City Backyard Farming

Project Overview

FNC08-704
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Grant Recipient: Farmer
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:

Commodities

  • Agronomic: corn, potatoes
  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: sweet potatoes, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), onions, peas (culinary), peppers, sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts
  • Additional Plants: herbs, ornamentals

Practices

  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, farmer to farmer, networking, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, community-supported agriculture
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Pest Management: physical control
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, urban agriculture, community services, employment opportunities, social networks, sustainability measures

    Summary:

    BACKGROUND
    The objective of the project was to cumulatively grow fresh organic produce in the city backyards in an approximate growing space of 2,600 square foot. I ended up with approximately 10,000 square foot of growing space at four different sites. I built raised beds on three sites with drip irrigation systems. In the raised beds, I inter-planted crops given companion planting factors with height, space, and vertical growing crops. The various crops were planted in succession to meet the harvesting time of the CSA weekly. This small scale operation was operated by two part-time assistants and me.

    This is the first year farming in the city: especially using excess land such as backyards.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    Goals:
    • Grow organic fresh produce using backyards, side yards, front yards, and school yards.
    • Practice sustainable and organic practices in growing fresh produce.
    • Test the economic possibility of earning $5 per sq. ft.
    • Distribute information among the local community on locally grown produce.
    • Provide volunteer learning service opportunity for local community members. And part of what is grown will be donated.
    • Develop a website to share this project.
    • Growing the produce on raised beds for advantages of reducing spread of diseases, ease of
    weed control, earlier planting after the snow melts, and intense bio-diversity of crops.

    PROCESS
    The first step was to secure access to land. And the goal was to use open space such as backyards, side yards, and front yards of local residential properties: therefore asking neighbors with extra yard that is not being utilized 10 garden or other projects other than growing grass. So I started to drive my neighborhood. I left notes for home owners on my project asking to use their yards to pilot this project. And one of the advantages for these homeowners was to have access to fresh produce all season long at no cost to them. Luckily I came upon one family who has ¼ of an acre five blocks from my house. They have wanted to do something with their piece of extra property. My proposal seems to be the right project. So we made an agreement on the usage that I pay the water and they also benefit from weekly fresh produce.

    After securing the land, I sought resources in my county such as free compost. I contacted Ramsey County Dept. of Public Health that manages the green recycled waste from the community and composted the green waste over time. And once it is composted, the compost is made available for the local residents to use in their gardens. I was able to get 200+ cubic yards donated and delivered to the 1/4 acre site. The compost alone would have cost me $8500.00, but because I was piloting something unique and innovative they were willing to support. Other resources that I gathered for free were wood boards to build the raised beds from dumpsters and construction sites. I also salvaged chain link fencing materials from fencing companies that were tearing down old fences from the City of Saint Paul.

    Thirdly. I planned the planting of the crops. I used the concept of SPIN (SPIN stands for S-mall
    P-lot IN-tensive) Farming. It is a combination farming method that includes: interplanting, companion planting and succession planting.

    Fourth. I marketed via word of mouth, signs in front of my house, the sites, distributed flyers in the neighborhood, posted flyers in stores, coffee shops, email, websites, and of course recommendations from happy customers. So the marketing piece is critical to success.

    Throughout the growing season I attend to the farming tasks such as: planting, replanting, watering, monitoring, harvesting, and weeding. These required tasks must be taken seriously with a tight schedule of working the farm. The harvesting schedule is very important to follow so that there is enough food for the CSA members.

    I formed a legal entity such as the LLC (limited liability company) structure to operate this project. It is very important to understand the extra layer of protection of personal assets and good business operation. I would highly recommend farmers to not operate as sole proprietorship. Please seek professional advisors on forming your LLC.

    Products and Services: City Backyard Farming LLC will be growing the following fresh fruits and vegetables on raised beds and in hoop houses (high tunnels) for season extension using organic compost/soil. The raised beds will be used for a number of reasons such as: better drainage, soil warms up faster during colder, temperatures, clean, esthetically pleasing because it is in the backyards in the city, and easier for planting and harvesting, and lastly but not least, drip irrigation system will be implemented to reduce water waste and reduce diseases on the plants.

