Farmer Story: Growing Lots Urban Farm

 Stefan Meyer, Production Manager & Founding Farmer of Growing Lots Urban Farm.

 Stefan Meyer, Production Manager & Founding Farmer of Growing Lots Urban Farm.

Growing Lots Urban Farm 
1915 22nd St., #5, Minneapolis, MN 55404

Stop by their Market Stand on Wednesday evenings to check out the fresh produce & flowers that week!

Tell us your name, age and where we are currently sitting.

 My name is Stefan Meyer. I am 40 years old and we are currently sitting in South Minneapolis in the Seward neighborhood at Growing Lots Urban Farm.

 Can you tell us one interesting fact about this location/origin of this space?

Well, this kind of speaks to the origin of Growing Lots in general, but this space is actually owned by Seward Redesign, a local non-profit, community development and small business supporter. They were the ones who initiated the vision and sought the start-up funding for the farm - this site is part of a larger four acre redevelopment. They’ve been a huge supporter and this is what they’ve given us and so that is unique.

Cherry tomatoes growing growing on a tipi trellis.

Cherry tomatoes growing growing on a tipi trellis.

Tell us about this operation, what are you growing here and on what scale?

We are an urban farm and we have about 1.75 acres under cultivation split up between three locations. The two spots in the city are both in the Seward neighborhood which we kind of consider our headquarters. We also have about an acre in Afton, east of town here. That is part of an organic farm, 10th St. Farm & Market - they let us use the extra space they have.

We grow on that 1.75 acres for 60 full share CSA memberships. This is our 5th season of growing with the CSA model and that is actually the heart of this operation. We’re starting to diversify with the hosting of an on-site market stand, we’re starting to do cut flower production and we have a small commercial account that we supply for weekly. We also do bouquets for our customers as well.

Sunlight shines through the Swiss Chard.

Sunlight shines through the Swiss Chard.

How many people work or volunteer here?

Well, this is a for profit business, that’s how we’re organized. There's me and my farm partner, Mike, and we both work full-time 40 hours a week on the job. We also have 1 part-time employee this year which is our first year being able to take that step. Then, through the Permaculture Research Institute Apprenticeship Program, we have 3 apprentices working with us this year. They work part-time off and on, helping out on the farm while also pursuing independent projects on the farm.

On the flip side of things, we also have work shares. We offer about 8 work shares which is where people pay about 1/3rd of the cost of a CSA share and work off the other 2/3rd throughout the season. That’s really our workforce. It takes a lot of people for this to happen and let me tell you there are not nearly enough! (we both laugh)

Inside the high tunnel and boy does it feel warm! You can see the Ginger crop growing to the right.

Inside the high tunnel and boy does it feel warm! You can see the Ginger crop growing to the right.

What are you most proud of this season?

I mean, I’m proud of a lot of things. It’s very easy to get lost in the long to-do list and just feel overwhelmed but when you take a step back, you can see how much you've really done.  For one, we just finished building the walk-in cooler that’s been on our project list for 3 years, so that’s amazing in and of itself. We’re really proud of the fact that in our high tunnel, we’re doing a test trial of growing ginger and so far that’s been going really well. The plants are looking amazing. I’m really proud that we’ve managed to do that… and well, I guess I’m proud of a lot of things.

The fact that we’ve brought on an on-site market stand; we’ve talked about that for a few years, too, and just hadn’t really been able to get our production there with all the other stuff going on. That has been successful and gaining strong support from the local community; people seem to be really happy that we’re doing that. And you know, just the fact that after 5 years, we’re still here and we’re consistently operating in the black. We’re not in the red... but we’re still severely underpaid for the work we put into the project. We pay our bills and we pay ourselves to some degree and that’s something to be proud of, too.

How can people support what you’re doing?

Well, people support us in many different ways - to me that’s the beauty of a dynamic farm operation; there are so many different ways for people to bring skills and talents and interest to bear. We have some people that pop in every week to help us weed or do some harvesting. We definitely have had some people who we’ve done work-trade with for design or website work.

In a small dynamic business in this day and age, so many skill sets are needed that really people can help in any way, shape or form. People can also support us by telling their friends and neighbors about us, or stopping by our market stand on Wednesday evenings to just buy a tomato - there are many ways.

Growing Lot's Urban Farm.

Growing Lot's Urban Farm.

How did you become involved in this work?

I am a 5th generation farmer, so I come from the farming background. I grew up in southwestern Minnesota on a family farm that was very conventional Minnesota, corn, soy - I was bathed in pesticides sorta farm (laughs). My philosophy kind of changed and I started coming back to farming out on the west coast when I started studying Permaculture, Biodynamics and Ecological Agriculture - it really gave me an understanding that there was a whole different way to approach growing. It spoke to me much more so than the upbringing I had and my past exposure to farming, so that began my long journey back to farming.

When I got back into Minneapolis, I was already doing some local agriculture work and through the fates, I connected with Seward Redesign. They were looking for a farmer to start this project and I said… Sure? Actually, how they put it was –"we have a parking lot, can you make a farm out of it?" And I was like sure, I can make a farm anywhere, so I kind of just fell back into it. I always wanted my own farm, but hadn’t really been looking at that point in time or considering urban agriculture. That was 5 ½ years ago when Minneapolis was really just starting to wrap it’s brain around this idea and I think at that time there were just a couple urban farms around. It was exciting, daunting and challenging.

Heirlooms waiting to be picked.

Heirlooms waiting to be picked.

What are your biggest challenges?

