In this episode of Nourish by MN350, we dive into the story of Frogtown Farm, a food hub in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. This five-and-a-half-acre urban regenerative farm is uniquely located on a public park. MN350 volunteer Mary Clare McAleer interviews Chris Mann, the farm manager at Frogtown Farm, to discuss how the farm came to be, their conservation practices, and how the non-profit is deeply rooted in the community.
In 2013, residents of the Frogtown neighborhood recognized the lack of green space compared to the rest of St. Paul and the lack of access to healthy, nutritious food. The community members lobbied to get a privately-owned 13-acre lot turned into a public park, including this farm. Since its inception, Frogtown Farm has utilized best management practices to revitalize the urban soil. Today, there is still a great emphasis on regenerating the soil and protecting natural resources. The farm is a space for knowledge sharing and fostering community, from the crops they produce to the partnerships they build as they expand access to fresh produce.
For more information on Frogtown Farm check them out on instagram @frogtownfarm or their website https://www.frogtownfarm.org/.
Tuesday, March 8th, 2022 • 45:18
Sarah Riedl, Chris Mann, Mary Clare McAleer
Chris Mann 00:00
We describe ourselves as regenerative. There's a farmer Chris Newman, who runs Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia; I heard him on a different podcast talk about regenerative agriculture, as first and foremost a different mindset and a different approach to growing food. He doesn't view his farm as a chance to grow food; it's a chance to care for the land. The food is the gift that he gets back for that care.
Sarah Riedl 01:04
Hello, and welcome to nourish by MN350. I'm your host Sarah Riedl, communications manager for MN350 and MN350 action, and we are coming to you from the homeland of the Dakota and Anishinaabe here in Minnesota. Today I have with me Mary Clare McAleer, volunteer leader on MN350's Food Systems team. Mary Clare, it's nice to see you again. So Mary Claire, tell us who you are going to introduce us to today.
Mary Clare McAleer 01:33
Today I'm introducing Chris man, the farm manager at Frogtown Farm whose work in regenerative agriculture is creating a more just food system.
Chris Mann 01:42
Hello, my name is Chris Mann. I'm the current farm manager at Frogtown Farm, which is a five-and-a-half-acre urban farm located in the heart of St. Paul. My background is in political science. I've recently become involved in agriculture and found myself very lucky to end up at such a special farm.
Sarah Riedl 02:00
So Mary Clare, tell me about your conversation with Chris.
Mary Clare McAleer 02:10
Yeah, honestly, our conversation was so inspiring. I mean, Chris just speaks so eloquently about working with the land. He really reiterates Frogtown Farm's mission to be a destination for those who seek learning, innovation, reflection, celebration, and authentic community. What I'd like to highlight first is how Chris came to work in the space.
Chris Mann 02:23
So my background is in political science, that's what I studied in undergrad. I didn't get sort of professional involved in agriculture until the pandemic happened. I followed a friend out to a farm in Wisconsin Whetstone farm and learned how to grow vegetables for a CSA that they were running there and sort of really fell in love with working on the land. It was my first experience during that. And I learned a lot and had the privilege this year to find myself at Frogtown farm and kind of come step into the role as farm manager there. That's part of what I'm here to talk about today is just. I found myself at a really, really cool farm in the middle of St. Paul, and I'm very excited about it. I found when I tell people that I farm, I'm young, I'm in my 20s. And when I tell people that I farm, a lot of people my age respond with "Oh, I wish I could do that", there is a yearning for work that is more meaningful than what most of our current economy provides. For me, that meaning comes from being able to be intertwined with the land. When I plant something, cultivate it, and harvest it, I feel part of myself being held by the land. I can then share that with people who are interested in eating our food. There's also meaning in the work around justice that we do. I really tried to get into this because it's rare to find an opportunity in this economy where you can be interacting with the world in a creative and positive way and not just continually destroying the environment for the sake of profit.
Sarah Riedl 04:34
I love that he's coming to this from like this perspective, you know, yearning to do this since he was young. That's something that we're hearing more and more often, young people really looking for a deeper connection to the land. Mary Clare, you're another example of that.
