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Parking lot to garden plot

Growing Lots Urban Farm founder Stefan Meyer poses in a garden plot he established on a parking lot in the Seward neighborhood of South Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Three decades ago, Stefan Meyer was a young kid experiencing life on the family's corn, soybean and turkey growing operation just outside of Worthington.

Today, he's leading a project in a South Minneapolis neighborhood that, by next spring, is hoped to transform a trio of unused parking lots into urban vegetable farms.

Farmer Stefan, as he's known to friends in his urban agriculture circle, moved to the Twin Cities a year and a half ago after studying and working in permaculture and ecological agriculture in the Pacific Northwest for 11 years. When he returned to Minnesota, he brought with him a desire to share his knowledge of community-based agriculture. His background ultimately led to the creation of the Growing Lots Urban Farm last spring.

The farm is based on the Community Supported Agriculture model in which people buy shares into the CSA and reap the benefits as garden produce reaches the peak of perfection.

"I always enjoyed gardening and we had a massive garden growing up on the farm," Meyer said. "I kind of expanded my knowledge around it, and every step just made me happier."

Meyer, the son of Lyle and Deb Meyer, left Worthington behind after graduating from high school in 1992. After a year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he finished his studies at Mankato State University and moved to Oregon. He completed four years at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he studied environmental science and worked in water conservation projects.

"I also did a lot of study in permaculture and ecological agriculture -- working naturally with soils and farming methods," he added. "I guess it just spoke to something in me as an alternative and a different way of looking at farming."

Planting on pavement

A year ago, Seward Redesign contacted Meyer as it looked for a way to incorporate urban agriculture into a four-acre plot it plans to redevelop. The land included a quarter-acre parking lot, which it allowed Meyer to use free of charge this summer to test the feasibility of an urban vegetable garden.

Growing Lots Urban Farm was inspired in part by a project in Milwaukee, Wis., in which old lots served as a base for urban gardens. Rather than deal with potential soil contamination, the group placed a barrier over the existing surface, hauled in rich, fertile soil that was mounded and then filled it with vegetable plants.

"It's a lot cheaper that way, as opposed to ripping out and hauling away 6 feet of soil," Meyer explained.

With his Growing Lots project, Meyer said approximately 75 cubic yards of soil was hauled onto the vacant parking lot in the Seward neighborhood of South Minneapolis. Nearly $7,000 in grant funding was received for the project, with about one-third to one-half of the money spent on soil alone.

Garden beds were mounded to a depth of 1 to 1.5 feet of soil, with Meyer planting an array of vegetables -- from tomatoes and peppers to green beans, squash, miniature melons, potatoes and eggplant. Water was metered in from a neighboring landscaping company.

Lots of success

Though Meyer wasn't able to get in and plant the garden until late June this year, he deemed the project a success. Seven families bought shares in the garden this year, and for 15 weeks they stopped in to get their box of fresh, ripened vegetables.

While shareholders didn't have to put any labor into the garden this year, Meyer anticipates that will change somewhat in the future as people become more and more interested in growing their own food.

"This first year ... I wanted to work through the idea and not try to manage other people," he said.

While Seward Redesign will eventually develop the site, Meyer has already been given the green light to use his green thumb in an urban garden on the property again next summer. Meanwhile, he's crunching numbers on the project to see how economically viable urban gardens can be in the metro area.

"We're looking at how much money can be made off this sizeable plot," Meyer said. While he was fortunate to have the property donated for his use this year, he realizes that somebody is still paying property taxes on the parcel.

With the success seen in the Growing Lots Urban Farm this year, Meyer has already been tipped off to a couple of other locations in the metro where the urban garden concept could be implemented.

"It's definitely my goal to have a few gardens next year," he said. "We can expand to what we're capable of doing."

Meyer said urban agriculture has become a hot topic in the Twin Cities, which was part of the reason he returned here from Oregon.

"It's a really good time for (urban agriculture)," he said. "A lot of people are thinking about it, exploring alternative methods of getting our food and examining how do we do it locally and support each other in the process."

In addition to his Growing Lots Urban Farm, Meyer has a couple of other jobs that also deal with food and agriculture. He works with Local D'lish, a small grocery store that sells locally grown foods; as well as Backyard Harvest, a landscaping service that builds vegetable gardens for customers.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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