Milwaukee Urban Discovery Farm
May 1, 2014
By Sheila Julson
In Milwaukee, the concept of providing sustainable and socially just food sources for America’s communities is being driven by activists who are creatively transforming vacant lots into gardens flourishing with vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Urban agriculture combines the best of home and community gardening with traditional and innovative farming practices, creating microfarms that are rapidly expanding and adding depth to local food sources.
Milwaukee Urban Discovery Farm
Is small scale urban farming financially viable for those who want to earn some extra money operating a sustainable small business? Ryan Schone, Local Foods and Micro-Farm Coordinator for University of Wisconsin Extension, is on a quest to find out.
Schone, no stranger to agriculture, grew up on his parents’ farm in Arenzville, Ill. He is coordinating a project called Milwaukee Urban Discovery Farm (MUDF), operated through the UW Extension. The program is part of the Community and Regional Foods Systems project (CRFS), based at UW-Madison, and its role is to develop equitable and sustainable food systems that provide healthy food for the communities they serve. It is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Congress created NIFA through the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.
“In the past, there has not been much information that documents if urban agriculture is economically sustainable,” Schone said. “Can an urban farmer be viable and provide for his or her family? There has not been much testing.”
In Milwaukee, the MUDF project started up last year informally, in test mode. The CRFS project is funded through 2015, but Schone hopes MUDF will continue indefinitely with adequate funding. He noted MUDF is already soliciting funds through grants and partnerships for 2015-2016.
Other cities included in the study are Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cedar Rapids, and Madison. Schone said Milwaukee’s was included for a number of reasons, including its proximity to Madison, where CRFS is based, the high degree of community engagement and rapidly growing interest in local food production. “The community is embracing local foods,” he said.
He noted that the number of restaurants in the city that use locally produced food, the number of grocers committed to selling local produce, as well as the number of nonprofits that encourage healthy, sustainable food systems likely were factors for Milwaukee being selected.
The Milwaukee project will take place on four of the 11 UW Extension’s garden sites located throughout Milwaukee County. One of those sites is the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Howard Avenue. The site is on the north side of Howell Avenue, across the street from the Garden District community gardens and farmers market, operated by the Garden District Neighborhood.
The other MUDF sites include Kohl Farm, 8400 W. County Line Rd.; Firefly Ridge, 10602 Underwood Pkwy.; and Rawson Garden, 1300 E. Rawson Ave.
Owned by Milwaukee County, the Sixth Street UW Extension parcel was once home to a railroad line, torn out after the railroad was abandoned. The land lay overgrown and unused until UW Extension started utilizing the four-acre site four years ago to extend its community garden plot-rental program.
Two of the acres on the Sixth Street location will be used by MUDF. Schone noted the location is ideal, due to its proximity to the Garden District Farmers Market.
Schone said many of those who are participating in MUDF learned of it through word of mouth. The program provides them with subsidies enabling them to use the land for a small fee, negotiated on a sliding scale according to an individual’s financial means.
Schone works with growers to come up with a business plan to determine the amount of land required, target markets, and whether or not the grower will operate a CSA (community supported agriculture) program. Participating farmers and growers are required to keep detailed records and complete paperwork to provide data for the study.
Continuing education is provided through monthly workshops, where the topics are selected by participants and may include information about seed selection, soil health, etc. Schone said he will bring in guest speakers and specialists.
The program does not pay for the purchase of the growers’ seeds or supplies. “If a participant has a financial hardship, we’ll work with them on finding options,” Schone explained. The program developed a partnership with Weber’s Greenhouses, where seeds are traded for helping out at the greenhouse.
Each participant has a slightly different objective. Steve Goretzko, owner of the Sven’s Cafés in Bay View and downtown, joined the program this year. He said he has always enjoyed gardening and maintained a community garden plot when he was 12 years old when there were gardens at Mitchell Field, now General Mitchell International Airport. He contacted Schone to express his interest in a microfarm.
“We will grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, basil, melons, and pumpkins to use at the two cafes,” Goretzko said. Employees and even some customers will help tend the one-fourth acre micro-farm.
Schone said other participants include Tom Koch, who is planning a year-round growing operation to produce micro greens, basil, arugula, and lettuce indoors. Koch participated in the 2013 testing season. Ron Dutch, a long-time farmer, will grow specialty tomatoes and peppers. He is working with That Salsa Lady, a small-batch artisan salsa producer, to provide ingredients for her business.
A Hmong couple who started farming last year is also participating in the project. They sell diverse produce at farmers markets and to Riverwest Co-op. Another participant is a small farm co-op that grows food for Braise restaurant.
The Gerald Ignace Indian Health Center, 1711 S. 11th St., will use 6,000 feet for its native wellness garden of medicinal herbs and vegetables. Jennifer Casey, who coordinates the diabetes program at the center, said the organization has had wellness gardens at various sites in Milwaukee, including a small garden at Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church, for the past three years. Due to a growing interest among the Native American community, Ignace searched for a larger space and reached out to Schone at UW Extension. “We are excited to be partnering with Milwaukee Urban Discovery Farm,” Casey said. “This allows us to exponentially grow our nature wellness garden.”
Casey noted the space will also include a ceremonial spot and a Three Sisters (squash, corn, beans) garden. The Sixth Street location is ideal, Casey said, because many of the gardeners live on the south side, and there is a watering system already in place on the grounds.
Schone said other plans include a veterans’ healing garden. There is currently a garden at the Kohl space used by about 12 veterans, Schone said, who use gardening as a therapeutic form of morale building among combat veterans. The garden was organized by Rodney Purcell, a counselor for veterans.
MUDF will have to pay for city water. There are spigots in place throughout the grounds. Schone said rain collection and water recycling systems are being planned.
Since 1972, UW Extension has been active in promoting community gardening, originally renting plots on the county grounds in Wauwatosa. It is an outreach arm of the University of Wisconsin system and provides gardening programs and agricultural education to help people create and sustain community gardens. Its Organic Learning Center on the Milwaukee County grounds provides hands-on education, teaching farming basics like crop rotation, drip irrigation, seasonal hoop-house growing, and composting.
UW Extension currently has 11 community gardens on 27 acres throughout the county.
In addition to the gardens, Schone said the extension has been taking steps to beautify the Sixth Street parcel. Raspberry bushes line the east edge of the property. Apple, cherry, and apricot trees line the west edge near the street.
Schone said he’s open to having bee hives and chicken coops on the garden site, if there is an interest from participants and if nearby residents approve. “We want to keep a good relationship with the neighborhood,” he said. There is an apiary at the UW Extension garden in Wauwatosa.
Kompost Kids set up composting bins at the Sixth Street site.
Schone said that a name has not yet been selected for the site. After tossing around names referencing the Garden District or Town of Lake, he said, “We’ll likely go with Green Corridor Community Gardens.”
The Green Corridor is a three-mile section in Ald. Terry Witkowski’s district that stretches along Sixth Street between West Howard and College avenues. The corridor promotes sustainability practices and the growth of green business and enterprise.
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