Category Archives: Eating Locally

Urban Farming videos

Another video about being a Greenhorn.  Very inspiring video.  Coe College will be showing this full movie at 3PM on Nov 5th at a film festival.  I’ll be speaking at a panel following the movie about being a greenhorn.

From: Cold Antler Farm

I guess I’m a hipster?  Funny, I don’t feel like a hipster.  Check here.






Garden pics

The garden is finally in a state where I’m not completely embarrassed to show it to the world.  It’s still not perfect, but whose garden is right?  😉

The pic below is looking out from about the middle of the garden.  Directly in front of you is my cold frame bed.  It’s extra deep and I place two windows across the top in February to get the lettuce in early.  The lettuce has been dying because of the heat (and we’re eating it) so I’ve been sowing carrots in there as the lettuce comes out.  Directly to the right of that is a large batch of broccoli, cabbage and zukes/summer squash.  Straight across on the left are green beans.





The pic below shows the beans again but also the mixed bed.  That bed had lettuce and spinach in it.  It hasn’t been replaced much yet but also has carrots, some lettuce and cabbage left.  You can also see some kind of grass growing in there that I’m having a hard time getting rid of.  Behind that is the bed of peas, which I think I’m done growing.  They are a pain in the butt to harvest.  I think I’m done growing them.  On the right is more broccoli and carrots.  On the far left back is a bed of peas, potatoes and brussell sprouts, along with two onion plants that were left from last year I guess.  As you can tell I really need to get some wood chips down, but I’m behind the game so far.





Here I’m standing next to the bed of cabbage, squash and broccoli.  There are 3 beds of potatoes (I like to grow potatoes on new beds the first year so all the grass and leaves can decompose in place while they cover the taters).  Behind the black wheelbarrow I have some beans, onions, canteloupe and watermelon.  Also a bed with sweet potatoes and cukes.  Right in front of you here I have winter squash.  Only one has come up.  I think I’ll need to replant.  This area is all new this year and still being built out, but it’s still growing food.





My comfrey plants.  I finally got some after all these years of wanting some.  I ended up planting about 20 plants so I should have a ton of biomass here before too long.  The weedy patch right behind them is the sandbox which I’m going to fill in with compost and plant to carrots this month.






This year I’m doing something very different with the garden as I’m trying to grow a lot of things to store for the winter and focusing on the things we really eat, both fresh and preserved.

Even with all this stuff planted I still have about two beds that aren’t fully planted yet (we eat a lot more cool weather crops than hot weather crops) so I have to wait for July so I can sow more broccoli, cabbage and carrots for the fall.  I love working with small spaces and seeing each bed rotate over as one item is spent and replaced with another.  I don’t think you would get the same thrill from seeing that when you have a really large garden space.

Not pictures above is a bed with garlic and herbs in it as well as another bed of potatoes.  They are closer to the house but will move when they are harvested shortly.

It’s strawberry season too.  Last night I put up 20 jars of jam and last Friday it was 6 quarts of strawberries.  I have another 6 or so to do tonight and tomorrow and then we’ll probably be set for the winter.  My blackberry bushes have so many berries on them I’ll need to make plans to make jam from them too!

Easiest way to grow potatoes

Potatoes.  Who doesn’t love potatoes?  I know I do.  And I love how easy they are to grow.  If I was ever to get involved with growing  large amount of some crop, ala, monoculture, I would choose potatoes over our traditional (at least around here) corn and soybean rotation.

Check out this article on Sustainablog about easy ways to grow potatoes.  I think these are two good suggestions, but I like my method better, which I’m going to share with you.  It’s similar to his method #2 but provides a bit more safety from weeds and grass growing through your bed.

Method 1-otherwise known as the one where you plan ahead

When I need to plant potatoes I usually plant them on virgin soil that I want to eventually grow on.  I start the planting area in the fall by collecting lots of leaves.  Then I make a huge pile of them in the area that I want to grow the potatoes on (sometimes with cardboard under them and sometimes not).  Over the fall and winter these leaves will decompose, as will all the weeds and grass that is under the leaves.  When the spring comes I simply pull back the leaves and stick the potato seed in the ground and cover it back up with the leaves.  Now, as the summer progresses I cover the plants with grass clippings.  Voila!  When the tops die you’ll be able to dig up the potatoes and eat them.

