Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One Stop Shop for Food Production, Processing and Distribution

Every year, the U.S Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture releases a Community Food Project Competitive Grant Program proposal and this year the Edible Skyline is in the mix!  As part of the Crema y Cosecha/Cream of the Crop proposal, CORE/El Centro’s Edible Skyline rooftop farm will provide hands-on education and skill-building in organic fruit and vegetable production. Partnering with first floor building tenants, we will produce and distribute healthy, nutrient dense whole food products to the Near South Side Milwaukee neighborhood.

The first floor of the Milwaukee Fix building will be home to two whole food dairy processors: Purple Door ice cream and Clock Shadow Creamery (owned and operated by Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Creamery).  Purple Door, owned and operated by Lauren and Steve Schultz, was started in 2010 and can currently be found at famer’s markets, Outpost and other area Milwaukee retailers such as Beans & Barley, Sendik’s and Groppi’s markets. The new processing facility will allow the Schultz’s to spend more time with their growing family instead of driving to Racine to make their sweet product. Purple Door will be sharing space with Clock Shadow Creamery, the first urban cheese facility in the state - and one of few in the nation!  Clock Shadow will host an apprenticeship program, supporting the nation’s next generation of cheesemakers.  The cheese processing facility will offer public viewing spaces to education consumers on the cheese making process and the importance of knowing where your ingredients come from.

In addition to processing dairy products on site, there will be a small deli on the first floor to sell these products as well as value-added options (think salads, sandwiches and salsas) using rooftop-grown produce.  This “food hub” model is part of a rapidly growing movement across the United States to connect consumers with producers and shorten the distance from farm to fork.  We will be growing and producing herbs, fruits, vegetables, and cheeses in the building while distributing through local restaurants, corner stores and our own on-site deli. Possibilities abound for joint marketing, volunteer discounts and “Deli Days” featuring in-season products at lower cost.  As construction crews continue working through the snow-less winter days, we are still on schedule to move in mid-March and it’s likely the deli will be up and running before the year end.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Construction Update

The building at 538 S. 2nd St has its exterior nearly finished.   The recycled cream city brick building will be home to, among other exciting things, the Edible Skyline project of CORE/El Centro. In addition to on-site geothermal heating and grey water retention/recycling, this Living Building will use passive cooling and ventilation strategies to keep energy costs down. Our 3,000 square foot rooftop farm is another energy- and water-saving aspect of the building.  Access to the roof will be available via the open-concept, sunlit staircase or the nation's first-ever energy regenerative Otis elevator. The elevator, currently in use in China, will actually feed energy back INTO the energy grid to support lighting, computers and other electrical equipment.  Please visit for other building information, including the innovative funding structure and more information about building tenants. CORE/El Centro is also updating construction photos on its website.

Our rooftop farm is part of a 7,000 square foot rooftop which will also offer a small movement space (for evening yoga or meditation groups) and a 2,000 square foot meditation garden looking out on Lake Michigan. As the Plan above shows, there will be space for composting and educational demos, as well as some seating areas.  The meditation garden (shown here on the far right section of the rooftop) will also have seating and possibly a water fountain or other landscaping elements.  There are also plans to offer the rooftop area for event rentals, celebrations and/or corporate gatherings.  This innovative space is intended for public use and involvement. Rosheen Styczinski, FASLA, of New Eden Landscape Architecture, LLC has been working with the building developer and myself to design the rooftop elements. Construction is currently on schedule and CORE/El Centro is planning to open its new doors on Monday, March 19th.  We have much planning and organizing to do until then - stay tuned for more updates.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Winter Planting in Wisconsin

Though we haven’t yet seen snow (or much frost!) yet this month, the falling leaves tell us that winter is around the corner, which means it’s time to feed the soil, spend time in the kitchen and plant garlic!  Garlic is a member of the Allium family, related to onions, leeks, and shallots.  Allium is actually the Latin word for garlic.

