Vacant lots to Abundant Farms: Water collecting, composting, and seed saving to turn vacant lots into self-sustaining community gardens and businesses.

Final Report for FNC15-989

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $7,129.00
Projected End Date: 02/15/2017
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Lucas Dixon
The Good Stuff Gardens
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT IDENTIFICATION

Name: Lucas Dixon

Address: 2520 N. 20th St. 

Milwaukee, WI, 53206

Phone: 262 – 465 – 4822

Website: facebook.com/thegoodstuffog

Project Duration: 1 year Date of Report: 3/9/16

PROJECT BACKGROUND

The Good Stuff urban farm is a 1/16 of an acre sustainable organic farm in poverty stricken urban Milwaukee. There we grow a variety of heirloom vegetables, primarily geared towards sale of value added product. We produce things like pickles, salsas, relishes, etc. We water with collected rain water, compost on site, utilize a greenhouse to extend the season, and show how companion planting can be used to for a variety of purposes including pest control and optimal use of space. A primary objective of the operation is to demonstrate how a for-profit business can offer community space and education to the community at benefit to all parties.

 I have been growing food my whole life. Starting at a child, I had no regard for sustainable practices, however I would later learn that by never using chemical applications, I was on my way to living more sustainably. As soon as these concepts were brought to my attention, I started implementing them into my life. Things that do not always apply to the farm. I have been practicing sustainable food production for at least 5 years. I have been living sustainably for at least as long. Composting food waste, using washable rags and towels rather than limited use sponges or paper towels, preparing food rather than buying packaged processed food, and overall learning how to produce most everything I consume.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

GOALS: 

-Create a successful, sustainable business on an inner city vacant lot

-Teach neighbors how to sustainably grow food

-Be a model for community members looking to start businesses on vacant lots

-Demonstrate how a for-profit business can benefit from sharing space and engaging in outreach efforts.

-Hold successful outreach events.

PROCESS

At the very beginning of the project was the actual installation of the farm. I think it is important for me to mention that at the beginning of the year, 2015, the lot was nothing more than grass and garbage. Over the course of one year, it was to be turned into a productive farm and successful business. The fist step taken was to test the soil for lead. This was the only step conducted the previous year and is an integral part of growing in the city as lead contamination can be serious. As soon as the ground was soft enough to pound stakes into, we installed our greenhouse, made from cattle panel fencing, as well as our water collection structure. Shortly thereafter, we began to pull up sod and till the soil beneath. We brought in several tons of compost to help remediate the clay and gravel filled soil. During this time, neighbors both nearby and blocks away started showing up to see what was happening and many to lend a hand.

After the beds were installed and our plans for planting were on paper, we started to organize the first of our outreach events. Even before our intentional start date of outreach, we had a group of neighborhood kids that would come out everyday after school. At this time we also installed a series of small beds on another part of the lot that would be dedicated to neighbors who would like to grow food but needed space. This was done to give back to those who helped us and to keep people coming out to the farm. We see a farm with lots of happy people producing lots of happy plants. It would also help to promote a business that was in its infancy.

On our first official outreach day, we began planting. We had both tomato and pepper starts we started weeks earlier and seeds to put in with our helpers. This was the first example of how outreach benefited both business and community. We received free help and in return shared some free starts, seeds, and a bit of help planting a neighbors garden. For the remainder of the season, we engaged in many more outreach events. We kept the discussions of the events seasonal to correspond with what people would be seeing and/or dealing with in the garden at that time of year. These events always involved cooking a shared meal as a way to engage people and bring them together.

PEOPLE

  • MAWIB (Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board) – Halfway through the year, My brother and I were contacted by MAWIB. They had heard about us and wanted us to be part of a panel discussion held locally at Milwaukee’s Discovery World. This discussion was geared towards teaching inner city youth about opportunities to start businesses in the food industry. This put us in front of over 100 youth, ever increasing the span of our outreach.             
  • Cindy Becker (Turtle Hill Wilds) – Cindy is a local business owner and friend who was very interested in both the business we were starting, and the means by which we intended to promote it. She helped when she could with the installation, but her real efforts were in outreach. Cindy is an encyclopedia of plant information. With an extensive background in botany work and many years as a beekeeper, she was every bit qualified to assist with our outreach efforts. She held onsite demonstrations of bee hive antics, involving getting kids inside a bee hive, and shared what she knew about pollinator plants to help the garden.
  • Angela Moragne (That Salsa Lady) – Angela is a local business owner we first met at our neighborhood farmer’s market. Angela has been promoting our business and practices since. After getting to know each other, we found we had very similar goals and we could work together to benefit each other. Angela has used her connections to put us in front of other local organizers and to help us expand into markets other than the one we were familiar with. We will be installing another urban farm to serve both businesses this year, 2016.