Mary Clare McAleer 04:58
Yeah, so I had previously kind of been an ag outsider so to speak. You know, I grew up in the suburbs, and it wasn't until I began studying Environmental Science at the University of Minnesota, and had the opportunity to take my first soil science class that it became so clear that agriculture could really be part of the climate solution, rather than the scapegoat if the system were to evolve. Just like Chris, I began working in this space during the pandemic, I'm a soil conservationist. It was really fun to get to nerd out about soil with Chris today.
Sarah Reidl 05:23
It is exciting to hear the stories of people originally outside the food system, finding their place in agriculture. At MN350, we're trying to foster a more inclusive food system. As the older farmers begin to retire, you know, who will take their place? The USDA data states that the average age of all US producers in 2017 was 57 and a half years old, continuing a long-term trend of aging in the US. Hopefully, by highlighting the transformational work being done at Frogtown Farm, someone wishing they could be a farmer actually becomes one.
Mary Clare McAleer 06:04
You know, so like I said, I am new to the space but does really seem to this kind of buzz and excitement in the sector. With the unfortunate acceleration of the climate crisis, this wellness movement spurred by COVID and the aging farmer population, it does kind of seem like, we could be on the brink of systematic change. Frogtown farm is really part of that change, working to move the needle in the right direction. Even before the farm's inception, there had been this value put on growing food and sharing knowledge in the community. And it was those persistent community members who lobbied for the lot to become public green space.
Chris Mann 06:38
So Frogtown Farm is on a public park, anybody can come in, hang out, check out what we're doing. Part of that is because of the history of the farm, when the Wilder Foundation that was previously there, closed down and moved their offices in 2007 through 2009, there was a gardening club that had been going on in the Frogtown neighborhood since 1999, something like that. They had been sharing knowledge, visiting each other's backyard gardens and doing soil tests, and really building these sort of deep connections with each other for over a decade, and so there's this group that was poised to take over that space when the Wilder Foundation moved out and part of what they had been recognizing in their neighborhood was both the lack of green space in comparison to the rest of St. Paul, and the lack of access to healthy nutritious food. They started lobbying pretty hard to get the lot that was at that point, privately owned, turned into a public green space. So it became a St. Paul city park and because this group had this value of growing food, and had been working on that, for a decade, part of the park became a farm. It's kind of this unique situation where the creation of the park is simultaneous with the creation of the farm. As far as I know, that doesn't happen a whole lot. Our organization, it's a Frogtown garden is the name of the organization, we're a nonprofit, and we have a lease with the city. Part of our responsibility is to take care of the land, keep growing food and rebuilding the soil and really investing in the health of that green space. And we also share a little bit of revenue that we get from selling at market.
Sarah Riedl 08:38
So Mary Clare Frogtown farm has become this neighborhood food hub, where the food that is grown there is shared with the community and also sold at market. This sort of hyperlocal farm is becoming more and more common but as we know, growing food in an urban setting presents the question of contaminants. Can you tell us a little bit about that were you in Chris able to talk about that?
Mary Clare McAleer 09:14
Yeah, that was definitely one of the topics we discussed. Monitoring trace metals and contaminants is vital in an urban setting. You know, these urban soils, they're similar to the soils we find in our forests and on our pastures with a few key differences. For example, urban soils are often more compacted they might have a lower organic matter content often have a higher salt content and a higher pH. But one of the biggest concerns for humans might be the contaminants often found in those soils. So this brings up one of the challenges in managing urban soils. So there's this high spatial variability, soils ranging from "natural soils" that are relatively undisturbed to soils that formed infill material with a heavy anthropogenic influence. This anthropogenic influences often how these contaminants come into the mix. For example, lead is especially evident near roadways due to car emissions before the availability of unleaded gasoline. Nothing set in stone there are best management practices to mitigate these contaminants. For example, soil testing to monitor the levels is really important. As I mentioned before the spatial variability, can have changed with even a few feet on the same landscape. Another best management practice is phytoremediation, which is the use of living plants to take up contaminants in the soil. Finally, dilution, you bring in either organic matters, such as compost, or you might bring in soil from off-site that has already been tested to be free of contaminants. So let's hear how Frogtown farms mitigated these challenges.
