Rent an Urban Gardener: Local Produce in Your Own Backyard

Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.
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Farmer Dina Kountoupes harvests veggies for residents of Rivertown Commons, a 140-unit affordable housing complex in St. Paul. (Photo: Sarah Utter)

Plenty of green thumbs in the world are eager to don Carhartts and gardening gloves and spend an afternoon weeding, planting, and making friends with ladybugs.

But it seems to be a very specific type of person who's skilled at this hobby, while the rest of us stand by longingly, grocery bags in hand, regretting that we're not quite sure where our food comes from.

Enter Backyard Harvest, a gardening service in the Twin Cities that serves up food, not flora.

For a fee, trained gardeners will come to your house, cultivate your backyard, and deliver the fruits of their labor straight to your fridge (or fruit basket, as the case may be). It's the ultimate urban gardening trend, melding the urbanite existence with the constantly evolving food movement.

But it's more than gardening's version of a delivery man. Backard Harvest gardeners will also teach you the tricks of the trade, so that you can garden on your own.

The organization—a nonprofit, no less—calls itself a "community-building program in urban permaculture." The overarching description is appropriate, because they do more than grow greens. They also offer gardening education and work with farmers on small-scale food production. They want to connect people to their food, neighbors to one another, and farmers to the communities they serve.

Krista Leraas, Backyard Harvest's program coordinator, recently gave a few minutes of her time to TakePart to share what's in store for the program.

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A Full Service Garden flourishes thanks to the efforts of Farmer Andrew Montain. (Photo: Andrew Montain)

Q. What has been Backyard Harvest's biggest success story/accomplishment as an organization?

A. Given that we are less than a year and a half old, the fact that we are still here and still growing (in more ways that one) is a huge success for us.

When we started, people calling themselves urban farmers in the Twin Cities didn't exist, and you most certainly could not find a step-by-step program to help you turn your urban lawn into a permaculture homestead.

Even though it's only been a short time, there is an explosion of new urban farming enterprises that have started or are in the works including CSAs, a composting operation, hoophouses, rooftop gardens, backyard farming businesses and an urban farm supply store. I'd like to think that our steps forward helped catalyze this movement and can continue to push the edges.

Q. Why was the decision made to make Backyard Harvest a nonprofit instead of a business?

A. Whether doing so as a business or a nonprofit, social entrepreneurs are blending profit-making with public service. By that I mean that we are using what money we make to fuel our public service missions.

For us, that means serving two populations: one, folks who currently have less access to fresh, organic foods or to garden spaces; and two, aspiring urban farmers.

For those with less food access, we can be a source of garden materials, expertise and education to help them eat more healthy, local foods and/or to grow their own. For those trying to farm in the city, we offer training, mentoring and/or employment. So far we have employed and mentored six young urban farmers and hosted about 200 people at our public trainings.

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Late spring harvest. (Photo: Lisa Mason)

Q. Where do you hope to see Backyard Harvest 10 years from now?

A. In 10 years, I hope that we've worked ourselves out of our jobs!

Seriously, we really want to see lots of enterprises started and sustained that provide living salaries for urban farmers, composters, food preservationists and others making up a sustainable urban food system.

Okay, so I'd still like to have a job in 10 years but I think it may look very different than it does now. I think we'll be doing less urban farming services and more support of urban farming entrepreneurs, less services for folks with money and more services for folks with less money. Personally, I'd love it if we could offer scholarships for urban farmers to get formally trained and educated in everything from soil health to business skills.

Also, permaculture is a really important part of what we do. It's our core design and ethical system. In 10 years, I see us creating personalized permaculture paradises with and for homeowners, businesses and communities. Not only that but these pockets of permaculture will be connecting with one another to swap eggs and eggplants, get advice or share stories. Oh, it just gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling!


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