Thursday, September 15, 2016

Environmental Studies Field Trips: Frogtown Farm

CGEE Student Voice
Environmental Studies Field Trip Series
by Jenni Abere

This week, Hamline's Environmental Studies Field Trip Practicum class started the year off with a trip to nearby Frogtown Farm. This St. Paul urban farm and public park is in its first full season of production, so there is a lot of work to be done this fall. My class came to learn about the farm while we assisted with weeding in the fields and preparing for Saturday's Harvest Festival.

The class heads up the hill to the farm.

Frogtown Farm's History: Building Soil in the City

I had been to Frogtown Farm before; last fall, another field-trip based Environmental Studies class visited several times. Last year, the farm was not in full production mode. The site of the farm was once the House of the Good Shepherd; built and run by Sisters as a refuge for troubled girls and young women.

Turning the site of a large building into a farm has posed some problems. For one, the soil was very poor. Last summer, Frogtown Farm's acres consisted mostly of fields of peas and oats. These crops would build soil and fix the nitrogen level. They also grew a few small patches of leafy greens and were constructing a hoophouse.

This fall, the change and growth was remarkable. The once-scraggly pea and oat field is now full of rows and rows of crops: tomatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, kale, peppers, asparagus. The variety is stunning. The hoophouse is now complete, and teeming with several varieties of tomatoes and peppers and herbs.

Colorful rows of crops.

Poor soil is a common problem for urban farms and gardens. It seems that Frogtown Farm has overcome that first challenge.

Water Management: Fighting Gravity

Perhaps the biggest problem Frogtown Farm faces is water retainment. The farm is located atop a hill, so the question is: How do you keep water on top of a hill?

So far, they have implemented rain gardens and deep berms around the fields to trap water. Fruit trees planted in the berms have a dual purpose: providing food, and retaining water once they grow long roots.

Berms and growing fruit trees help retain water.

Keeping water at the top of the hill will benefit the crops, but it also protects the environment by reducing runoff during rainfalls. In an urban area this is a very important goal that will prevent pollution from reaching our lakes and rivers.

Exciting Future: Capturing Heat from Compost?

The inside of the hoophouse.
This season, the farm has sold its produce locally. In the future, there are some exciting possibilities. Farm to table restaurants? Partnerships with local schools? Frogtown Farm is unique because it is on public land. Being a part of the community is of the utmost importance. There are informative signs everywhere in the farm/park so that people passing through can learn about the work that is done there. There are plans for community garden plots on the site, as well as a community kitchen if the need is there. Public events such as this Saturday's Harvest Festival bring the community together over a meal of food grown at the farm; this weekend, it's personal wood-fire pizzas with veggie toppings! Yum!

One particular plan for this fall excited me. Frogtown Farm's hoophouse already extends the growing season dramatically, but an experiment will see if they can stretch this further. Frogtown Farm has a huge compost pile, of course, and it can reach an internal heat of 130°F. Could this high temperature be used to heat the hoophouse during late fall and winter?

This is an amazing idea: To reduce waste and extend the growing season at the same time!

This first field trip was a great way to get out in the community and learn about urban agriculture in a hands-on way. Pulling weeds and eating fresh tomatoes during a class discussion is a rare opportunity.

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