Ramblings on Farming, vol. 1

Happy Friday, and welcome to a new (hopefully) semi-regular blog column called “Ramblings on Farming”.  Every few weeks, we’ll try to post something a little more geared toward the big picture, political side of agriculture in this country. This week’s columnist is Alex, our tallest farmer and fencing extraordinaire.

Your esteemed author

“As fuel prices continue to rise, the worldwide ecological effects of global warming and urbanization are beginning to manifest themselves, and the American population struggles with health problems related to poor diet and inactivity. I see small-scale agriculture as a way to improve these scenarios.

In the Midwest, the vast majority of food production is dominated by corn and soybeans, much of which finds its way to intensified beef and pig production.  While policy decisions are an integral part of changing the face of American food production, it is also extremely important to engage people on a personal level.  The interface of small urban farms creates an ideal situation for this exchange of food, education, and culture.

Our farm is located in a busy city block, far from the large agricultural fields stretching for miles beyond the sprawl of the Twin Cities.  Meat and pig productions are often isolated by barbed wire fencing and windowless aluminum buildings.  Grain fields may stretch for miles without a human in sight, traversed only by a few tractors and combines passes during the season.  Concrete Beet Farmers, in contrast, are abutted by a busy city street, a well traveled alleyway, and surrounded by houses. During our first work day, people of all ages and backgrounds stopped by to observe the plot, offering us advice, requesting plants for us to grow, and haggling us over our futile efforts to farm in the city.  These initial reactions are the basis for re-personalizing and recreating the American food system.

As the negative ecosystem effects of mechanization, mono-cultures, and intensive chemical use become more obvious and the economic costs in these systems outweigh the benefits, large mega-farms will need to be split into smaller, more manageable parcels farmed by more people.  Small-scale management fewer tractors and off-farm inputs and more soil saving measures (cover cropping, animal grazing, crop rotations) will create more sources of employment in a sustainable manner.  To initiate these changes, many new farmers will need to come from the densely populated areas of the world, the cities.

At Concrete Beet Farmers, we aim to create a center for farming discussions and community in the Twin Cities.  We hope that our business will inspire and teach hordes of farmers to take back the American agricultural landscape from corporations currently farming unwisely, inefficiently, and destructively.  We see farming as the basis for a more sane and sustainable national economy and enriched communities in Minneapolis and throughout the globe.”

Check back soon for more ramblings,
Alex Liebman

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Groundbreaking

As I look out the window at snow falling on April 20th, it seems the best way to keep from crying about it is to update all of you lovely people about the farm happenings of the last week or so. It’s been an exciting whirlwind!

For starters, we broke ground at our lot on 15th Avenue last Thursday! With all six Concrete Beet Farmers together for the first time in a while, and our good friend Nate from Uptown Farmers, we were able to transform our scrubby grass lot into lush soil in just one afternoon!

1. Get some compost. We got ours from Botany Bob of Naturally Grown Farms. He delivered 24 yards of compost to our lot, in two loads. Compost just brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “black gold”!

2. Prepare the lot for tilling. This includes removing any large rocks or other things that will interfere with the blades of a tiller. In our case, we discovered that small concrete slab we knew existed at the front of our lot was actually the remnant of a paved path that had run between the two houses that once existed on the site. So we uncovered and ripped out about 40 feet of concrete slab. No big deal. We are the concrete beet farmers, after all!

Robin lies atop the pile of concrete slab we pulled from our lot. Conquered!

3. Get a friend with a tiller. We’re lucky enough to be friends with Uptown Farmers, and Nate owns a tiller. As soon as we had cleared the way, he started the motor and got to work. He went over the whole lot twice, then tilled in the compost that we layered on top of the entire area, a few inches thick.

4. Make some beds and plant some seeds! After tilling the entire lot, Nate helped us make beds for planting. We laid out our plot in three main sections to help us plan for crop rotation. As soon as Nate killed the motor on the tiller, Robin started planting peas! A few days later, we also seeded some spinach, kale, radishes, and beets!

Now, just cross your fingers that the seeds are still huddling under the soil, keeping warm while the snow is falling. Hopefully when temperatures rise next week, they’ll be ready to jump up and start growing!

In other news, we met some really fun folks this past weekend, at the Seward Coop CSA Fair! It was great to see old friends, like our pals at Growing Lots Urban Farm and Blackberry Community Farm. It was even greater to make new friends! Thanks to all who stopped by, listened to our story, and signed up for our mailing list! It was a wonderful day!

On Sunday, we were out at the lot again, planting and planning. Our friend Klauss stopped by to help us take measurements for a new fence. He stuck around the help us stick some spinach seeds in the ground. Thanks, Klauss!