In summation

  1. Collect leaves and make them into a pile.
  2. Let them decompose over the winter.
  3. In the spring make a hole and set your seed potato in the hole.
  4. Cover up with your remaining leaves.
  5. As the summer progresses cover with leaves or grass clippings.

The best part of this setup is that after you harvest the potatoes you have created a new raised bed that will be filled with mostly composted soil that you can plant right into.  Essentially you’ve composted the soil you’ll need in place!  I’m thrifty with my energy like that.

Method 2-wherein you didn’t plan well enough 

Now, if you want to grow potatoes and it’s spring and you didn’t plan ahead (I promise I won’t judge you) this is how I do would do it.

  1. Put down a healthy layer of newspaper or cardboard.  (cardboard is better)
  2. Toss down a little bit of compost to give them just a bit of nutrients.
  3. Put down your seed potato chunks.
  4. Cover with leaves, straw or grass clippings.
  5. When the tops die back you can simply reach under the mulch and harvest the potatoes.
  6. If you let these clippings continue to decompose you’ll have a nice bed of compost shortly.
There you go.  I think he and I are on the same page except that I like to set up the bed in the fall.  I also like to put down cardboard to kill the grass if I don’t pile up enough leaves to kill it for me.

Urban farming, the new way to handle unemployment?

Depending on which figures you choose to use, unemployment in America is approaching 20%, a figure that is quite remarkable.  Fully 1/5 of the people in America who could be working are not currently working.  I think urban farming could be this generation’s way to handle unemployment, sort of like a 2011 version of the CCC.

Urban Farm in Chicago

When you are willing to trade your labor for less space and less machinery you can create an amazing income from a small land base.  SPIN farming is a method developed by a farming couple in Canada when they realized that they could make more money by growing intensively on less land if they grew the right crops at the right times.

They have a farm income calculator on their site that suggests that a farmer with 1/2 an acre can generate $24,000 in gross sales on the low end up to $72,000 on the high end.  I think this is doable as well, but it does require a bit more marketing and growing of high value crops.  We use a CSA model for our urban farm and I don’t think that will get us to those dollar figures because a CSA model is similar to a bulk food model vs. a model where you would grow exclusively high value crops like exotic green, radishes or beets for restaurants.

While the situation in Detroit is well known, the situation in other cities regarding vacant land is less well known.  The Brookings Institute has placed the vacant land in Detroit at around 1/3 of the city area, of 40 sq miles.  I saw a

Urban Farm in Cuba

different article that put the vacant space in the average city at around 14%.  It’s higher in the south (around 19%) and lower in the Northeast (around 9%), but 14% of the space still works out to a pretty good chunk of area.  According to this article about Pittsburgh the size of the 10 largest cities in America is 340 sq miles, with Pittsburgh coming in at 56 sq miles.

Using those figures we can put the vacant land size at 5.6 sq miles in Pittsburgh or 34 sq miles for the average city in the Top 10 of America.  (Stay with me on the math here people)  So if you take the top 10 of our largest cities they would represent 21,760 acres of vacant space per city (640 acres per sq miles * 34 sq miles).  That would work out to 210,760 acres across those 10 cities.

Now, let’s attack Pittsburgh.  This article about Pittsburgh puts this city as the  56th largest city in America.  (this ranking is based on population size not land area)  I’m going to assume that the next 50 largest cities are all Pittsburgh’s size.  (I know this is crazy but I have to make some assumptions to make this work)  56*10% =5.6 sq miles per city * 50 cities = 280 sq miles.

640 acres per miles * 280 sq miles = 179,200 acres.

So, between these two figures we have 389,960 acres of land.  (Let’s make it 390,000 to make things easy)  If you use the figures that SPIN farming provides that means we could potentially create 780,000 new jobs by encouraging urban farming on this vacant land.

The most recent figure I have seen on unemployment puts the total number at 13.7 million people.  (I think is what the government calls unemployed which is not the number of people who are looking for job and quit, those who are no longer getting benefits and aren’t counted, and other factors).  By turning the vacant land in these top 60 cities into urban  farms we could lower the amount of unemployed in America by just under 6%, and would put the total number under 13 million.