Chris Mann 10:37
The land was built on when the organization took over. The buildings had come down, but there was still asphalt and foundation over most of the land. And so the first thing they had to do was come in with pickaxes and jackhammers and just remove tons of asphalt. And still, there are pieces of the land that we can't get into, if I come into the spade I hit asphalt about half an inch down, so that's just not land we grow on. After that, they brought in about 3000 cubic yards of new soil. It was kind of saying, we need just at least a baseline starting place to start growing food so we're going to bring in a bunch of soil. The first growing year was just growing cover crops, lots of grasses, to start rebuilding the microbes and organic material in that soil and doing a lot of that preparation work to get it ready for growing food. Even still, you know, we had a contaminants test in 2020 and we're still seeing some levels of heavy metals where lead and arsenic are fairly low. Those are the ones that people consumers, especially are really aware of and worried about but something like Chromium is still a little bit high in some areas in our field. We grow around those areas, you know, we're constantly monitoring contaminant levels and making sure that we're not putting in produce that's gonna take those up and transfer it to the consumer. The other thing that we're doing is, we focus a lot on perennials. So, berry bushes and fruit trees, that kind of thing, where the edible part is the fruit. If you're growing a carrot, for instance, in the ground, it's going to be directly contacting the soil and absorbing a lot more of what's in the soil. Whereas a perennial plant can filter some of that through the roots, then the woody stem, and then the leaves and then you get the fruit and so it's a lot safer to eat. I can talk a lot about the benefits of perennials. There's a lot of other cool work that they do on our land but that's one of them that is kind of helping to still produce while mitigating the impact of contaminants. Then another concern is just being in the urban environment, we're located right next door to a brass foundry that is emitting, I don't even know what still. We take extra care to wash our produce, we're also aware that petrochemicals can end up in the soil and on the produce. So being a little bit more cautious about just taking extra steps to make sure that we're not passing those things on to people who eat our food. As far as you know, consumer education or getting people interested, there are certainly some fears that I've heard people express about eating food and from that's been grown in an urban environment but when people come and visit the farm, and they see just like this beautiful, lush produce, and especially where we're located, we're up on top of a hill, we're surrounded by trees, it really feels like this sort of haven in the city. I think if you kind of trust your human instincts about what is edible and what feels good when people are at the farm they want you to produce they asked to eat it. I certainly eat it all the time.
Sarah Riedl 14:19
So Mary Clare, I want to go back to something. Chris talked about avoiding contaminants, yes, but he also touched briefly on rebuilding the soil. Let's talk about that for a bit. Because you are one of the volunteer leaders and MN350s Food Systems team, leading and MN350s work on regenerative agriculture. When we use the phrase regenerative agriculture, what we mean is, I'm going to read a quote from your team here, "A dynamic system of land stewardship, rooted in centuries-old indigenous wisdom that provides healthy, plant-rich, nutrient-dense food for all people while continuously restoring and nourishing the ecological, social, and cultural systems unique to every place. Regenerative agriculture is about so much more than just soil health. I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about what that looks like at Frogtown farm?
Mary Clare McAleer 15:23
Yeah, definitely. Frogtown Farm really hits on all the working principles outlined by MN350. These principles include maintaining a living root in the soil, working towards minimal soil disturbance, fostering diversity above and below ground, and being rooted in social justice. For example, their use of cover crops to maintain a living root helps stimulate microbial activity and water infiltration. Additionally, their tarping methods to terminate cover crops before planting reduces their need to disturb the soil via tillage. And this low till system keeps soil aggregates and pore spaces intact. Then similarly, similarly, their diverse crop rotations feed micros below ground, which maintains nutrient cycles while disrupting pests and disease cycles. Finally, their emphasis on producing crops with historic connections to Black agriculture is a great way to not only rebuild the soil but rebuild the communities that depend on it. This is what Chris had to say when I asked if they describe themselves as regenerative.
