In just about any spot of her St. Paul home, Nadja Berneche sees evidence of fresh, local food.
It may be tomatoes, cucumbers and beets from the vegetable garden, or apples, plums and cherries from fruit trees. Even in the long winter months, Berneche and her husband tend to the greens and starter plants in their hoop house, or they enjoy produce that has been canned or frozen.
“We live in a house on one-tenth of an acre, which is a standard lot size in the city,” she says. “Pretty much all our usable space is in some form of food production.”
Berneche’s involvement in what is known as urban agriculture can be traced to when she was a child helping her grandparents tend a small urban garden at their home in Flint, Mich. She planted her first garden in a 7-by-7 foot lot just behind a condominium she bought after moving to St. Paul.
Urban agriculture is also a concept Berneche advocates as program director for Gardening Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to community gardeners and the communities in which they reside.
“Community gardens provide space for people to grow their own healthy food, and they also provide space for a community to grow alongside,” Berneche says.
Whether it’s neighbors toiling in the soil of community gardens, farmers growing produce on city-owned lots to sell at farmers markets, or residents raising chickens or keeping bees, urban agriculture is thriving in cities such as St. Paul and Minneapolis. It’s as relevant a farming practice to city- dwellers as traditional agriculture is to those on the farmlands of Minnesota.
“We know from scientific studies that it’s important for folks to be connected to nature and understand the importance of how to eat healthy. This is kind of where that intersects. You get to connect to nature and grow your own food in your backyard.”
Chickens, Bees and Business
Homegrown Minneapolis is a citywide initiative that expands the community’s ability to grow, process, distribute, consume and compost fresh, healthy, and more sustainable foods.
“The city has a bunch of vacant lots that the developers can’t make any money on, so they sit vacant for years and years and years,” Henry explains. “Farmers are asking how they can turn these into growing spaces to provide education for the community and provide local foods to restaurants and other places.
“We have a robust urban food production scene here.”
It’s becoming more and more robust as an increasing number of residents are made more aware of the benefits of growing and eating local foods.
For instance, Minneapolis was home to 265 permitted chicken coops in 2015, and the number of beehives in the city that year grew 25 percent from 2014.
The urban ag movement has also led to new business opportunities. A case in point is Urban Organics, a company that uses aquaponics – where fish and plants help each other grow – to sustainably produce local foods at plants in the former Hamm’s and Schmidt breweries in St. Paul.
Urban Organics collaborates with Pentair, a global aquatic eco- systems business that has its main U.S. office in Minneapolis.
The partnership led to the expansion of the operation in 2015, when the two companies began construction on an 87,000-square- foot indoor aquaponics facility in the former Schmidt building. When completed, it will be one of the largest commercial aquaponics facilities in the world and will have the potential to annually produce 275,000 pounds of fresh char, salmon or trout, and 400,000 pounds of organically grown produce.