Hurdles for beginning farmers don't end with access to land
A panel of beginning farmers shared their stories of accessing land and other unique challenges affecting farming in metro areas in a recent session part of the Sustainable Farming Association 2021 annual conference.
A parking lot is not the first place that comes to mind for a location of a farm.
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 of south Minneapolis. The farm grows vegetables to sell at farmers markets, community-supported agriculture ventures (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 farming in metro areas in a recent session part of the Sustainable Farming Association 2021 annual conference.
The farm had two previous operators before Schulte and Fitzgerald took the space over, and Schulte said when they took over they made an effort to build back the soil, and started composting on their own.
"We started going to the CPW (Co-op Organic Warehouse) and just getting like their leftover food, and we'd go to breweries and fill up a truck with beer mash," Schulte said. "And we have a lot of lawn and tree services that we get leaves from, as long as they're shredded."
Now after five years running the farm, she said the soil is at a "pretty good spot."
"Growing food in a parking lot has made us more aware of soil than we ever were before," Schulte said. "We just can't take it for granted at all."
Both of them had experience working on CSA farms and large-scale organic operations, but before they found their current space they "always ran into land access issues," Schulte said. Before Growing Lots Urban Farm, the two were having to commute 40 minutes to an hour from where they were living to work on a farm.
"We were like this close to quitting farming," Schulte said of that time period.
Naima Dhore, operator of Naima’s Farm, has spent years learning just how difficult it is to access your own farmland in Minnesota. Dhore, who said she "definitely doesn't look like your traditional farmer," established the Somali-American Farm Association last year.
To gain the knowledge she'd need to run her own farm with her family, Dhore went through a training program on a 150-acre incubator farm near Marine on St. Croix, Minn., in which beginning farmers are mentored and guided through managing their own plots of certified organic land.
Dhore, who now has multiple years of farming experience under her belt growing carrots, kale, Swiss chard and other products, said her initial motivation to start farming was to feed her firstborn child healthier foods. She said the biggest issue for beginning farmers, especially farmers without a background in the industry, is definitely access to land.
"An ongoing challenge I believe for many people of color is the land access, and finding a location," Dhore said. "Coming from not having a family in farming or someone in my family who knows about land access, or the land process, I just had to do it all myself."
Last year, Dhore found land that she said would have been a "perfect fit" for her family to farm on.
"That didn't work out, because trying to navigate and understanding the (Farm Service Agency) process was a challenge in so many ways," she said.
She's now learned after years of trying to find farmland that beginning farmers need capital, a "great support system" and network of connections to get started on their own.
Lakisha Witter, founder of the organic vegetable farm Live Organically, located about an hour north of the Twin Cities, said she had at least one of those things when she started her farm.
Witter didn't go to school for farming, or grow up on a farm, and before buying farmland her career was solely in education. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership, and works as a professor at Bethel University along with overseeing special education compliance at charter schools.
She said that compared to the other farmers on the panel, her experience with land access was "very different" because she came into farming with a professional background in another field. Witter had the capital to secure land for Live Organically, she said, but even that wasn't enough to secure a loan to farm the land.
"The loan that I currently have is not in the farm name, but my name, because when I went to get the loan, you had to have like three years of records, and I've never farmed before," Witter said.
After she got the land, another unforeseen challenge presented itself. Witter said her first year farming was "really rough."
"There's a burden or another 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 zero organic matter, so I've spent the last three years building up the soil."