Chris Mann 16:20
Yeah, we describe ourselves as regenerative. There's a farmer Chris Newman, who runs Sylvanaqua farms in Virginia. I heard him on a different podcast talking about regenerative agriculture, as first and foremost, a different mindset, a different approach to growing food. And he talks about, he doesn't view his farm as a chance to grow food, it's a chance to care for the land. The food is the gift that he gets back for that care. That is, for me, such a radical flip of conventional agriculture, where you are primarily concerned with the end product with what somebody is going to buy and trying to make that the nicest possible and to totally disregard that and say, I'm going to focus primarily on soil health and biodiversity, and listening to what the land needs and putting that first and that the miracle of life is that when you care, you will be given these gifts of food back. It's just amazing to me. That regenerative agriculture idea to me is private in the mindset of creating the conditions for the land to give back to you. In doing so, you are adopting practices that are far less extractive, right, so we're trying to rebuild the soil, add nutrients, add organic matter, that's our main focus. The food is sort of incidental, it's a byproduct of what our main focus is.
Mary Clare McAleer 18:24
Chris's comment about how regenerative agriculture is creating the conditions for the land to get back to you is so powerful. There's something so beautiful in giving back to the land. Chris explained that Frogtown Farm gives back to the land by planting cover crops, varieties like winter rye, oats, and clover. On the farm, 20 to 30% of the land that's dedicated to growing annual vegetables is kept in cover crops. So each block of the farm is getting two years of rest, as that section has a cover crop planted to rebuild soil nutrients and microbes before it's put into four years of annual vegetable production. Then these cover crops have this added benefit of acting as a weed suppressant and ground cover because of their no-till efforts.
Chris Mann 19:08
Yeah, this is okay. This is really important. I'm glad we're talking about it. Frogtown Farm has been a low-till farm and we're transitioning to a no-till farm. That poses a challenge when you have cover crops growing in the space where you want to put your annual vegetables. How do you dispose of those cover crops so that there's room for something else to grow? What we've been doing is using large black tarps. Anybody who's in the sort of market garden world has seen these large black silage tarps weighted down the sandbags. The tarps increase the temperature of the ground and block light, so they're going to kill off and roast those plants pretty quickly, three to six weeks to turnover. When you pull the tarps off, the crops will leave behind a nice mulch that you can plant right into so that you have this barrier for weed suppression all ready to go. The goal with this no-till method is to grow in the same manner as a forest, where the forest is always keeping the ground covered with some layer of decomposing organic matter, so either we have cover crops growing and then breaking down or we're putting on mulch or putting on tarps. There's always something covering the ground and that has been really crucial to rebuilding that organic material and microbial life in the soil. Our tillage in the past has been counterproductive because it ends up breaking up all those structures that are really crucial to healthy soil.
Mary Clare McAleer 20:43
The combination of cover crops and tillage help manage weeds, but what about pests? A conventional farm might use herbicides or pesticides to manage weeds and pests. Frogtown Farm does not utilize these synthetic products, volunteer labor is their main source of pest control another way their practices are rooted in community. Additionally, to promote beneficial pests like pollinators, they plant perennial flowers in areas not actively in production.
Sarah Reidl 21:25
Wow, Frogtown Farm is doing so much to help build the natural resources within the public park.
Mary Clare McAleer 21:31
Right, and they are also going above and beyond to protect natural resources outside of the park. Frogtown Farm is located on a hilltop and therefore subject to erosion. Despite their efforts to keep the soil covered and reduce soil disturbance. Water and wind erosion, detach soil particles and transfer them to local waterways. These soil particles transferred by water are often how nutrients such as phosphorus get into our waterways and compound downstream causing hypoxic zones in extreme cases.