    Fruit and Vegetablc varieties:
    Asian greens (kalian, pak choi, mustard green, yo choy, baby bok choy, and more) broccoli, cauliflower, Italian raab broccoli, purple beans, green beans, pole beans, long beans, and other bean varieties, chili-sweet to super hot varieties, bell peppers (rainbow colored), cucumber, eggplants, potatoes, kohlrabi, okra, radishes, carrots (round, long, orange and purple), salad mix, onions, melons, squash (green, yellow, zucchini, yellow and white summer squash, others) herbs, fresh cut flowers, bitter melons, corn (sweet, yellow, purple, and white) tomatoes (cherry, steak, green, dark chocolate, etc.), lettuces, peas, pumpkins, and many more unique varieties.

    The fruits and vegetables above will be started from seeds in February and March and then transplanted in April. The cool crops will be able to withstand the colder temperature and get a head start on the season.

    To maximize the yield and small space, the following growing methods will be implemented.

    Succession/continuous planting: This method is to plan carefully the growing time of the crops. When one crop is harvested, the next one has been started from seeds and is ready to be transplanted that same day so that there is neither wasted time nor space. Using this method, there will always be new crops ready to be harvested within a short time.

    Interplanting: There is no rule that says vegetables and flowers can’t mix. In fact, the vegetable garden will benefit greatly from the addition of some flowers and herbs. It’s not just aesthetics that make flowers and herbs welcome in the vegetable garden. Interplanting flowers and herbs offers several beneficial features that can protect your vegetables from insect pests and even make them more productive. Besides the mixing of flowers and vegetables, careful planning will take into consideration the plant height, and the tall crops that will shade others, or shade tolerant crops will be planed under the tall crops. For example: Okra is a tall tree-like plant. It could be planted to the north side of the raised bed. Then underneath it, salad mix can be planted because salad mix can tolerate some shade and still grow beautifully.

    Companion Planting: Many plants have natural substances in their roots, flowers, leaves, etc. that can alternately repel (antifeedants) and/or attract insects depending on your needs. In some situations they can also help enhance the growth rate and flavor of other varieties. Experience shows us that using companion planting throughout the landscape is an important part of integrated pest management. In essence companion planting helps bring a balanced eco-system to your landscape, allowing nature to do its job. Nature integrates a diversity of plants, insects, animals, and other organisms into every ecosystem so there is no waste. The death of one organism can create food for another, meaning symbiotic relationships all around. We consider companion planting to be a holistic concept due to the many intricate levels in which it works with the ecology.

    By using companion planting, many growers find that they can discourage harmful pests without losing the beneficial allies. There are many varieties of herbs, flowers, etc. that can be used for companion plants. Native plants in your area can be used so the insects you want to attract already know what to look fo r! Plants with open cup shaped flowers are the most popular with beneficial insects. Companion planting can combine beauty and purpose to provide an enjoyable, healthy environment.

    City Backyard Farming LLC used the three methods described above to successfully grow enough foods for the 27 families: of which 25 are paid CSA Members. So given the success, it only make sense to improve and carefully plan which plants thrive best together and when to achieve the goal of feeding 100 people from one acre of land.

    These organic crops were freshly harvested the day of delivery or picked up by the CSA members. The competitive advantages that City Backyard Farming LLC experienced the last season was the freshness and long lasting quality in refrigeration since harvest day. Since it is local: CSA members came to the growing site and saw the operation to get to know the grower •and build a community relationship from just that.

    The affordable pricing of$25 per week per CSA members is an affordable price given the quality, the freshness, the local and organic growing practices. Most CSA members appreciate the low price weekly for an abundant food basket averaging 10+ pounds of fresh foods.

    PEOPLE
    Barbara Grossman
    Urban Operations Director
    University of Minnesota Extension
    405 Coffey Hall
    1420 Eckles Avenue
    SI. Paul. MN 55108
    ph: 612 6251782
    cell: 651 3347478

    Barbara Grossman was very instrumental to making connections to various organizations in the Twin Cities area for organizing the following field day and tour: Crops in the City-Twin Cities Urban Agriculture Tour September 1, 2009. She also shared ideas and resources and connected me to other organizations and farmers to network on urban farming.

    Sarah Jaycocks
    Ramsey County Master Gardener Coordinator
    Sarah Jaycocks helped spread the word of this project with other Master Gardeners to let them know that there is a full blown urban farm (vegetable gardening model) in the City of St. Paul.