A quick Google search puts the number of cities in America at around 25,000.  I have discussed the top 60 size wise here.  If we can assume for a minute that each one of those cities could support 1.5 sq miles of vacant then each city in America could, in theory, support 3 urban farms.  25,000*3 would be another 75,000 potential positions.

Now, I guess this wouldn’t completely take care of our unemployment problem given that it would “only” create around 860,000 new jobs.  It’s interesting though that an initiative like this would make urban farming the 2nd largest employer in America after only the behemoth Wal-Mart.  It’s interesting to think of all the job creation initiatives that are in place to help corporations create jobs and this one initiative could create the same amount of jobs as two new McDonald’s corporations.

Rooftop farming

That is a lot of jobs.  And this just vacant land.  It doesn’t include potential farmland in sprawling suburban campus’ or on rooftops in the city.  I’m going to toss out that an initiative that included those elements would easily produce just as many jobs.  Now you are looking at 1.8million jobs which would, by itself, lower unemployment by 13%, assuming that each farmer doesn’t ever hire any workers or that ancillary industries aren’t created off of this initiative.

Interesting though isn’t it?

Picture 1 courtesy of Cut and Fill

Picture 2 courtesy of  

Picture 3 courtesy of Treehugger 

This post cross posted at Groovy Green.

What I’ve been up to-Part 2

Otherwise known as: Matt decides it’s time he becomes a farmer instead of just talking about.

You may remember from the posts before I quit writing that I was beginning a new job at a non-profit. I was working for Block by Block doing flood recovery in Cedar Rapids from the 2008 flooding.  (Even 3 years later there is still a ton of work to do)  We’re coming up on 2 years of existence for Block by Block and we’ve completed construction work on around 250 homes, close to 60 of these homes have been complete full house rehabs from the studs up.

Along the way I’ve gotten involved with the Matthew 25 Ministry Hub and their food security program.

Last summer we built a small urban farm on a lot next to the abandoned Boys and Girls club and we grew what we could.  The soil isn’t the best and I did a poor job training volunteers and, frankly, I was really busy with Block by Block work, but we got some production and we learned some things.  (Gaia is great!)  Some produce was sold internally and a fair amount of it was used to create “Local Food Fridays” in our Summer Meals program.  (the summer meals program provides meals for people who don’t have a lunch, especially kids since school is out and they aren’t getting their free school breakfast or lunch)

Heading into this summer we are expanding the urban farm operation to include a CSA shares program.  We are hoping to have 6 families paying full price and 12 at risk families paying half price for their shares.  Along the way we would like to still provide produce to the Summer Meals program, perhaps supply a restaurant, create an in the city pumpkin patch and also train some local youth with the job skills necessary to operate an urban farm.  Some of this would be done on this plot and some might be completed on other land that is abandoned.

Our group has also been conditionally awarded a USDA grant to study 6 different ways to bring local food into low income neighborhoods.  The way I look at this grant is that it’s sort of like market research.  We’ll do all the focus groups, surveys and forums to figure out how the residents want us to bring them local foods and them we go implement the methods that are the most cost effective.  I’m pretty darn excited about this

(by the way, excuse me while I do a short plug.  I wrote an e-book about how we got this urban farm up and running and some of the things we learned about doing this that may help others you know start up their urban farm.  You can purchase the book by following this link to the Urban Farm tab on this blog.  You can use PayPal to pay for it and then download the PDF right to your computer.  Ok, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.)

Going into next year (and the years after that) we are working to redevelop a 4 block area into an urban eco-village that will encompass some creative reuse of old abandoned industrial buildings, super green energy efficient housing stock (all selling for under $100K) and an operating urban farm that will cover around 1.5 acres that will be a mix of intensive gardening, permaculture, season extension and other ideas.  We’re calling it the Ellis Urban Village and you can see if by following the link to our presentation to the City Council’s Development Committee.  (I see that WordPress let’s you put pdfs and other files on your blogs now but I have to confess that  the file will take up a lot of my allocated space.  You’ll have to follow the link.  Sorry)

In the long term, maybe our space will include other types of libraries like a bike lending library, perhaps a cannery or other type of shared common space.  We’d love to operate some type of co-op in the space and perhaps a coffee house/restaurant that people can walk to in their neighborhood.

