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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Vegetables: beans, garlic, greens (leafy), onions, peas (culinary), peppers, tomatoes


  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture
  • Soil Management: composting

    Proposal summary:

    My farm is a 25’ x 125’ vacant lot in the North Division neighborhood of Milwaukee. On that lot I will have an estimated 1100 square feet of garden space, 200 square feet of community garden space, a 125 square foot hoop house, and a large space allotted for demonstration gardens; including small raised beds and potted gardens. The types of crops I will grow include the most common vegetables consumed in the area, such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, onions, garlic and greens. I will grow all heirloom varieties to allow for seed harvesting and replanting the next year. The lot is owned by a group of community members, spearheaded by Alex Brower.


    Alex brings to the table years of community involvement, primarily on a political basis, and a vast amount of knowledge in regard to dealing with the type of regulations and permits involved with urban growing. Prior to our collaboration, he has spent time on each community doorstep, talking with the locals about their needs/wants and what interest they have in seeing his lot turned into a garden. This came with positive results. He has contacted local nonprofit Walnut Way, the foremost urban Ag group in our area, to inform them of his intentions. We hope to have their support in the future.


    I am a young man concerned with the fact that, despite the increase in home gardening and farmers markets, there are still vast food deserts where people have little opportunity to get fresh nutritious food. As a child, my family moved a lot, giving me the opportunity to experience several of Milwaukee’s south side neighborhoods. Then, as an adult, I spent time living both in the west side of Milwaukee and in the Riverwest neighborhood, directly adjacent to the North Division neighborhood where my lot is located. I know Milwaukee well and I can relate to its people. I have seen first-hand the vast expanses of housing without fresh local food and, inter-dispersed, the huge number of vacant lots just waiting to be gardens.


    I have grown food as long as I can remember, with my first large garden being about 400 square feet at the age of 8. Since graduating high school in 2010, I’ve spent most of my years traveling. In these travels, I spent time on several communities of various sizes and on a few small farms. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with growers from the east coast to the west and experience growing with different soils, climates, and vastly different landscapes. One such community I visited was nestled in the mountains of northern California. There, they had organic gardens, varying in size from about half an acre up to several acres. I learned here what a small group of people can grow in a large space with as little input as possible. They had water collection involving 5000 gallon cisterns on hilltops to allow a gravity feed, saved seed yearly, and composted everything. Contrary to those parameters, I spent time in a small community in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. There, on a steep hillside in very rocky soil, a woman named Talia managed to terrace the land and squeeze out a healthy harvest of various veggies and herbs. This past year, I spent time working on a small community in Blanchardville, WI. The community’s primary source of food came from small herds of goat and cattle as well as from the incredible organic garden beds Linda had spent years developing. Here I learned much about companion planting, organic weed and pest control, mulching, and composting.


    Project objectives from proposal:

    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.

    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.