A few other updates:

  • We’re all sold out of our CSA shares! If you’d like to purchase produce from us this summer, let us know that you’d like to be placed on our mailing list for notifications about extra produce. Also, check our website often for updates about mini-markets and restaurants where our produce may be featured this summer.
  • Stop by the farm next Sunday, April 24th, for our first ever Concrete Beet Workday! Yes, it’s Easter, but if you can find a few minutes to sneak away from the family or Easter Bunny, come by the plot any time between 11 AM and sundown and we’ll be out there installing a fence, painting signs, transplanting onions, and constructing compost bins.

HAVE A WONDERFUL WEEK!

Plants growing up, and CSA shares filling up!

Remember these guys? They're big kids now.

The plants seem to like their home. With these sunny days in the fifties, the greenhouse has been warm and humid, a perfect environment for our little ones to get big and strong. They grow up so fast these days (sniff). Soon enough they’ll be all mature and way too cool for their parents.

Robin the Reorganizer! Making space for new additions to the greenhouse

In the meantime, the onions, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and parsley that we planted weeks ago have some new company! The Concrete Beet Farmers spent the majority of Sunday afternoon running around to gardening stores buying up their whole supplies of planting trays, and seeding a huge variety of new crops. We planted red and green cabbage, collards, leeks, kale, three kinds of basil, cilantro, swiss chard, ground cherries, flowers such as yarrow and lupine, and more of the crops we had started a few weeks ago. Diversity, huzzah!

Carefully laid out seed packets, ready for planting!

It was a lot of planting to coordinate and carry out, be we had a grand ole’ time in our t-shirts in the warm greenhouse.

Just one little seed in each little cell. With Eric's green thumb, these will surely be sprouting soon!

We counted, and there are now 57 trays filling, almost overflowing, the greenhouse! Send some happy thoughts the way of our little plants, they need all the help they can get!

Dusty repacks some soil in a tray of parsley, so the plants can develop better root systems and survive transplanting!

With all the time in the greenhouse, we also got a chance to catch up on some weeding and packing moil soil into the trays where it was too loose. While our hands were busy, we talked through details of some of the exciting new developments for our farm:

  • Signing the lease for our lot on 15th Avenue this week!
  • A possible collaboration with Revolution 180 degrees, a prisoner re-entry program, and Uptown Farmers
  • We have 7 CSA members signed up! We’re aiming for 15, so sign up soon or find us at the Seward Co-op CSA fair on Saturday, April 16th!
  • Attending meetings and events for the Live It Fund grant we recently received!
  • Ordering soil very soon, and planning for our first big workday outside, April 24th!

It’s just the beginning of a busy, busy spring! We’re glad you’re here along with us for the ride!

Sprouting!

baby onions

Growing so fast they're getting tangled up in each others' hair!

Although it seems like just yesterday that we were tucking tiny seeds into airy potting soil, our babies are already growing! The onions are getting gangly and are completely wrapped up in each other, while the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are just starting to show their faces. We’ve spent three afternoons planting in the greenhouse over the last few weeks, resulting in more than 25 trays of tiny plants! We’ve got three varieties of onions going, as well as three heirloom tomatoes, two sweet peppers, two hot pepper varieties, and two types of eggplant. They all seem to be thriving, thanks to the ideal environment provided by the Macalester greenhouse.

Stay tuned for a few gratuitous baby pictures:

cherokee purple tomatoes

In a few months, we'll be complaining about pruning them, but for now, they're precious.

parsley

It's making us hungry for tabbouleh already!

spicy babies

Watch out for these little guys- when they get bigger, they'll be trouble makers!

We’ll stop there for now, before we get carried away. Keep checking back in the next weeks for more photos of our little tikes growing up!

In addition to the baby pictures, we also wanted to send out a huge, gigantic THANK YOU to our friends at the Live It Fund committee at Macalester College. Their generous acceptance of our grant proposal is helping make our farm dreams come true. We owe you a million thanks, and probably a few pounds of tomatoes once things get underway! So, rest assured that, with funding secured, Concrete Beet will be on firm footing to make this first season a raging success!

Don’t forget to sign up for your CSA shares today, or tell a friend to do so!

Onions in 112 Days

Alex's basketball injury did not stop him from planting.

The seeds are in the ground! Last week we planted our first onions, scallions, and parsley in the Macalester College greenhouse.  It is hard to imagine these seeds will pop up with the feet of snow  and negative degree winds outside!  Nevertheless, spring is in the air, the days are getting longer, and pretty soon we’ll be up to our ears in onions, scallions and greens.

Time to Plant!

Before we know it the snow will be slush and by mid-April we will be planting our first crops of salad mixes, collards, radishes and more.  But before that we have a lot of work to do.  Over the next few weeks we are ordering seeds and planting lots of leeks and greens in the Macalester College greenhouse.  On top of planting we are busy designing a multiple-year lease and pursuing kick-start funding sources for tools, soil (lots of it), seeds, CSA boxes, our lease, and materials for a washing station.

Our first visit to the empty lot that will soon be our farm. Even with it covered in snow, we could sense the potential!