Garlic enjoys the “struggle” of being planted in early winter and staying dormant until early spring when it breaks ground.  However, because it is surviving winter it’s important to “feed” garlic well - planting it in fertile soil and adding compost throughout the growing cycle.  We planted garlic in our Mitchell Park garden last year (harvesting it this June), and we found small (2 inch) heads due to poor fertilizing throughout it’s growing season - especially in early spring it is important to add another inch (or more) on top of the soil.

A friend who owns a farm in Hartford, WI has also offered tips on preparing the garlic for planting - he followed the below process with half of his garlic crop last year and found much better results with those that he “cleaned” versus those that he didn’t.  Here are his tips to help kill mold and other bad things that could potentially stunt or stop the growth of the garlic:

  • Soak each clove in a mixture of baking soda and water for about 18 hours (1 TB soda to gallon of water). Include a bit of seaweed fertilizer in the water.
  • Dunk each clove in high proof (greater than 85%) vodka just prior to planting

Garlic should be planted about 3 inches deep, 6-9 inches apart.  Be sure to mark your plantings so you remember what not to pull in the spring!  Be sure to mulch the garlic heavily just after the ground begins to freeze.  Then in the spring, when the garlic begins to come up, it is recommended to leave some mulch on the garlic to keep it warm, but thin the mulch slightly around the upcoming shoots, so they don’t have to work as hard to push through.  Again, this is a good time to add 1-1.5 inches of compost to the soil.

For other areas of your garden that won’t be full of garlic, consider planting a cover crop such as winter rye, clove, or buckwheat.  At this time of the year in Wisconsin, winter rye is your best bet as it will survive the first few frosts if needed.  Cover crops are quick-growing grasses that keep down weeds, protect the soil and even add nutrients.  We planted Winter Rye in Mitchell Park last year and I found the soil beautifully soft and dark this spring.  Plant the cover crop by “scattering” seeds over the soil and lightly raking them in.  Be sure to water them consistently until they germinate - for winter rye this is as quick as four days.  Once they’ve sprouted you don’t have to think about them until the following spring.  Kill the plants in early spring by turning them back into the soil as a “green manure” (or fresh compost).  Wait two weeks before planting your spring crops to be sure the cover crop has fully broken down in the soil. This is a great way to maintain the health of your soil - even through the winter!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

2012 Farm Bill Process is Heating Up

The Community and Regional Food Systems Project supported by the University of Wisconsin- Madison, Michael Fields Agriculture Institute, Growing Power, and UW-Extension recently offered a webinar on the Food and Farm Bill, why it is important to our local food systems, and some related key legislation which has recently been released. I summarize the process below, and suggest the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition as an important resource for follow-up information, resources, and links.

The Farm Bill, now being referred to as the Food and Farm Bill, is a collection of legislation which affects how Americans access, produce, sell and distribute food.  From school nutrition, to grants for beginning farmers, food stamps and farmers markets, the Food and Farm Bill touches all of us in some way.  Legislation included under the Farm Bill is re-authorized (i.e. reviewed and updated) every 4-6 years, with 2012 being the next “scheduled” reauthorization.  However, there are a few other things happening politically which may delay Farm Bill re-authorization next year.  First, 2012 is a presidential election year, which historically has meant its difficult to push through any major legislation.  Secondly, the country is in a budget crisis and congress has commissioned the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (referred to as the “Super Committee”) to identify over $1 trillion in cuts from the Federal budget.  The House and Senate Agriculture Committees have promised to offer $23 billion in cuts from the Farm Bill - this was expected to be finalized November 1st, but as of yesterday, no final Bill has been agreed upon.  

