Early spring update

Friends, followers, foodies:

Much has happened since we last wrote many snowy months ago.  I will try to recap as much as possible but please view this as an attempt to sketch out the farm’s collective historical record – ask us at the farm plots, at market, or on the street for more color and details!

Shortly after the New Year, the farm took a trip to Cuba with several other Twin Cities urban agricultural-focused city officials, writers, and enthusiasts.  We toured farms throughout urban Havana and the provinces of Matanzas and Pinar del Rio.  The integration of agricultural into densely-populated areas developed as a response to the erosion of Soviet-support and increasingly severe U.S. trade blockades during the early 1990s.  “Organoponics”, highly-productive urban vegetable farms that use intensive techniques, were strongly supported by the Cuban government as a way to solve severe reductions in food availability.  As part of these agricultural reforms, the Cuban government transitioned from Soviet-style large-scale collective farms (often more than 50,000 acres) to cooperatives with more individualized management.  In general, the cooperatives are well-organized units that coordinate production, distribution, as well as broader research and organizational agendas at the government level.  We saw a large mix of agricultural projects – large-scale cane sugar farms, fairly unproductive grazing land, and impressive vegetable operations.  While the Cuban agriculture system is far from perfect, our group was impressed by the government’s commitment to approaching domestic agriculture policy with a goal of feeding its people nutritious food.  Throughout the trip, the operation of agriculture outside of capitalism’s “logic” challenged and illuminated the group’s assumptions about how to design well-functioning urban and regional agricultural systems.  While the Cuban farms were under-capitalized and in need of various resources such as irrigation, tractors, and food storage, the farmers had almost no issues accessing land or markets.  In many ways, this experience is the opposite of our experience as beginning farmers in the United States.  We continue to think about the idiosyncrasies of Cuban society and agriculture, the lessons that can be implemented in the Twin Cities, and how to build sovereign food systems, directed by small farmers, with the goal of equitable, healthy food distribution using ecological methods.

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Back in Minnesota, we have been busy preparing for spring.  Building projects have included row-marking tools, hoop-house construction, and many picnic tables.  Our seeding tunnel is hopping and we have hundreds of trays of baby plants in various stages of growth and germination.  Lettuces, radicchio, kale, and swiss chard are farthest along, while fennel, peppers, and eggplant are just beginning their long journey from seed to harvest.  Elizabeth Makarewicz joined the farm crew as a full time seasonal employee.  She has made an immediate difference on the farm – bringing attentiveness, thoroughness, and creativity to each day of work, continuing to smile after several frigid days digging around in a compost pile.  We are excited that she will be assuming a central role in the farm as a harvest and markets manager and trust that the food will be in good hands.  In the high tunnels, radishes and arugula are germinating while overwintered onions and garlic are growing rapidly.

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Shared Ground Farmers Cooperative is progressing at a rapid clip.  The cooperative added Aaron Blyth, formerly farm manager at Minnesota Food Association, as a co-manager of the cooperative with Robin.  The cooperative has also received loan financing and SARE funds to implement a significant expansion of high tunnel development across many of the member farms.  Below are pictures of coop members, Rodrigo Cala and Javier Garcia removing high tunnels from the Linder’s greenhouse site on Rice and Larpenteur and a recent co-op meeting in Waseca, MN hosted by La Familia Cooperative.  We are honored to be working with this ambitious group of farmers.

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Caroline Devany has been working non-stop to receive city approval for our ambitious plans to transform 625 Dale Avenue in Saint Paul into an urban agriculture center.  She has applied for countless permits, spoken with dozens of city officials, surveyors, and high tunnel manufacturers.  The good news, is that we are getting extremely close to implementing the plan – by the end of the summer we plan to have mushroom production in full swing, two high tunnels full of food, a market stand, and plenty of neighborhood activities.  Please take a look at our site plan (attached: STUF_625 DALE PLAN).

Also, there is one important thing that you can do to help us move the permitting process forward.  A major hiccup has been the city’s demands that our farm restore three curb cuts that were left after the site’s demolition several years prior.  This restoration was supposed to occur at the time of demolition yet the city is including the curb cut mandate into our lease.  The price of repaving the curbs will run at least $10000, a price that, as temporary users of the site, we feel is unfair and exclusionary to urban agriculture use on the site.  PLEASE E-MAIL Yaya Diatta (YaYa.Diatta@ci.stpaul.mn.us ) of Zoning and use the text from the form letter (ATTACHED: Variance letter of support). It would also be helpful if you would include your relationship to the farm and 625 Dale site, as a neighbor, farm visitor, customer, or other type of stakeholder.

Lastly, we are very, very excited for the return of spring – to see our neighbors, to get into the soil, to put pencil and paper into action.  There are an incredible array of urban agriculture projects transpiring in our region – from re-envisioning East Phillips as an urban agriculture hub, to state-level urban ag. policy by Rep. Karen Clark, the Council for Black Minnesotans, and Project Sweetie Pie, to the recent Midwest Urban Farmers Summit our farm attended last week in Chicago, IL.  Please get in touch, stay in touch, and lend your ideas for how to make this farm a more effective, tangible initiator of systems-level change.  And don’t forget to eat!

Your farmer,

Alex Liebman

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