RESULTS

Reflecting on the year, my project results exceeded my expectations. I set out to create an 1100 sq. ft. urban farm that would sustain a business, exemplify sustainable food production and business practices, create community space, and educate others. All of these goals were either met or exceeded. The original intention when installing the farm was to create 1100 sq. ft. of growing space, including our greenhouse. With higher than anticipated volunteer input and lots of hard work, I was able to double that to over 2000 sq. ft. of growing space not including the community beds which came to about 200 sq. ft. of space.

Due to starting with a completely vacant lot, I was faced with the question of water. In order to demonstrate that an urban farming business would succeed, I needed to harvest enough rainwater to keep the plants alive. Based on calculations involving average rainfalls and surface area, I determined I would try a 4 (55 gallon) barrel setup with ~75 sq. ft. of surface area to collect with. With everything happening at once, I was unable to get the system fully up until just after planting. Because of this, I brought in a total of about 50 gallons of water at the start of the season. This was to water planted seeds and starts, as they need more water. By the end of May I had a couple of full barrels and had plenty of water for the season, even ending the season with 3 full barrels to start this coming spring! I calculated that we could conservatively water the entire farm with between 25 and 40 gallons.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of home compost as fertilizer, we recorded the yields of a couple of typically grown crops in our area; that is, peppers and tomatoes. Each bed was about 100 sq. ft. with about 24 tomatoes in one and 30 peppers in the other. Throughout the season I dealt with some vandalism and theft of plants/fruit. However, I still recorded over 300 pounds of tomatoes and over 100 pounds of peppers.

I wanted to create a model that would demonstrate how a vacant lot could be turned into both a successful business and a community space. I decided to try two methods of business. First I set out to obtain up to 10 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members, and second, I would turn other produce into value-added products (pickles, relishes, salsas, etc.). I quickly realized that both getting everything set up and marketing the CSA was just too much for one person. I was only able to get 3 individuals to join the CSA. However, this turned into a positive when I realized later that I could not only make more money off of the value-added products at markets, but what I could not use was enough to make happy CSA members. I was able to generate over $2000 from our produce and reached our WI state cap of $5000 from value-added products.

My outreach efforts had several focuses. With education being first, I also used our events as way to spread awareness of our business and the opportunity for others to follow our model. I counted 3 new gardens on the block I was on and several others in surrounding areas. I helped plant, offered starts, and shared tools with neighbors. This type of sharing helped the reputation of the business and aided in word-of-mouth promotion of the business. I know this because we had many people come to us at the market and tell us where they heard of us. The average number of attendees at our events was 14, with the best hosting some 36 individuals. Unfortunately, we were only able to generate interest in about half of our allotted community garden space (about 100 sq. ft.).

A common thread in our events was the generation of new friendships. On an almost daily basis, we had people just walking up and asking about the project. Many of these people returned again and again, some for advice and others just to talk. I can say that I made many new friends in the community and many people that otherwise may not know each other are now good friends. This has a huge impact on the community. As of now, I know of 1 individual who wants to replicate our model on her property. This is the result I hoped for and is a direct reflection of the success of the project. It will be a larger urban farm that will be totally sustainable and will supply local business, That Salsa Lady, with the produce they need for product as well as community space and outreach events. This is a for-profit business and will show, like I did, that a business can not only have community space, but can be more successful because of it.

DISCUSSION

Over the course of this project, my knowledge of small space growing has increased ten fold. I’ve been able to try many companion plantings for both pest control and increased yield that I otherwise would have spent a few seasons trying. Growing in a poverty-stricken area is so much different than growing a small space in the suburbs. Over the year we had many successes, and suffered many set backs as well. On several occasions, I dealt with theft of vegetables. One of my goals was to leave the farm completely open, to allow for people helping, growing, or just stopping by to have easy access and feel comfortable. This comfortable feeling was created, however it made it easy for others to take. We didn’t lose much though and finished the season with abundance.

