(This article was first written in 2011, since then Stefan has joined forces with farm partner, Mr. Michael Pursell and together they've more then tripled their urban farm vegetable production and sales. -RH)
is one guy we could all learn a lot from. As the driving force behind Minneapolis’ most ingenious new food production business,
Stefan is demonstrating for all of us the potential power held in the ground beneath our vacant urban lots.
For the last few years, the city of Minneapolis has begun to take the importance of locally grown food seriously. Through encouraging the growth of farmers markets, and official initiatives such as
, the city has sprouted seeds of change that should improve our health, habitat, and happiness as they grow. As politicians congratulate themselves for being so wise and Earth-friendly, green thumbs
around town welcome this emerging atmosphere of tolerance toward nature in a city where inspectors routinely cite and ticket residential gardens as “Overhanging Vegetation”, and until recently bees and chickens were illegal creatures.
Now that the officials have decided we can go ahead and grow, smart folks like Stefan aren’t waiting around for them to change their minds. Late last year Stefan got together with Redesign Inc. a local community development corporation that encourages all kinds of good green growth throughout Minneapolis. With a little help from these folks, and a whole lot of hard work Stefan has pushed the way forward for the development of Minneapolis’ first parking lot-covering urban farm. Where once was blacktop now tomatoes are growing! This is just the type of change welcome in a city hungry for homegrown health.
It takes someone with a great imagination to look at a barren blacktop lot and visualize a verdant veggie patch. I guess you could also say that anyone who thinks it’s a fun idea to turn a parking lot into a production farm is in no way afraid of hard work. A hardy work ethic and a bold imagination are two traits that seem to have helped Stefan Meyer’s city farming dreams come true.
What I see as I approach Growing Lots Urban Farm is astounding to my gardening sensibilities. I happen to know that due to concern over land use Stefan had to delay installation plans of not only his garden plants, but also all the soil for the garden until the end of June. For a garden that was built from the very ground up starting so late in the season, his results are more lush and fruitful then many gardens planted in May.
Stefan says that one of the secrets to his success is the soil mix. He worked with local businessman Peter Kern from Kern Landscaping in St. Paul to develop a mix that could not only sit on top of a thin landscaping fabric covering a parking surface, but could also pack enough fertility in only a foot of depth to make the garden plants happy and healthy. Stefan says that if he had a growing space that he could use for longer then a year or two, he would have worked the soil in a moderately different way. More akin to the style of legendary urban farmer Will Allen’s Growing Power planting method where blacktop is first covered with wood chips to create a barrier between the soil and the pavement that prevents roots from reaching the blacktop.
The late start to this season as well as a decidedly uncertain potential for next season’s farm are both a result of what Stefan describes as the biggest challenge in creating an urban farm, land availability. While small lots can provide a decent living for farmers employing bio-intensive farming methods such as deep composting, companion planting, and the use of beneficial organisms, city land prices even for modest sized lots are unattainably high for almost any farmers’ budget. It seems that if cities are to take seriously the prospect of raising a large amount of food within city limits, state and local governments need to start subsidizing land costs for local and urban farmers instead of big box stores and stadiums.
Land availability is just one of the many challenges to having a successful urban farm. I’m sure most folks familiar with gardening in the city would be surprised to find that anything other then squirrels could present a greater challenge to an urban farmer, but rest assured, Stefan says squirrels are a close second on the list of challenges. Apparently squirrels are crazy for melons.
Having his entire melon crop decimated was enough to make Stefan consider drastic action. I recommended getting young cats. I’ve had farm kittens that get transplanted and raised in the city work wonders at keeping squirrels, rabbits, and other urban vermin at bay. Of course Stefan’s farm isn’t right next to his house so the best options for now may be to attract a pride of strays or get some live traps set up and take his squirrels across the river to St. Paul like everyone else who catches squirrels in Minneapolis does.
Despite these challenges, Growing Lots is growing lots! The tomatoes and cucumbers are just starting to come in by the basketful while beets, chard, kale, basil, and salad greens have been producing practically since going in the ground. Stefan’s produce is sold before it’s even grown as he’s set his farm up in the community supported agriculture or CSA model. This season he’s delivering produce boxes on a biweekly basis to 7 lucky share purchasers who are treated to a wide variety of seasonally changing produce. If given a permanent site Stefan says he’d like to offer up to 100 shares in his farm and build much further complexity into the farm and it’s offerings.
Tomatoes ripening on the vine, bumble bees buzzing everywhere, and dragonflies zooming by overhead with downtown standing in the background, all of these are signs of success for an urban farmer like Stefan. It strikes me that perhaps Stefan’s biggest success this season though is in his creation of a fine example that we can all be inspired by.
“Heat exhaustion can sneak up on you in a parking lot!” Stefan laughs as he explains while we tour through his first season’s bountiful beds. “I guess working 12 hours straight in a 102 degree parking lot can really take its toll.” While I’m not sure that most folks I know would live to laugh off a workday such as this, Stefan’s southern Minnesota farm raised smile doesn’t fade as he tells me that he decided he had better have half a day off after that one.
Thanks to Stefan’s dedicated work and undaunted imagination, folks in Minneapolis can clearly see that growing lots of food in the city is not only possible, but it’s also beautiful, fun, and good for us all.