UWEX Helps MicroFarm Grow From Vacant City Lot

30th Brown map - MJS

By Tom Daykin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“A former factory site on Milwaukee’s north side is being cleaned up, with the property being prepared for something not usually found in that urban neighborhood.

A farm.

Or, more accurately, a micro-farm — which could become a profitable part of the growing urban agriculture movement.

The city-owned vacant lot, covering around 1.5 acres at 2055-2063 N. 30th St., will be rented for three years at a nominal rate to Cream City Farms, owned by David Johnson. He plans to begin planting in June, growing lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce for local restaurants and farmers markets.

“I’m trying to grow varieties you don’t find in the grocery store,” Johnson said.

The property has had various industrial uses over the past century or so, including manufacturers, a foundry and a warehouse, said Tory Kress, an environmental project engineer with the city Redevelopment Authority.

But its relatively small size, and location away from major streets, make it an unlikely candidate for new industrial development, said Yves LaPierre, a real estate analyst with the Department of City Development.

The city obtained the land in 2007 through property tax foreclosure, and is using a $200,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to pay for cleanup work approved by the state Department of Natural Resources. Five underground storage tanks have been carted away, and contaminated soil will be removed to make the land safe for farming, Kress said.

The Redevelopment Authority’s board recently approved a plan to use $165,000 in Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District funds to install a storm-water management system for the site.

That work will provide irrigation for the micro-farm while also reducing the risk of flooding from storm-water runoff. The system, including underground cisterns, is to be installed this spring.

The city has worked with groups to establish community gardens on other vacant lots. The typical three-year lease involves annual rent of just $25, Kress said.

The nonprofit Victory Garden Initiative leased a 1.2-acre city lot, at 220 E. Concordia Ave., for four years before buying the property in February 2014 for $1,000, LaPierre said.

Known as Concordia Gardens, it provides 35 raised garden beds for seasonal rents ranging from $10 to $30.

The site also has a “food forest,” featuring trees and shrubs for apples, cherries, pears, olives, hazelnuts and other produce, said Gretchen Mead, executive director.

Other community garden groups include Walnut Way Conservation Corp., which also is developing Innovation and Wellness Commons, including a juice bar, commercial kitchen and a small Outpost store, at 1615-1617 W. North Ave.

The urban farming movement’s leaders include Will Allen, chief executive officer at Growing Power Inc., a nationally known nonprofit group that owns a farm at 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive. Growing Power operates other farms and community gardens in the Milwaukee area, a cafe and market at 2719 N. King Drive, and farms in Chicago and Madison.

Bigger than garden plots

Micro-farms are bigger than a community garden plot but typically smaller than Growing Power’s Silver Spring Drive operation. They range up to about 1.5 acres, said Ryan Schone, Local Foods Instructional Specialist at the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Milwaukee County office.

They include a beginning farmers program, which UW Extension launched in 2014 at four Milwaukee County community garden sites: Green Corridor Gardens, at S. 6th St. and W. Howard Ave.; Kohl Farm, 8300 W. County Line Road; Timmerman Field Gardens, 9200 W. Appleton Ave., and Firefly Ridge, 10256 W. Underwood Parkway, Wauwatosa.

Those micro-farms, some as small as 2,500 square feet, raised fruits and vegetables for sale at farmers markets, and for local businesses such as Riverwest Co-op, Braise Restaurant and Wolf Peach, Schone said.

Also, Pete’s Community Farm, at S. Muskego Ave. and W. Arrow St. and supported through a UW Extension partnership with CORE/El Centro health organization and the nearby Pete’s Fruit Market, 1400 S. Union St., raised chickens, in addition to growing such produce as peppers, carrots, strawberries and tomatoes, he said.

The farmers at the UW Extension sites are allowed to use the land for small fees, and get help developing business plans. The program, supported by a federal grant, is designed to see if micro-farms can be profitable, Schone said.

“It’s a big question,” Schone said. “Ultimately, it’s really about scale.”

That includes the farmers growing enough produce and having enough steady wholesale customers, such as restaurants, to generate revenue to cover their expenses, he said.

Soil, water are concerns

The challenges at some sites last summer included poor soil quality, and a lack of easy access to water, Schone said. The program bought a small water tank for the Kohl Farm, he said, and is seeking grants to pay for additional equipment and material to improve those areas.”

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