About farming in general or urban farming.. how many pages do you have (laughs)? Ok, let me try to put it in a nutshell, specifically with urban farming, including our farm and how we’ve grown. One of the biggest challenges is land permanency. In our model of urban farming you basically make your field. This is a parking lot underneath here and we had to bring in all of our soil. This soil right here is actually the first soil we got from the very first year. We keep expanding and adding to it, but this soil alone has been on three different sites. We literally had to move it to the first site, then the next year had to take it all and move it to a second site, because the city was doing some redevelopment. At the end of that year, we had to take it all and move it again - that's what puts you so far behind. When it comes to resiliency in a farm system, you need to have time to keep building up and complexifying your systems. If you're constantly being thrown back to square one, it’s basically like clear cutting a forest - you never let the forest mature because you’re like nope, we’re going to clear cut you and clear cut you, so that’s been a huge challenge.

This is the first year we don’t have another piece of land that we’re working to bring up. This is the 3rd year on this site, the 4th year on our second site and the 2nd year at our Afton site. That alone has allowed us to understand and operate better. Like adding a walk-in cooler and putting up our high tunnel, we're complexifying our systems by doing those things. The sad thing is... and we’re not letting this stop us,  this site has maybe 2-3 more years before they redevelop it. Yet, we needed those elements to effectively run our business, so we put up the high tunnel knowing that in a couple years we’re going to have to disassemble the entire thing. Our walk-in cooler that we built, we’ll have to disassemble and figure out how to move that to a new site - you know all those different elements...

In a regular farm where there is a long term permanency, you get to keep adding those elements and, once you add them, they’re there and you can just keep counting on them and working with them. Whereas, we’re like, OK, in a few years when we are just getting out feet under us, boom, they’re going to get chopped off again. This makes it very difficult for our business to become sustainable, because we’re trying to get to that point where we can have a valid income off this work - something I definitely think is possible through creativity and proper design - but you also need to have stability. It’s a huge challenge and one I think most people in urban agriculture are facing. The other option would be buying a site in an industrial area but if you bought this site for instance, you’d never really make enough to make any money off of it.

   "It's interesting that people say farming doesn’t belong in the city. They look at it as this new-fangled idea."

 "It's interesting that people say farming doesn’t belong in the city. They look at it as this new-fangled idea."

What do you think is missing from your community?

Community in what sense?

Whatever sense.

Gosh, that’s hard, can we come back to that one? I’m not quite sure how to answer that...

I guess one angle I could see that’s missing in our community that I think will change with time, is an understanding of what farming is and what it requires. I think there’s a lot of romanticizing of farming, especially with this new turn of people wanting to move into agriculture and, because of the nature of our culture, we are no longer a farming culture. Most people that are moving into it now have no farming background, no farming experience and that reflects on the hard realities they face when they do. They go, oh my gosh this can be hellatious, because it can be really hard work and very draining.

At the same time, I think that kind of speaks to the issues we’re having with urban agriculture and dealing with the city when they put up regulations that actually stand in opposition to what a farm needs to do in order to be successful.It's also interesting that people say farming doesn’t belong in the city. They look at it as this new-fangled idea and the reality is, that agriculture and urban centers have been integrated ever since human kind has "civilized" in cities. I mean, all over the world, cities still integrate agriculture. A great example I’d like to throw out is that as late as the 1800’s, Paris had the vast majority of its vegetables coming from within its city limits. This is a very solid and ancient tradition, but people now think that farming has to be outside the city, which keeps food away from where people are and means you have to ship things in. I think that means we’re a society that is disconnected from what farming is. I think the understanding of what it means to work the soil is missing from our culture and therefore from our communities.

What are your sources of inspiration and energy?

Hmmm I’ve got many.

What I’ve realized about my ethic and just how I approach farming and my work with the earth is really the Permaculture mindset. I love using the basic principles and ethics of Permaculture in that, in doing this, you need to care for yourself, you need to care for the earth and you need to care for your community. So, when you farm you truly are caring for humans at their most basic level; you’re providing sustenance, so to me that is very inspiring. I don’t often stop to think about that very often but it is very noble work, that’s one of the reasons why I love it. It is fascinating to watch that consciousness come back into our society and take kind of a center place. It's no longer something that is new.

Certainly other things that are just inspiring – we do our CSA pick-up here on the farm and all of our members come to the farm. For that reason, we get a lot of children and that’s one of the reasons they join, so they can bring their kid to the farm to pick-up. It’s fascinating just to see the kids, especially after they’ve been with us for 3 or 4 years, watching them grow and seeing how excited they are when they come to the farm - they really get involved in picking out the vegetables and that’s really cool to watch.

What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer?

Foolishness? (Laughs) No, but seriously I’d say that you have to have an undying work ethic because it is nothing but work.

There are rewards, but it is hard work. It's grueling and sometimes you just feel really swamped, so you need to have that source of inspiration in just doing the work that you do. You have to really enjoy working outdoors…in all climates, (laughs) but I also think in this day and age it takes a vast amount of knowledge to do it well and it’s not just knowing plants. If you’re a farmer, you’re also a small business owner, so it takes everything it takes to be a small business owner, which is very complex, and then you throw farming on top of it and… you have to be adaptive, creative, you have to be a problem solver, you have to be a go-getter and self motivated, all of these things are required to be a successful farmer.


Anything else you want to leave us with, final thoughts?

Just love your farmer. Love your farmer and know that they’re doing the work you may not like to, so you can eat.


Photography provided by Sean O'Brien