    Beth Nelson
    Associate Program Director
    Agronomy and Plant Genetics
    Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture (MISA)
    411 Borlaug Hall
    1991 Upper Buford Circle
    St. Paul, MN 55108
    Phone: 612-625-8217
    612-625-8217

    [Editor’s note: Beth Nelson is now Associate Director of NCR-SARE. Her contact information changed and is listed below.
    Beth Nelson
    120 BAE, University of Minnesota
    1390 Eckles Avenue
    St. Paul, MN 55108
    Phone: 612-626-4436
    Fax: 612-626-3132
    E-mail: schre002@umn.edu
    612.626.4436]

    Beth Nelson was very instrumental to making connections to various organizations in the Twin Cities Area and for organizing the following field day and tour: Crops in the City-Twin Cities Urban Agriculture Tour September 1, 2009. She also shared ideas, resources, and connected me to other organizations and farmers to network on urban farming.

    Martin J, Lang
    Assistant Professor
    Department of Communication Studies
    Gustavus Adolphus College
    800 W. College Ave.
    St. Peter. M 56082
    (507)933-8000

    Professor Lang called me out of the blue and wanted to film my urban farm operation with his college students and share with others on the local food and urban agriculture. See footage on YouTube: http://www/youtube.com/watch?v=rTdW58YVCk4..

    Jerry Rosenthal
    651-587-8859
    www.Communityreporter.com

    Jerry Rosenthal is a community newspaper reporter. He featured City Backyard Farming, promoted the good local food access in the West 7th Communitv/Neighborhood of St. Paul, MN.

    Edible Twin Cities
    2136 Ford Parkway # 292
    St. Paul, MN 55116
    612-229-0498
    www.ediblecommunities.com
    info@edibletwincities.net

    A local food magazine that feature an article on this project in its Fall 2009 Issue.

    Diane Dodge, Ramsey County Master Gardener, friend and now new extended family member has been a tremendous supporter of ideas, resources, and lots of encouragement.

    Jennifer Porwit and Joe Baltrukonis, Master Gardener, friend and now new extended family member has been a tremendous supporter of ideas, resources (like supplying plants) and lots of encouragement.

    Paula Faughender. The best landlord there is. She owns the land on which I farm and she was very open to this new idea and so the project flourished with her willingness to take the risk on letting me use her backyard.

    The Herb Man
    Jeff and Mary Adelmann
    24149 Chippendale Ave. W.
    Farmington, MN 55024
    651-463-2504

    Jeff was instrumental to donating plants to the Highland Park High School location. The herbs were harvested by the culinary arts students in the fall for class recipes and cooking lessons.

    Zack Hansen, Director, Environmental Health Section
    John Springman, Environmental Health Supervisor, Environmental Health Section
    Pete Miller, Environmental Health Specialist II, Environmental Health Section
    Saint Paul – Ramsey County Dept. of Public Health -Environmental Health Section
    2785 While Bear Ave. N., Ste. 350
    Maplewood, MN 55109-1320
    phone: 651-266-1150
    fax: 651-266-1177

    This department donated over $8500 of compost to start this project. Approximately, 200+ cubic yards were trucked in to make the raised beds.

    District 2 Community Council-volunteers. Fifteen Hmong women of District 2 Community Council volunteered in building the raised beds, and planting.

    Volunteers. Hamline University 19 freshman volunteers. These young college freshmen came to the Highland Park High School location and volunteered on weeding and harvesting.

    Chuck Waibel and Carol Ford, Garden Goddessess. Business owner of Garden Goddess Enterprise: inspired much with ideas on season extension, counseled/advised and provided support for this urban farming project.

    Maureen Hark. Volunteer throughout the season.

    Parents of Adams Spanish Immersion Elementary School. Many parents/students volunteered to make the Salsa Garden asuccess with the soil preparation, and planting.

    Ms. Rise and students at Highland Park High School. Ms. Rise and many students helped with weeding and harvesting at the Highland Park High School Site. All the harvest was donated to the culinary art class for cooking lessons with Ms. Wickre.

    RESULTS
    The results were beyond what I had expected. Initially, the lot was projected to be approximately 2,600 square feet of growing space. I came across a neighbor that has 1/4 acre. I used my residence site, the ¼ acre backyard, and two school sites. The four sites total approximately 10,000 square feet in growing spaces. I planned the planting using intense biodiversity to maximize the yields. For example: from one raised bed (4 feet X 20 feet) in front of my house, I harvested over 200 lbs of fresh salad mix all season not counting other crops interplanted in that same raised bed. What was amazing beyond expectation was that this idea of intensive farming resulted in enough food to feed 25 paid CSA families, my family and the landowner’s family and yet still had more food to donate to local food pantries and organizations.

