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National round-up: The secret(s) to sustainable urban farms

Stefanie Stauffer and Ryan Padgett at Tillian Farm, Ann Arbor

Urban agriculture, once a buzz-y idea for transforming vacant spaces, has taken root in cities across America. Now, cities and farmers are thinking about how to make the movement sustainable year-round and long-term.
In communities where the urban agriculture movement has been taking root for years, farmers are coming together to talk about how urban agriculture can become more sustainable. We've collected a few recent stories from Issue Media Group's network of 20 publications across the U.S. and Canada that explore what local farms are doing to grow, reach more people, make it through the winter, and improve access to healthy, home-grown food.
 
Create collaborations and collectives

Stone's Throw Urban Farm in St. Paul, Minn.

Minneapolis / St. Paul is home to one of the country's largest and most ambitious urban farms. On 5.5 acres nestled in a larger public park, Frogtown Farms is an ambitious collaboration between the City of St. Paul, the Trust for Public Land, and the Wilder Foundation. It's an example of the resources and commitment MSP is dedicating to the local urban agriculture movement. It's also a model for how urban farms can improve healthy food access in the community at large; more than half of Frogtown's harvest will be dedicated to low-cost CSAs and donations to local food banks.

Another new collective, Shared Ground, has recently launched to support farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin, especially those that are minority-owned. St. Paul-based Stone's Throw Urban Farm is the only urban farm in the Shared Ground collective, and the greenhouse and hoop houses they're about to build will be the city's first permanent, soil-based agricultural structures. 
"Nowadays, many chefs and restaurant owners keep extensive local grower contact lists," and readily source hyper-local produce during the growing season, says Mark Granlund, longtime arts and gardens coordinator for the city of St. Paul and enthusiastic urban agriculture booster. "Ten years ago, few restaurateurs knew even a single local farmer by name."
 
"It's exciting to see urban agriculture transforming from a theoretical concept into an actual, functioning system," he adds.
Mohammad Noormal of Cleveland's Learning Garden and Production Farm. Photo by Billy Delfs.

In Cleveland, an Afghan refugee is leading a game-changing urban farm with a mission (besides growing great food): to help refugees integrate into their new communities, and to serve as an interdisciplinary learning space for K-12 students. The Learning Garden and Production Farm occupies six vacant parcels next to a school building, and it's a collaboration between The Refugee Response, a nonprofit that helps refugee acclimate to life in Cleveland, and the Urban Community School. The partnership could open doors for growth that these organizations couldn't open alone:  
 
For Refugee Response, integrating its programming with K-12 institutions, such as UCS, allows it to grow its urban farm operations and access new land opportunities. The nonprofit is currently considering spaces ranging from one to three acres. The latter would allow the nonprofit to double the size of its farm operations. Expanding in scale enables the nonprofit to provide a larger number of refugee trainees a formal farm experience under another recent initiative, the Small Farm Incubator Program, thus building their professional development and helping them become farmers. The incubator is a multi-year agricultural training, combining classroom lessons of English and food production skills with field experience. It currently serves seven refugees. While they are not earning an hourly wage, they can sell the produce obtained from the Learning Garden, generating additional income for themselves and their families and contributing to the neighborhood’s development.
Provide support for farm start-ups

Hannah Rose in her hoop house at Tillian Farms. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Land use is a huge challenge for younger farmers, especially in urban areas where land is expensive and development is perceived as the best and highest use for vacant space. In Ann Arbor, Mich., the Tillian Farm Development Center serves an incubator for emerging farmers, providing land access as well as important resources like business development support, mentorship, and marketing.

Tillian's farm-based businesses have made their operations successful by focusing on diversified offerings — a variety of heirloom fruits, for instance, or farm-to-jar salsa — and by focusing on growing unusual heirloom products like crookneck squash and 19th-century cucumbers. 
"The more value added stuff you do, the more special contracts you get," [farmer Stefanie Stauffer] says. "If I had to predict where farm-to-table is going, it is these smaller scale, farm-to-jar or farm-to-food-truck operations."
Get beyond farm-to-table

Hickory Ridge Farm produce, delivered to the Queen Vic in Washington, D.C. Photo by Barbara Salisbury.

There's a huge demand for locally-grown produce in Washington, D.C., but produce-hungry residents and produce-growing farmers sometimes have a hard time finding each other. And what about those pesky winter months, when it's hard to find any locally-grown produce at all? 

That's why The Queen Vic, a D.C. pub with a farm-to-table menu, put a "table-to-farm" spin on things by investing in a nearby farm's greenhouse in exchange for a steady supply in winter greens. The partnership has now branched out to include a CSA program, based at the restaurant, and has grown to include other farms.
 
Quinn believes good, fresh, sustainably produced food should not be a luxury item for the rich and that direct access to farmers should not be reserved for big corporations, and so hopes to sign more restaurants on to the table-to-farm movement. Quinn and the team also believe it is the best way to give family farms a fighting chance for survival. 

Grow crickets

Wendy McGill says insects are the easiest source of protein to produce. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
Why not? They're a sustainable source of protein, they require 10,000 times less water to raise than livestock, and cricket flour is gluten-free. This Denver cricket farmer is also planning to buy grain by-product from local craft breweries for insect feed.
As the world population continues to increase and our finite amount of arable land disappears, we'll need creative ways to sustain ourselves. Insect farming might be one solution.

Farming bugs doesn't require nearly as much land as ranching livestock -- and that's not just because of a cricket's meager size. "Many insect species," McGill says, "are comfortable lumped into large groups. That's how it is in the wild, and it's normal and healthy for them to be crowded into a bin."  

For more stories of great urban ideas and innovations, follow @Issue_Media on Twitter. 
 
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