Chris Mann 21:46
One of the reasons that we have large permaculture installations is because we are located on a hilltop. Early on in the growing seasons, we would build up some amount of soil each year, and it would all get washed down the hill, all the nutrients would leave. We needed a way to stop the erosion and so our main installations are on the lower end of the farm. There are three large Berman swales for people who have seen them, they're large mounds of dirt with ditches in between, and those are planted with fruit trees and berry bushes, and perennial herbs. They have completely stopped all the erosion that was happening early in the season. They act as really good water filtration, so they're improving the water quality of the nearby lakes and rivers. They've been sort of essential to even being able to grow at all at Frogtown Farm. Additionally, growing in the urban environment with largely volunteer labor and a high turnover, having crops that people can get to know every year over a long period of time, having crops that don't need to be replanted all the time that have this sort of minimal input is really important. It reduces our labor costs, it reduces our inputs and it allows for us to be much more rooted in community labor than we otherwise would have to be. It also provides us with a larger diversity of crops, things like asparagus, sorrel, goji berries and raspberries, and strawberries, all these things. Just add to the diversity of food being grown, which also increases the cultural value of the food being grown. I think I talked about perennials are really good for growing in soil that has small levels of heavy metal contamination because they will filter out by the time it gets to the fruit. The last thing I would talk about is our perennial crops that we grow in rows are really crucial as windbreaks at Frogtown Farm because we're located on the hill, we get hit with a really high wind. Having something that will always be there blocking the wind to protect our annual crops has been really important. I would have lost a lot more crops and I would have lost soil and mulch in these recent heavy winds in December if it hadn't been for those windbreaks.
Mary Clare McAleer 24:15
Many of the management challenges Frogtown Farm must overcome i.e. preparing the seabed for planting, controlling weeds and pests, and managing nutrients are exacerbated on large scale more conventional farms. For example, the farm's conscious effort to mitigate runoff and erosion on the hilltop to protect waterways is a challenge most large-scale conventional producers face as well. The Minnesota Nutrient Reduction Strategies 2025 goal of reducing nutrient levels in major rivers by 20% cannot be accomplished without conservation practices like cover crops and reduce-tillage. Large-scale adoption of these practices could protect the 1% of soil we lose every year from erosion. This soil loss rate is 10 times faster then that at which the soils can replenish itself. Frogtown Farm's conscious effort of caring for the land first is something that could greatly transform the agriculture sector, sequestering more carbon and making ag part of the climate solution.
Sarah Reidl 25:35
MN350 is promoting this systemic change to meet the challenge of climate change and Frogtown farm is just a great example of that. One of the aims of Frogtown Farm is to gain justice for people and the planet as they stayed in their mission statement. We've been talking about the planet part of this a lot so far. How does Frogtown Farm create justice for the people? What are some of the steps that Frogtown Farm takes to accomplish that end of the goal?
Mary Clare McAleer 25:45
Chris emphasized how Frogtown Farm continues to stay true to its initial project, addressing the inequities of green space and access to healthy food in St. Paul.
Chris Mann 25:54
In some way, by our continued existence, we continue to address that inequality. Frogtown Farm is a public park so people can come and walk through, have access to natural beauty and a place to exercise, and it's a safe place for kids to play. In addition, we're actively growing healthy, nutritious food and distributing much of it for free, or at a discounted price to our direct neighbors. The active everyday work of the farm is addressing those inequalities. We also are a place for people to come and ask questions if they're trying to grow food in their backyard. In so doing, we can kind of expand our ability to address those inequalities.
Mary Clare McAleer 26:48
Frogtown Farm's effort to dig deeper into caring for the land transcends just the park itself, it overflows into honoring the community, it is a part of
Chris Mann 26:58
We do have a focus on growing varieties with historical connections to black agriculture. One of the things that we're putting in our crop plan for next year is the Moyamensing tomato, which is a tomato that was developed in a penitentiary, I believe in like the 1800s when the abolitionist movement was going on. It was a penitentiary that was known for holding abolition activists so it's got this sort of history of being connected to a liberation movement. When we're growing our annuals, we tried to be attentive not to just making sure we have a good variety and diversity and things that people like to eat, but also a connection to a deeper history. There is a sort of crisis in agriculture right now, where black folks have been displaced from arable land in mass numbers, and the average age of the black farmer is significantly higher than the average age of the white farmer. Frogtown Farm is trying to be a place for young folks to come in and learn about agriculture and hold on to that history and maybe even use the farm as a launching point for their own career in agriculture. We're trying to maintain a hold on to a sense of history around black agriculture in that way. There's also this idea of community being built over the land. Frogtown farm was started by people who connected over land and spent 10 years building deep connections over the land. They had that community as a basis for this political action to get the farm established. And so part of what we do is try to continue to build those relationships and deepen that sense of community so that our community is capable of taking political action where it's needed. We have regular community-building events, theater, cooking classes, and tour days. We have volunteer days where people can come in and actively just be on the land talking to each other, weeding and deepening the relationships. The hope is that in building that community, we can further movements to address injustices in St. Paul. Lastly, there's this sort of deeper heart work that takes place. We had four-year-olds come this fall to plant garlic as part of a program by the Office of Early Learning. They were wanting an event for kids going to kindergarten to start to get a sense of what kindergarten would be and how to be in school, and they were targeting kids who didn't have access to the programmed preschool that the St. Paul city schools will put on. Afterward, we were talking about what it meant for kids to be on the land and plant garlic, and that the land is going to remember them. They came and they put a plant in the ground, and next year, that plant is going to bloom, and the land will remember that they were there and that that matters for these kids. When this plant grows and blooms, the beauty of that plant will be in part a product of the beauty of those kids, and Frogtown Farm can be a place where people who don't feel that they are being acknowledged or seen as beautiful, or remembered in other parts of their life can come and put something in the ground and the land will hold on to that for them.
