Pondering the farm’s future

As the tomato flowers quickly set to fruit, the July sun desiccates our soils, and we run around tending to endless tasks, it can be difficult for the us at Stone’s Throw Urban Farm to see the “forest for the trees”.  The immediacy of washing salad mix or catching a few hours of sleep before a long work day outweigh the deeper, probing issues that our farm confronts.  Question such as:  Why are we doing this?  What will the farm look like next year? In five years?  Are we accomplishing the goals we set out to achieve in starting this farm?  While these questions will continue to evolve and change, I thought that I would attempt to give some answers from the field.

 

Why are we doing this?  The partners of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm remain committed to designing a farm that challenges much of the status quo in regards to food production in the United States.  We want to develop a farm business that produces high-quality, affordable food while also paying its owners and employees a livable wage, improves the ecological landscape of the land we farm, and engages our surrounding community in on-farm education and equal food access.  We strive for our farm to confront surrounding environmental and societal issues, especially in regards to urban sprawl, economic inequality, and food justice.

 

Most of all, we love to farm and are enlivened by the process of growing food within a culturally rich, supportive community.  We are encouraged when throngs of teenagers, out on a Friday night stroll, stop and ask the identity of certain plants.  We are humbled when our Hmong neighbors stop to critique our growing methods.

We are excited by the potential of our farm to work with other farmers, sustainable agricultural organizations and advocates, and Twin Cities’ residents to create a more just and more secure regional food economy.

 

Are we accomplishing the goals we set out to achieve?  Sort of.  After several seasons of farming in the city and confronting the economic realities of starting a small farm with minimal capital and tenuous land tenure, we are realizing that the our goals of community engagement and ecological stewardship are often caught in a stressful tug-of-war with the financial necessities of the business.  The impermanency of our farmland is likely the biggest hurdle to achieving the original goals of the farm.

 

Ecologically, the farm has been limited in its ability to employ various soil conservation and landscape improvements.  As our land tenure is tenuous, we cannot justify planting a field in long-term alfalfa to improve the soil or converting our field edges into native, perennial flower beds to increase pollinator habitat.  We are pressured to produce as much edible, high-value product as possible, as start-up costs are high and we may never see the return of long-term ecological investments.  The farm is experimenting with various soil improvement methods that can work in combination with intensive vegetable growing, including mid-season mulching, cover-cropping between rows of tomatoes and squash, and decreasing the amount of tillage.  On one of our sites with a long-term lease, we spent the spring planting apple trees, grapes, and perennial herb and flowerbeds.  Eric and Alex have also been working with the Twin Cities Agricultural Land Trust (TCALT – tcalt.org), a new organization working for permanent access to quality land for food producers in the Twin Cities Metro.  They advocate for a region that has permanent and sufficient land – with a diverse array of land tenure options – for people who seek to grow food and meet the food needs of local communities by using agricultural practices that restore landscapes.

 

Regardless of land issues, the high cost of soil improvements, labor, and infrastructure costs influence our decisions to sell our produce for a high return.  We are committed to minimizing the self-exploitation so often found in small farm businesses.  Farmers should be paid well.  However, we struggle with the relationship between farmer justice and food justice.  Simultaneously, how can farmers receive fair compensation and how can low-income people receive more fresh, healthy food?  Week after week, our food leaves relatively low-income neighborhoods to be enjoyed at fine restaurants throughout the city.  The Saturday farmer’s market in downtown Minneapolis is culturally and geographically far away from the neighborhoods in which we grow our food.  While we donate extra produce to food shelves, we are interested in working during the off-season with community organizations to make our CSA more accessible and affordable for more people.

 

Lastly, time and labor constraints often limit our ability to engage with neighbors of our farm sites in meaningful educational experiences.  During the summer, especially, we constantly feel there is a lack of time to complete the field tasks effectively without also setting time aside for education.  Unlike many non-profit organizations with an urban farming program, our bottom line is the production and sale of vegetables.  Without selling vegetables, our other goals remain entirely unattainable.  This year, we have been actively exploring models in which we can incorporate vegetable production with education.  We hired two high school students, Naly and Kenny, through Minneapolis’ Step-Up Achieve job training program.  They have quickly become an asset to the farm and we hope to teach them valuable skills about urban food production.  The farm has also begun exciting discussions with Roosevelt High School regarding a school farm project that would be advised by the Stone’s Throw crew.  We are excited by their desire to embed a farm project within the regular high school curriculum, using hands-on farming as a means to learn about biology, economics, or history.

 

What will the farm look like in years to come?

 

The farm is preparing for some exciting transformations and developments.  Below are a few that most impact the future of the farm. 

 

Rural

Emily and Klaus are deeply involved with planning a rural arm of Stone’s Throw.  The rural farm will provide meat, grains, storage vegetables and other products.  This operation will work in conjunction with the urban farm to create tangible connections between city and country and greatly expand the offerings of our farm.  We are very excited about the ability to offer a full-diet CSA share in years to come.  

 

Hiawatha Hothouse

We are working with another urban farm, Growing Lots Urban Farm, to design and build a fully operational greenhouse within the city, the Hiawatha Hothouse.  This will improve both farms’ capacities to start seedlings and increase the amount of year-round fresh produce we offer.  It will also serve as an educational space to learn about season extension production methods in northern climates.

 

Urban food production

On the urban front, we will continue to work towards the goals stated above.  We want to improve the quality and consistency of vegetables we are producing and make the CSA shares more bountiful.  We will continue to improve the infrastructure of the farm, including our processing space and food storage.  We will also likely be purchasing a small tractor.  While this is a major decision, we are fairly certain it will spare our bodies strenuous bending and crawling day-after-day, free our time for more educational activities, and improve our production methods.  We remain committed to expanding urban farming in the Twin Cities.

 

So, apologies for the long-winded post.  As a CSA member of Stone’s Throw, you are investing in innovative forms of agriculture and urban land-use.  As always, we are very, very grateful for your support of our farm.  We especially welcome your ideas, input, and comments about how you would like to influence its direction in years to come. 

 

Now enjoy your vegetables,

 

Alex

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