Another problem we faced with this project was the intentional and unintentional destruction of plants. When we would have events or volunteers, sometimes things would be stepped on or limbs broken. As my operation is small, a few plants can mean a lot. With the theft, came further destruction of plants and, sometimes was theft of the plants themselves. Among these setbacks, we learned many positive things. Almost every day, we had someone from the community come to us and express their gratitude for what we were doing, or to ask advice. We made many friends, taught many neighbors, and overall increased the happiness of many community members. Knowing what we have learned, we will keep going in the direction we are, but will plant different crops at different locations. We plan to grow more cut flowers at the current location and to move some of our value added crops to our new farm. We will continue to offer space to the community and will continue in our outreach efforts, including more barbecues and talks.

When I first started writing my proposal over a year ago, I wanted to help find a solution to the food deserts in urban Milwaukee. I wanted to do this both through providing fresh food and by teaching others how to create a business selling fresh food. This would help local economies and help increase the supply of fresh local food. Today, I feel I have succeeded in this goal. I was able to install a sustainable urban farm on a 1/16th of an acre vacant lot, start up a business, engage in local outreach, and share space, knowledge and food with my community. This year, 2016, I will be helping to create a similar space for another local business. This was the ultimate goal of the project.

OUTREACH

Most of our communication was done through both fliers and social media. We were able to generate a following on Facebook of over 150 people and with our fliers, reached even more. We saw people from the surrounding neighborhood so often, notice of our barbecues was mostly done through word of mouth. Many of our events hosted upwards of 25 or even 30 people, with them rarely hosting less than 10.

In late May, we were invited by Meadow Brook Elementary School to come and talk to 4th and 5th graders about growing food for themselves. We had a wonderful response and found out later that many of the vegetables we all planted bore fruit for kids.

Part way through the season, I was asked to appear on my first radio show in Riverwest, Milwaukee. This was a wonderful platform to share information about the garden and events, as it serves the community directly surrounding our local market. Later in the season, I appeared on another show on the same station.

In late July, I was asked to take part in a panel discussion hosted by MAWIB for youths from various local organizations. This gave me a platform to discuss the opportunity of starting a business supplying your community with local fresh food. We talked to over 100 teens with an incredible response. We were the only speakers to silence the audience and receive too many questions for the allotted time. The teens persisted in coming to us after the discussion with more questions.

Project Objectives:

The problem my project will solve is the lack in availability of fresh produce in Milwaukee’s food deserts and the high cost of what good produce is available. All over the country people are taking notice to the wonder that is growing your own food sustainably, inserting them in the role of food provider for themselves and their families. Yet, there are huge areas of Milwaukee where little to no local fresh produce exists, and what does is way too expensive for the people of those communities. A solution to this problem will provide not only a means for the community to grow their own food, but equally as important, a model for other entrepreneurs to use in turning more vacant lots into successful businesses.

 

The solution I see involves a resource already available in those food deserts, that is, vacant lots. The answer I propose involves starting a small business on one of these lots, with free space for community members to grow food and have their questions answered. In this garden, there will exist a rain collection system, a greenhouse for starting plants, compost for plant nutrients and a variety of all heirloom plants. This solution will educate the community, bring potential CSA members to the farm, and allow for aspiring growers to have tangible proof of what can be done with the vacant lots in their communities. Free community garden space will allow for community education and involvement, as well as exposure for the starting up business.

 

I will show these interested community members how they can grow at home using collected rain water, compost as free nutrients, and heirloom plants to collect seed for the next season. I will have on site demonstration gardens to show what can be done with the types of spaces community members deal with. This will include small raised beds, themed gardens (salsa garden, salad garden, etc.), and potted gardens (involving companion planting in pots). In order to further education, I will hold on site demonstrations seasonally. So for example, in Spring I will demonstrate digging out new beds, building raised beds, etc. To reach out to youth, I will contact schools in and around Milwaukee, setting up fun talks to help kids understand the joy and fulfillment of growing your own food. In order to test the feasibility of my solution, I will set up a small CSA and community garden on a vacant lot in Milwaukee. I will grow heirloom plants using water collected on site. Also on site will be compost piles both for use and demonstration. The solution will be demonstrated by how well vegetables grow in that environment, the amount of community interest in turning more vacant lots, and by how much interest is expressed in the CSA through the allotment of community space on site.

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.