Chris Mann 26:58
we we do have a focus on growing varieties with historical connections to black agriculture. So one of the things that we're putting in our crop plan for next year is the Moyamensing tomato, which is a tomato that was developed in a penitentiary. I believe in that like 1800s When the abolitionist movement was going on, and it was a penitentiary that was known for holding active or abolition activists. And so it's got this this sort of history of being connected to a liberation movement. And so yeah, when we're growing our annuals, we tried to be attentive not to just making sure we have a good variety and diversity and things that people like to eat, but also connection to a deeper history. There is a sort of crisis in agriculture right now, where black folks have been displaced from arable land and mass numbers, and the average age of the black farmer is significantly higher than average age of the white farmer. And so having Frogtown farm be a place for young folks to come in and learn about agriculture and hold on to that history and maybe even use the farm as a launching point for their own career in agriculture. We're trying to maintain a hold on to a sense of history around around black agriculture in that way. There's also this idea of community being built over the land. Frogtown farm was started by people who connected over land and spent 10 years building deep connections over the land. And then they had that community as a basis for this political action to get the farm established. And so part of what we do is try to continue to build those relationships and deepen that sense of community so that our community is capable of taking political action where it's needed. So we have regular community building events, theater and cooking classes, and tour days. We volunteer days where people can come in and actively just be on the land talking to each other weeding and deepening the relationships. And the hope is that in building that community, we can further movements to address in justices in St. Paul. And then lastly, there's this sort of deeper heart work, heart work that takes place. We had four year olds come this fall to plant garlic as part of a program by the Office of Early Learning. They were wanting an event that could go To convert and calm and start to get a sense for what kindergarten would be and how to be in school, and these are, where they were targeting kids who didn't have access to the programmed preschool that the St. Paul city schools will put on. And afterwards, we were talking about what it meant for kids to be on the land and plant garlic, and that the land is going to remember them. They came and they put a plant in the ground, and next year, that plant is going to bloom, and the land will remember that they were there and that that matters for these kids. And that when this plant grows and blooms, the beauty of that plant will be in part a product of the beauty of those kids. And Frogtown farm can can be a place where where people who don't feel that they are being acknowledged or seen as beautiful, or remembered in other parts of their life can come and put something in the ground and the land will hold on to that for them.
Mary Clare McAleer 31:40
The story about the kindergarteners is so adorable and so true, the soil remembers us and we need to nourish it to build a climate-resilient food system. Frogtown Farm is collaborating with other local organizations to foster this and as always this network is rooted in the community.
