City farms? How urban dwellers are contributing to local food systems

MOORHEAD - In the Midwest, our lives can often revolve around the growing season, even within the city's limits. Urban dwellers watch for grocery store sales, roadside corn stands and double-check their sprinkler system for the greener grass to come.
Co-founders of the Little Free Garden Project and Ugly Food of the North include, from left, Megan Myrdal, Gia Rassier and Jeff Knight. Special to The Forum

MOORHEAD - In the Midwest, our lives can often revolve around the growing season, even within the city's limits. Urban dwellers watch for grocery store sales, roadside corn stands and double-check their sprinkler system for the greener grass to come.

But this summer, area organizations and businesses are inviting locals to develop a deeper connection with food through community gardening projects and events.

Modeled from the Little Free Library Project in Fargo started in 2012, the Little Free Garden (LGF) provides healthy, locally grown food for anyone who wants it or needs it, co-founder Megan Myrdal explains.

"Little Free Gardens are small raised-bed gardens that people put in publicly accessible spaces," Myrdal says.

This project encourages anyone to buy or install this small 2-by-4 foot, raised-bed structure in an easily accessible place. Myrdal says most people place these in their front yards, but others - hindered by lack of sunshine or space - find a space by finding a compromise with their neighbors or asking their landlords.

"We're pretty confident that anyone who really wants a garden can make it happen. For apartments, we suggest that people contact their apartment manager to see if they're allowed to have a small raised-bed garden around the building," Myrdal says. "We've also had some people ask if they can grow the food on their patio and leave it in the front entrance for their neighbors."

After purchasing or building this raised-bed structure, people have the opportunity through LGF to register it so it will appear on the LGF map at littlefreegarden.com/map.

"Transportation can be a major issue for people to get fresh produce, particularly locally produce available," Myrdal says. "By locating free gardens close to where people live, we hope that access, availability and the fact that it's free for the taking will allow more people to enjoy fresh, local produce."

Motivated by a passion to increase access to locally-grown produce, the LFG project grew out of Ugly Food of the North, an organization focused on creating sustainable food networks and creating community. The LFG project was first introduced at the Little Free Garden Build Day at Concordia College in April 2016 with the help of Myrdal's Ugly Food the North co-founders, Gia Rassier and Jeff Knight.

Myrdal says in addition to providing free produce to those who need it, the Little Free Garden is a community-building tool.

"Having a Little Free Garden creates a space for people to connect with neighbors and strangers, and reconnects people to the land and the act of growing food," she says.

Locals who have a Little Free Garden - like 32-year-old Blaine Booher - say that having a Little Free Garden in their yard has created some interesting conversations between neighbors.

To increase the reach of the project, Fargo Stuff, an e-commerce business, has sold Little Free Garden Starter Kits for $25 since December 2017. The kit includes a how-to-build guide, weather-resistant placard, booklet and poster with square foot garden tips, guidelines and a Little Free Garden sticker. (Little Free Garden Starter Kits are available online at fargostuff.com/littlefreegarden.)

Little Free Gardens are now found across the country.

"After last weekend, we now have 136 Little Free Gardens in nine states plus Canada," Myrdal says.

Because of this, Myrdal says the group encourages people to check with local horticulture societies or master gardening groups to determine what plants are most suitable for their climate.

"But we generally try to encourage people to plant foods that are perpetually harvestable (cherry tomatoes, peas, leafy greens, etc.), and something that is recommended for container growing," she says.

What continues to help the project blossom is the community events that allow people to get in touch with gardening in creative ways. In fact, Booher says this is one reason he purchased and built the Little Free Garden.

During the Spring Red River Market April 21, more than 80 people painted their own work of art onto the Little Free Garden. The Creative Plains Foundation made it possible for the Little Free Garden to offer up the opportunity for locals to paint the pre-built Little Free Garden. (At the time of writing this on April 26, Little Free Garden no. 130 did not have permanent home.)

"Seeing how people have made Little Free Garden their own through painting or even wood burning has been really interesting," Myrdal says. "Little Free Gardens have become art projects and conversation-starters all over the community."

Celebrate food at 'First Fridays'

A new partnership between organizations has created a new space for those interested in learning more about sustainable food networks, food policies and issues.

"We saw how 1 Million Cups creates a space for people to network, share ideas, celebrate success and to be open and honest about challenges has really catalyzed the entrepreneurial ecosystem that many enjoy today," Myrdal says. "We realized this space could be created for food."

So First Fridays at B was born.

With the help of Ugly Food of the North, Cass Clay Food Commission, a local food policy council, worked to create a space where people could learn more about food system priorities and policy ideas about a year ago. Then these groups approached Theatre B about using its new location on 10th Street in Moorhead.

"It's really natural to blend the art and food community. Theatre B has been an ideal space for us and we love this partnership," Myrdal says.

It its inaugural season, First Fridays at B has hosted four events with its finale in May.

"During First Fridays, we have an opportunity for community announcements and average about 10 groups that share events, volunteer opportunities, grants, etc," Myrdal says. "We feel this is a huge value for 'First Fridays' to help people connect and find ways to get involved."

The final event on May 4 will feature Heart-n-Soul Community Café founder Leola Daul, farmer and volunteer Kayla Pridmore, and team member and volunteer Deb Kluck. There will also be a free build-your-own oatmeal bowls with oats from Doubting Thomas Farms for all attendees.

"People have told us that they love this regular space to connect, to learn about what's happening in the community and to get involved," Myrdal says.

If You Go

What: First Fridays at B

When: 7:30 to 9: 30 a.m., Friday, May 4

Where: Theatre B, 215 10th St. N., Moorhead

Info: Co-hosted by Ugly Food of the North and the Cass Clay Food Partners, First Fridays at B is free and open to the public. It will be live streamed via Facebook live on its event page. Search "First Fridays at B: May Edition" on Facebook.

Watch all past First Fridays and read announcement Ugly Food of the North's blog at fmuglyfood.com/fridaybfoodspeakers/.