Charley’s Garden “The hungry insurgent never gives up”

Chemical-Soil-SterilizationBY CHARLEY UNDERWOOD

I was sitting in a horticulture class at the university, discussing agriculture chemicals and feeling a little ornery, when one of my favorite professors challenged me: “Yes, but can we feed the world without using chemicals?” I snapped back: “Can we feed the world WITH chemicals?” And I ranted on a bit about soil depletion and totally unsustainable agricultural practices.
It’s true. We are killing the soil and people are still hungry, yet we continue to believe that we will all starve if we quit drenching the soil with pesticides and chemical fertilizers and gobbling up as much oil as possible for our big combines and ships to haul food around the world. With our current food practices, we are in huge trouble and, it’s true, we will not be able to nourish the world’s growing masses. But my prof’s question is completely fair: HOW will we feed the world without chemicals, without relying on petroleum and big farm machines?
For me, an answer is found in a small group of urban farmers called Stone’s Throw. They use organic practices to farm empty lots in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Empty lots. There are 14 lots total, most in Phillips and in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, with a couple in Uptown. The lots range in size from a tenth of an acre to 0.75 acres, coming to a total of 2.5 acres. And they don’t actually own a bit of it, although some of their land is leased. Yet from those lots they are able to gross nearly $40,000 per acre selling their produce through CSA (community supported agriculture) shares, a farmers’ market and a dozen high-end restaurants.
Stone’s Throw began four years ago as a profit-making venture, since they believe in a small business model and because they don’t want to rely on grants.
The biggest challenges are access to land, access to water and soil fertility. They pay rent for one plot, but most are farmed in exchange for snow shoveling, grass mowing and general upkeep. Water is obtained by metering from nearby houses or fire hydrants, or in one case by actually raising funds for their own connection to the city water. Soil is tested for safety from arsenic, lead and pollutants, but fertility is a major problem, making it necessary to haul compost costing $8,000. And, like the rest of us, Stone’s Throw must deal with long winters and short growing seasons, so they are testing several types of greenhouses: tall and short, temporary and permanent, heated and unheated. Necessity has spawned quite a lot of invention.
All the same, city land is expensive and there isn’t much of it. So my professor is partly correct that we cannot feed a city entirely on what you grow there. Some crops just take too much room. In the city, the folks at Stone’s Throw grow high-value crops like arugula, salad greens, tomatoes, carrots, beets and kale. But this land limitation has inspired a wonderful solution in cooperating with others near but outside the city. This year, Stone’s Throw is partnering with three other farms, Agua Gorda in Long Prairie, Cala Farm in Turtle Lake, Wis., and Whetstone Farm in Windom. Agua Gorda is about two hours away, providing paste tomatoes, hot peppers, green beans and cilantro. At about an hour and a half away, Cala grows broccoli and cabbage. Whetstone provides squash, storage beets and carrots, as well as grass-fed pork, chicken, lamb and turkey as an add-on CSA meat share. There are also shared markets for honey from Beez Kneez, mushrooms from Cherry Tree Farms, and wild rice from Whetstone.
With all these efforts, I believe my professor’s question is answered. Using human power to replace petroleum, using unused spaces, farming hyper-locally and cooperating with ventures just outside the city, we probably can feed ourselves. Stone’s Throw is in the process of creating something from nothing, taking sometimes neglected city lots and turning them into productive urban farmland. Through their partnerships with Cala, Agua Gorda, Whetstone and others, they create a seamless source of food for the city, with each partner maximizing their resources and all working together to market an extremely local product. And by working across cultures and languages (in this case Spanish), they use food to knit together the community we already are.
It would be nice if these folks had enough money to buy all the land they needed. Then they could really build up the soil and make more investments in sheds and greenhouses and bringing in water. It would be nice if they didn’t have to pay as much in taxes as an apartment building or grocery store. San Francisco has a more reasonable tax rate for city dwellers who farm, but Minneapolis hasn’t even got it on the radar yet. However, apart from these problems, every other obstacle so far has been met creatively, and it looks like we have a model that others might follow …. if they are willing to work that hard.

If you would like to be part of this venture, sign up for a CSA share at or call 612-454-0585. It’s not too late!

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