Chris Mann 32:00
We are always negotiating, how much is going to be given away for free and how much is going to be sold. Going into next year, we're looking at about 25% being sold and the rest being given away for free. When we are selling we're selling at a discount price. In the past, there have also been workshare programs where people can come and volunteer two hours a week and get a box of produce and exchange. That's something that we're also looking at reinstating, again COVID is kind of disrupting all those systems, but generally speaking, the goal is to get food to people as cheaply as possible. In some cases, we're trying to recapture costs by selling a little bit, but yeah, we're mostly giving it away. This year, our Rodney berries went to Sean Sherman, over at Natives. We are actively involved in food distribution programs in the neighborhood, Feeding Frogtown and Feeding The Dream, notably, are doing free distributions every week. We distributed through a couple of different systems that were primarily set up to provide distribution outlets for the group Second Harvest. Second Harvest is a fantastic group, only good things to say about them. One of the gaps that we were able to fill, is that Second Harvest is bringing produce that's been gleaned from grocery stores and so as a little bit older, maybe has been sitting on a truck for a while. We would just we would harvest and distribute the same day so that people in addition to things they were taking home from Second Harvest would be getting produce that was picked that day, filling that gap of just a little bit fresher, a little bit nicer produce. In addition, we support and help run a program called Fair For All, which is a discounted food sale. The one that happened in Frogtown comes out of St. Stephen's church, and a few Frogtown Farm staff will always be there helping to distribute that food. In the past, there have been (again things get complicated because of COVID) market Saturdays at Frogtown Farm where the farm itself has a stand to sell produce, but other gardeners have stands and they can come and sell their produce in addition to craft people and artisans who want to sell their wares. Oh, I guess I also want to talk about Frogtown farm as a site for knowledge sharing where people will stop me and other farm crew members on a weekly basis to ask questions about oh, I've got this, this tomato disease or my carrots aren't coming up? What can I do differently? Or maybe they need access to some tools or information about composted anything like that our farm can kind of be a hub for access to that knowledge that isn't easily available in an urban environment. Our schools don't have agricultural programs the way they do and in rural spaces so kind of filling that gap as well.
Sarah Riedl 34:33
Wow, I really love what Chris said about hard work, you know, helping people establish that connection to the land and telling the kids the land will remember you you know this matters what you do here matters. It's clear that Frogtown farm is really filling quite a few different gaps in the community as many nonprofits do. What are some of the unique challenges the farm faces operating under a non-profit model?
Mary Clare McAleer 35:00
Two unique challenges Chris highlighted were the farm's high turnover and short-term lease. He used the farm's USDA organic certification status to exemplify this.
Sarah Riedl 35:12
Let's take a listen.
Chris Mann 35:15
In terms of the organic certification, Frogtown Farm is not currently certified organic, but we still avoid synthetic fertilizers, we don't spray herbicides or pesticides or anything like that. We're planting organic certified seeds. The difficulty with the organic certification is that we're not a family farm or a business, we're a nonprofit farm that's doing a lot of sort of social programming community building as well. And what that means is that we just have a higher turnover, then, you know, for instance, if one person owns the farm and is on the land, managing it for 10, 20, 30 years, that person can track inputs year to year, and stay on top of the paperwork. It's sort of easy thing to I mean, it's not easy, it's a hard thing to do but they have a little bit more ability to strictly control what's happening on the land. If you're running a farm business, the organic certification gives you that added market benefit, because we're a non-profit, and we have higher turnover, we don't have that one person who can be with it every year of the certification process. We're not necessarily looking to make a profit off of the food we're growing, we do sell, but we're not trying to maximize profit. The cost and the benefit of maintaining the certification, we just decided to let it slip. But we're so committed to those organic practices, and growing food that is sustainable and healthy for people to eat. There's just a deeper interconnection that happens when you're all responsible for the same piece of land. And the hope is that that ends up deepening community and providing a basis for you know, further political action, but also just a deeper sense of connection with our neighbors.
Mary Clare McAleer 37:21
When you bring up political action, is there any policy? Or is there any things in the past or the future that you guys are working to do to, make urban agriculture, more possible in other metropolitan areas?
Chris Mann 37:38
There are two things that immediately come to mind. One is that are our leases going to be up in the next few years. We do have a short-term lease that was the original term terms of agreement for Frogtown Farm. We would like to see a longer lease, we'd like for this to be designated growing space in the city more permanently looking at a 99-year lease or something like that. Getting that established is going to require the same kind of political action and lobbying that it took to get the farm established in the first place. The other thing is, when we look at our permaculture systems, we're not able to fully close the loop on our nutrient cycling and that kind of thing. Because it's a public space that means we can't have livestock on the land and that's been a challenge in terms of managing our inputs and our outputs. We end up sending waste off the farm and having to bring in compost rather than being able to cycle it through animals. Changing policy around our ability to manage the land in the most realistic way possible is also important. It'll be important for other people who want to do more than backyard chickens, although I love backyard chickens.
