the farmer’s market.  Ginger is planted in our high tunnels and the Beez Kneez honey women (Kristy and Erin) brought two hives to our 15th Avenue plot.  Head lettuce is firming up in the field and spinach is germinating beautifully (see the picture)!  Please stop by and see us during the day and lend a hand if you would like.  Enjoy the warmth!

- Alex

 

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Over the past few days, spring seems to rush unabashedly into the Twin Cities.  Finally.  During the middle of last week, in between bouts of rain, cedar waxwings plucked sugar maple buds from a tree outside of my attic window.  Beets, yukina savoy, arugula, spinach are all germinating in the field.  Salad mix in our high tunnel is growing rapidly in response to warmer temperatures in the day and night.  Wonderful volunteers have come to help spread mountains of compost, helping us to catch up after a week of rain.  Last week, we also added some major infrastructure to the farm.  Our “home” Minneapolis site – 2820 15th Avenue S. – now has a city water hook-up.  During the past three seasons, our neighbors, first Jana, then Miguel and Andrea, generously lent us water to irrigate our fields and wash our crops.  After much haranguing and number crunching, we decided that investing in water access would allow us to produce and process food more efficiently.  The extra water pressure will be especially appreciated on long harvest days full of muddy carrots.  It is an exciting time to be growing food.

More to come later.  Enjoy the return to the spring, and please see us at the first Mill City Farmer’s Market – SATURDAY MAY 10 – 8 AM – 1 PM by the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis.

- Alex 

 

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Farming in the City: A perspective from Caroline

Hi Farm Friends,

My name is Caroline.  I began working with Stone’s Throw earlier this April and will be focused on growing the farm’s capacity to engage with people and processes at work in the city around us.  I’m deeply curious about the possible relationships between farm and city and look forward to what promises to be a chaotic and festive season.  Hope you enjoy my shot at an inaugural blog post! 

I’m coming to the farm following a several month artichoke and sun filled gallivant through my home state of California.  It feels so strange, but lucky to experience a second advent of spring and the flourish of activity that comes with.  Between the push to get our soil ready and get transplants in the ground, I’ve been ruminating a bit on the politics present behind these concrete acts.  Stone’s Throw was recently approached and offered $5,000 by Chipotle.  We accepted the money, knowing that it will further enable our goals for the farm, but not without dis-ease.  We are wary of the ways that outside funding might compromise our working visions of the farm, our larger food systems, and city.  As a farm we have made a conscious political decision to operate as a for-profit business whose main revenue source is derived from vegetable sales.  We believe that growing food should be a viable livelihood and that operating through this structure allows us a greater degree of autonomy over our work and dreams.  But, without an economy or food system that adequately supports farming, it is a challenging moment to keep a farm in the city afloat.

When possible we try to meet these challenges on our own terms.  Through collaboration and scale, the agricultural coop that we recently formed will enable all of the farms involved to more easily participate in the current market economy while staying true to our ethical convictions.  However, working within a broken food system puts us into routine contact with spaces of ambiguity.  The Chipotle scenario is a good example. “Should we take money from a large marginally responsible corporation to build our farm?” Negotiation with these spaces reminds me that a new food system will not be the spitting image a Jeffersonian agrarian fantasy; nor should it be.  We need to look forward and acknowledge contemporary complexity.

Ultimately, I would like to be free from financial dependency on practices that I find socially and environmentally destructive.  I want to live in a society where everyone is economically empowered to pay the true cost of food (one that fairly compensates labor and accounts for the stewardship of natural resources).  I want to live in a city that values development beyond its impact on the tax base.  I don’t foresee these changes being enacted by money siphoned off by corporations, or even foundations.  Such change will require radical political will and commitment from neighbors, policy makers, and governments.  While we are not always sure which direction the decisions we make are taking us, one of the greatest powers we have is to be candid about them.  We deeply rely on your support, not only as CSA members, but also as citizens.   

With a side of turnips,

Caroline