Meanwhile, two other “marker bills” have been released in the past two weeks which hope to be included in the newly authorized Farm Bill legislation. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011 increases or sustains funding for young and/or beginning farmers by supporting programs such as: beginning farmer microloans, conservation and environmental quality loans, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development grant program. This bill was introduced to the House on October 25th by Representatives Tim Waltz (D-MN) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and others are expected to introduce a similar bill to the Senate early next week.  The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act was introduced November 1st in both branches of congress by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME-1).  This legislation supports the development of local and regional food systems by focusing on: production, processing, marketing and distribution for both producers and consumers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition offers a detailed summary bill here:

Monday, October 10, 2011

On the Shoulders of Immigrants

A recent article in the New York Times offers a striking view of American culture and food system - “How can there be a labor shortage when nearly one out of every 11 people in the nation are unemployed?”

The H-2A program of the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Service allows for the temporary employment of non-U.S.-citizens for agricultural work.  The program specifically states that it is appropriate when there are not U.S. workers available for the job.  In the current economic situation, it is easy to imagine there would be hundreds of U.S. workers lining up for these jobs, whose minimum wage (under this program) has recently risen to over $10 an hour.  However, as the NYT article portrays, it seems not all  Americans are fit for the job.

Farmers who typically use this program for seasonal harvests cut back on their international hiring in 2011, to allow for U.S. workers to take the jobs.  Unfortunately it didn’t take long for these farmers to realize that there was a reason the H-2A program exists - many U.S. workers are not interested in these jobs. By lunchtime, the group of local farmhands that Colorado farmer John Harold hired had quit - some giving no reason.  Another 25 workers admitted the work was too hard.

It’s not hard to argue that the majority of Americans have grown up far from the farm, many having no concept of the work involved in bringing seeds to life and, ultimately, to the dinner table. Subject to long hours, heavy lifting and weather conditions (corn needs to be harvested, rain or shine!), farm work is not an easy job.  But it’s unsettling to know that even in difficult times many American workers will not put in the effort for a reasonably-paying job to support the food system.

Something needs to change in our country for the farm to be able to attract - and retain - workers. To build local and regional food systems we need farms and farmers.  Stay tuned to this blog for updates on the Farm Bill and other legislation which will make REAL impacts on the quality of food available and accessible for your dinner menu.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Urban Farming Resources from EPA

As part of their Brownfields Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a number of documents looking at the connection between urban agriculture and brownfields (defined by the EPA as "real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or  contaminant.")

Recognizing the industrial history of many of our urban green spaces, it is important to know what is in your land before planting food in it.  Even to sink a shovel into the soil could release hazardous chemicals or fumes into the air - not something you want to be unprepared for!  The EPA offers a number of tools and best-practices for turning a former brownfield into a healthy community space - whether for community gardening, farmer's markets, or a composting site.  Check out the Brownfields and Urban Agriculture document for Safe Gardening Practices.

Implementing Urban Farms or Community Gardens on brownfield sites are a great way to increase neighborhood social connections, food access, safety and even property values.  The EPA worked with the Toledo Community Development Corporation to create an Urban Farm Business Plan Handbook which offers tools and support for the creation and implementation of an urban farm.  From mission and vision planning to operation and marketing strategies, the handbook and its accompanying worksheets offer step-by-step guidance to build your urban business.

In addition to the two specific resources I've mentioned, there are a number of other worksheets, resources and links available on the EPA Urban Agriculture website:

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bayview to Walker's Point

Today marked the end of one rooftop garden and the beginning of another as volunteers disassembled and moved 12 recycled Earthbox planters from Future Green, in Bayview, to be used in the Edible Skyline garden next year.

The planters were put together by the Victory Garden Initiative (and others) in 2008 as part of a Garden Blitz.  Future Green owners Swee and Lisa are closing their store to move closer to family and offered the planters to us for use in our new building.

The Earthbox system is great for rooftop gardening as it offers an efficient water retention system using small pots of soil under the planting soil which specifically hold water to be used by the plants when they're ready.  This means watering every 2 days instead of twice a day!  These planters are especially noteworthy because of their use of recycled materials and organic soil.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Breaking Ground

As garden forks dig into the earth revealing precious garlic bulbs, construction crews continue to make way for new life at 538 S. 2nd Street, the site of the Milwaukee Fix Building (and our rooftop production garden).