Sarah Riedl 38:58
Well, Mary Clare Frogtown Farm is such a perfect example of what a true community-based regenerative food system looks like. Let's listen to how our listeners can support the work being done on the farm.
Chris Mann 39:10
The first thing is that we're a nonprofit, and we run off of donations and grants. There's a donation button on our website. If you're inspired at all to contribute, that'd be wonderful. You can also boost us on social media. We are @frogtownfarm on Instagram and you can check out our website. By the time this podcast airs there should be a new cooking class by our Chef in-resident and a new class on soil health that we did with a group called Ecological Design. I also recommend checking out Soulfire Farm, Sylvanaqua Farm, Project Sweetie Pie, and other organizations that are working at the intersection of racial justice and land work. Lots of support to them. We move into the growing season, in 2022, we're going to continue having volunteer days that are open to the public so come on by! The day should be posted on our website by the time this podcast airs, It's a chance to experience the farm, connect with people, and see what that deepening sense of community actually looks like. If you're interested in helping us out with advocating for our lease, or any of that kind of political work, feel free to contact us. That information is on our website. We support that monthly discounted food sale, Fair For All, it's usually the last Wednesday of the month (February 23rd, March 23rd, etc. 2 to 4pm). You can also help volunteer to give food out for people at those events. Let's see if you live in frog town farm, ope sorry, if you live in frog town, you should look for our food sales and our distribution. Also, feel free to come by and ask questions. If you're trying to start a garden in your home, we'd love to help you out. If you're looking for gardening space, we have some raised beds that are available so stop by and we can try to get you set up growing on the land that we have. Additionally, we're going to be hiring for the farm crew for next season so if you're interested in working with us, or if you know anybody in the neighborhood who would like to work with us look for the application on our website. I would encourage everybody to continue to grow their own food, check out your neighbor's garden, start developing that sense of community, and hopefully, that becomes the basis for expanding urban agriculture across the metro area.
Sarah Riedl 42:01
So many ways to get involved and support the work going on at Frogtown Farm. For everyone listening, be sure to check out frogtwonfarm.org for all the latest info events and classes. Before we wrap up, I also want to give a plug for one of our campaigns here at MN350 Action and that is our Headwaters campaign. We're supporting the Headwaters Community Food and Water Bill, which would take tax money, or public money, that we're already paying, and it would invest it into a regenerative food system. What that food system looks like is going to be different depending on where you are, it's meant to be local. All the things that Chris described that go on at Frogtown Farm are exactly what the Headwaters Bill envisions a food hub to be. These food hubs are kind of like the backbone of the Headwaters Bill so when we talk about using public money to fund this regenerative food system, the backbone of that would be building these food hubs like Frogtown Farm to play that role in different communities. So please visit mn350 action.org/headwaters, which is where you'll find a bunch of different ways that you can get involved. You can take action on behalf of the Headwaters Bill, starting by simply signing the pledge of support, if you haven't done that already. You can also check out whether or not your legislators support the bill. We have a tool there that will help you contact them if it's your first time reaching out to your representatives or your senators. You can reach out and thank them if they're already a supporter or an author of the bill or you can reach out and ask them to become an author if they're not yet. And you'll find that list of legislators again at mn350 action.org/headwaters. And that's our show for today. Special thanks to Chris Mann, farm manager at Frogtown Farm in St. Paul, and to you Mary Clare for bringing us this conversation. And for our listeners, if you enjoyed listening to the show today and you would like to support the work of MN350's podcast you can visit the support this show link at the bottom of the episode description wherever you listen. And remember to look for Frogtown Farm on Instagram or visit Frogtownfarm.org for more information on our guests, Chris Mann and Frogtown Farm. Thanks for tuning in, and we'll see you next time.