    This method of farming is definitely the innovative idea that urban farming or rural farming may be using to maximize yields in a small space area.

    The projected income $5.00 per square foot was not achieved due to the short growing season. This idea carne from world renown Will Allen of Growing Power who proved that it can happen. He was able to achieve such income for one square foot because he does it year round with season extension and greenhouses. In this project the best outcome that I didn’t expect was that if 1/4 acre could feed 25 CSA members’ fami y: with the weekly pricing ($25: then the 1/4 acre would gross $15,.000 if season extension could be used for a 6 months harvesting season. Which would result in a $60,000 gross for ONE ACRE, with $20,000 expenses and the farmer would net $40,000 in a six months harvesting season. This piece of the result is the best result and was unexpected from the initial thinking of the project.

    DISCUSSION
    This project captured much attention on the urban farming interest in the local area of Twin Cities and in Minnesota. This model project inspired many to think differently about urban farming and see what an urban farm looks like, the potential business model, the amount of money that can be made, and the large amount of food that can be grown locally. Given the results of this project, it has inspired me to seek grants and other funding to expand and pilot test the one acre model. The expansion goal is to develop a profitable urban farming business model.

    The initial barrier was land access. Given the success of this project, many landowners would be open to urban farmers because they would get free fresh foods in their backyard. I have had multiple land owners call and request that I contract with them to grow food in their backyards. Currently, I had to decline the offer.
    One disadvantage of this project is the commitment of time and labor. If the urban farmer understands that it is only for the growing season of 6 months plus 1.5 months prior to starting seeds and the result is a net profit of $40,000; then the advantage is to only work for 8 months full-time and vacation for 4 months. Truly that is great!

    I would be willing to share with others about this project as I have already with many. I believe that for those who are willing to put in the time and labor, this model can be really profitable and also a very rewarding job to provide fresh quality foods for locals.

    OUTREACH
    Date; Event Description; Attendance
    • Mav 19, 2009; KFAI Radio Without Boundaries Show, Local foods, community gardening; 3400+ listeners/members
    • June 19, 2009; Grand Opening; 75+
    • June 23, 2009; Cooking Lesson with Kids @ Roosevelt Community Center; 20 youngsters
    • August 25, 2009; Back to School Night@ Adams Elementary School; 500+ students and parents
    • September 1, 2009; Urban Fann Tour by UM; 52
    • July; Sisters’ Camelot yard sale (selling and donating produce); 25+
    • September 12, 2009; Small Farm and Rural Living Expo, Jordan, MN(presenter); 80+
    • You Tube World; wide web; 313 viewed thus far
    • November 1, 2009; ITAP panel presentation: Key Ingredients for Health: How Women Ecopreneurs Can Transform our Soil, Food System and Communities; 60
    • February 20, 2010; 5th Annual Immigrant Farming Conference, St. Paul, MN; 150+ participants
    • March 4-5, 2010; The Drake Forum on America’s New Farmers: Policv Innovations and
    • Opportunities, Washington, DC; 500+ participants
    • Flyers; 500+ distributed in the immediate neighborhood and thru the Twin Cities
    • Fall of 2009; Edible Twin Cities magazine; Twin Cities
    • Spring of 2009; Community Reporter newspaper; 20,000+

    The list above is growing into this new year. What has been done is just the beginning of sharing and telling the story of this project relating to fresh, local, and affordable food sources. In addition, the urban farming interest is increasing in the Twin Cities and beyond. This project is a small scale model that can be expanded and is doable in the urban settings or rural. I have more inquiries from individuals to share information and talk about the potential that they have if they would like to explore something like this project.

    The most exciting piece resulting from this project is the Drake Farmer’s Forum that I am attending on March 4, 2010. I was asked to present on a panel with my daughter, Aimee Vue, in Washington D.C. during this farming forum to address challenges faced by new farmers: presenting to policy makers and more to start looking at innovative ideas of how we grow our foods.

    PROGRAM EVALUATION
    One recommendation is to get the proposals in earlier, perhaps by November, and then make the announcement of recipients by the end of January. This timeline is critical for grant recipients to have enough time to prepare for the project. For example, in my case, I was notified by the end of March of the grant award. I scrambled to put this project together. I am happy it turned out beyond my expectation, but it would have been nice to have extra time to gather resources for the project.

    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.