Alex Liebman ’12 and Emily Hanson ’11, with four partners, have turned 15 vacant city lots into Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, where they are growing an abundance of fresh, delicious vegetables. Majors in biology and environmental studies, respectively, both had worked on farms and knew what they were getting into.

After high school, Liebman had been looking for a summer job when he contacted a farmer acquaintance near his home in Northhampton, Mass., who told him to “Try it—if you think you’re tough enough.”

“I did and it was rewarding, outdoor work with interesting people,” says Liebman. “Then after my sophomore year at Mac, I worked at a large, diverse farm in California and learned a lot about food production.”

Hanson discovered that she loved farming the summer she worked on an organic farm near her home in Grantham, N.H. After graduating, she and Liebman—along with Emily Engel ’12 (Minneapolis), and Robin Major ’11 (Putney, Vt.) and other students from the Twin Cities—used a Macalester Live It grant to found Concrete Beet Farmers.

They gained a wealth of practical knowledge that year, including the need for greater economies of scale if they were to make a living at it. After talking with dozens of other urban farmers, Concrete Beet was dissolved, and Liebman and Hanson joined with four others to form Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, on lots primarily in South Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Frogtown area.

How do they secure the vacant lots? “Sometimes the owners come to us,” says Hanson, “but mostly we notice a vacant lot, go to the county records to discover the owner, and then send them a sample lease.” They don’t pay rent on most lots, but owners are often happy simply to have someone improving the lot, working there in the summer, and shoveling the snow in the winter. Stone’s Throw, a for-profit LLP, is insured, which is reassuring to lot owners, who may be individuals, banks, or the city.

Using the crowd-funding website, they raised $15,900 for equipment, seeds, compost and other start-up costs.

Using the crowd-funding website, they raised $15,900 for equipment, seeds, compost and other start-up costs. In addition to the six partners, there will be six unpaid summer interns and a host of volunteers who just like to grow things. A new Live It project under the direction of Anna French ’13 (Omaha, Neb.) and Abbie Shain ’14 (Bordentown, N.J.) will direct a summer camp at Stone’s Throw for youth interested in urban farming.

The food raised—peas, spinach, squash, melons and much, much more—goes to CSA members (memberships still available at this writing), the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis, and wholesale accounts, with any extra food being donated to food shelves and neighborhood organizations.

Liebman was recently awarded a USDA grant through the North Central SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program to research the use of various cover crops to improve the soil of urban farm plots. These cover crops will be planted in the fall, then plowed under in the spring, with yield data developed in summer 2013. Even his senior capstone project deals with soil biology: “I need to keep my hands in the dirt.”

“I want to provide healthy food for my neighbors in a just way, while making a livelihood for myself,” says Hanson. “I also want to help neighborhoods become less reliant on global food systems and bring sovereignty back to the neighborhood.”

July 16 2012

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