I would love for our plan to be the first of many here in Cedar Rapids.  There are plenty of places around where you could easily create an urban farm.  There are acres and acres of land now that use to have houses on them and now are all grass (that has to be mowed) and they could easily make dozens and dozens of small 1 acre urban farms.  Maybe someday we’ll get there.

I’ve had a fair amount of question in the past about why we’re rebuilding in an area that flooded.  All the areas we are looking to rebuild in are in the 500 year flood plain, except the flood in 2008 went outside that level even.  I just feel like we can’t abandon this central core of our city.  In the future, when transportation will be an issue, we can’t afford to have this massive amount of space right in the middle of the city not be used.  It won’t be so easy to drive to the heart of the city.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to for the past 18 months or so, professionally.  There are lot more moving parts in each little section but hopefully that will give you an overview of what has been going on.


What I’ve been up to-Part 1

For over 2 years now I’ve been focused on trying to lose weight and get more healthy.  It’s for a variety of reason, and yes, vanity is in the list.  I started this journey by focusing on CrossFit, but over time I noticed that my lifestyle became more Paleo or Primal.  I’ve also started to modify my exercise along the same lines of lifting heavy objects and slow steady movement.  Hiking, biking, gardening, swimming, etc all fit into this pattern of movement.

As I got into this I realized how ridiculously sustainable this way of eating is.  I eat animals (local grass fed for the most part) and a bunch of fruits and vegetables.  The fat I eat comes from the meat, lard from the pigs I buy and some organic butter from the store.  It’s super easy to eat within your local food shed when you eat like this.  Oh sure I eat some things that aren’t local too, like bananas and sweet potatoes, but for the most part you can eat this way and eat seasonally.  All it requires is putting up more than someone who eats grains, dairy and legumes, especially since the bulk of your calories come from meat and fat which are easily sourced locally.  As opposed to a more plant based diet where grains are moved in from another location.

Living in Iowa I think about our agriculture.  It mostly consists of CAFO hog operations, beef cattle raised on pasture (until they are a certain age and shipped to feedlots), confinement egg production, corn on one side of the road and soybeans on the other.  If more consumers moved to a way of eating that was focused on a Paleo or Primal way of eating I can’t help but think of how much different our landscape would be.  Would our soil be eroding down the Mississippi at such a horrific rate?  (or see this article from the Des Moines Register)  How much cleaner would our water be?  How much more attractive would our fields be full of animals and natural plants instead of rows of corn and beans?  Would we care so much about deer populations if they just ate the grass in our fields instead of the beans and corn?

It also seems like a fairly easy way to live over the long term too.  I can grow a fair amount of the fruits and vegetables I would like to eat on a small plot of land around my house.  (I live on 1/3 of an acre so it’s not like this land is huge)  And with a small chicken coop it would be easy to raise enough eggs for us to eat.  Where I would get tripped up is the meat, though I have to say I can buy it from plenty of farmers in the area, and if something like this were to happen the amount of farmer’s selling products in this area would increase exponentially.

Of course there are plenty that say that the most sustainable way to eat is to eat a plant based diet.  I disagree.  The amount of energy involved in raising the grains for that type of diet is immense.  The energy involved in transporting those foodstuffs around the world is immense.  The erosion, pollution, isolation of farmers, disrupting communities to grow on a larger scale and ag subsidies all conspire to make me think that eating a plant based diet is not the way to go.  You can disagree with me, that’s fine with me.  But for me, my health, my pocketbook and where I live, buying my meat from a local farmer and raising as much of my own fruits and vegetables as possible seems to be the way I can live and reduce my impact on the earth.  It’s the diet that I think humans are evolved to eat.  It’s sustainable in my mind.  And it’s a great way to hedge against future food insecurity because so much of it can be raised locally.

Interview with Aaron Newton

My friend Aaron was recently interviewed by a local news organization. The interview is below.

His new book, A Nation of Farmers, is coming out very soon.

Interview originally appeared here.

I can’t get the interview button to embed here so follow the link over and listen to what he has to say.