But that’s the reality for Taya Schulte and Seamus Fitzgerald, who operate Growing Lots Urban Farm on two converted parking lots in the Seward neighborhood, south of Minneapolis. The farm grows vegetables for sale at farmers’ markets, community-supported farm businesses (or CSAs), and wholesale.
Schulte and Fitzgerald were among the panel of beginning farmers who shared their stories of accessing land and other challenges they face in farming in metropolitan areas at a recent session as part of the conference. Annual 2021 of the Sustainable Farming Association.
The farm had two previous operators before Schulte and Fitzgerald took up the space, and Schulte said they made an effort to rebuild the soil and started composting themselves.
“We started going to CPW (Co-op Organic Warehouse) and loving their leftover food, and we would go to breweries and fill a truck with mashed beer,” Schulte said. “And we have a lot of lawn and tree services that we get leaves from, as long as they’re shredded.”
Taya Schulte and Seamus Fitzgerald, who operate Growing Lots Urban Farm. (Contributed by the Association for Sustainable Agriculture)
Now, after five years as the head of the farm, she has said the ground is in a “pretty good place”.
“Growing food in a parking lot has made us more aware of the soil than ever before,” said Schulte. “We just can’t take it for granted.”
Both had experience on CSA farms and large-scale organic operations, but before finding their current space they “always encountered problems accessing land,” Schulte said. Before Growing Lots Urban Farm, the two men had to commute between 40 minutes and an hour from their place of residence to work on a farm.
“We were like so close to quitting farming,” Schulte said of this period.
Naima Dhore, operator of Naima’s Farm, has spent years learning how difficult it is to access his own farmland in Minnesota. Dhore, who said she “certainly doesn’t look like your traditional farmer,” formed the Somali-American Farm Association last year.
To gain the knowledge she would need to run her own farm with her family, Dhore completed a training program on a 150-acre hatchery farm near Marine in St. Croix, Minn., In which novice farmers are supervised and guided in the management of their own plots of certified organic land.
Dhore, who now has several years of farming experience under his belt growing carrots, kale, Swiss chard and other produce, said his initial motivation for getting into farming was to feed her first child on healthier foods. She said the biggest problem for beginning farmers, especially farmers with no experience in the industry, is certainly access to land.
Naima Dhore (Photo provided)
“I think accessing land and finding a location is an ongoing challenge for many people of color,” Dhore said. “Since I didn’t have a farming family or someone in my family who knew about access to land, or the tenure process, I had to do everything myself.
Last year, Dhore found land that she said would have been “perfect” for her family.
“It didn’t work because trying to navigate and understand the process (of the agricultural service agency) was a challenge in many ways,” she said.
She has now learned, after years of trying to find farmland, that beginning farmers need capital, a “great support system” and a network of connections to get started on their own.
Lakisha Witter, founder of organic vegetable farm Live Organically, located about an hour north of the Twin Cities, said she had at least one of these things when she started her farm.
Witter did not go to school for farming, nor did he grow up on a farm, and before buying farmland his career was solely in education. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership and is working as a professor at Bethel University while overseeing special education compliance in charter schools.
Lakisha Witter, founder of the organic vegetable farm Live Organically. (Contributed by the Association for Sustainable Agriculture)
She said that compared to the other farmers in the panel, her experience with accessing land was “very different” because she entered farming with vocational training in another field. Witter had the capital to secure land for Live Organically, she said, but even that was not enough to secure a loan to cultivate the land.
“The loan I have now is not in the name of the farm, but in my name, because when I went to get the loan, you must have had three years of records, and I have never farmed before”, Witter said.
After securing the land, another unforeseen challenge presented itself. Witter said his first year of farming was “really tough.”
“There is a burden or some other piece that comes after you get the land, this reality that you have to deal with the land now,” she said. “My reality was the soil because I’m in Anoka County, where the soil is very sandy and has no organic matter, so I’ve spent the last three years building the soil.”