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A Grand Experiment - Bolster Small Growers to Deliver Fresh Produce to Food Desert

Credit Susan Bence
Fondy Farm Project grower Brigid McGeehan prepares soil for planting in the new hoop house.

“Access to fresh food” has become a trendy phrase.

First Lady Michelle Obama has taken it up for the sake of children’s health.

Foodies cannot get enough of it.

A farmers market in Milwaukee has been working quietly at bringing affordable fresh produce to neighborhoods where little is available.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence visited its satellite project where small-scale farmers till the land side by side.

Organizers hope the experiment will funnel fresh fruits and vegetables back to people living on Milwaukee’s north side.

This experiment to bolster small-scale farmers was born at Fondy Market – 30 miles from here, on Milwaukee’s north side.

The open-air market dates back to the 1930s.

Young Kim came on as director in 2003.

“To feed a part of Milwaukee that generally does not have the same access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables that people in the suburbs do,” Kim says.

However, Kim has found the task of supplying farm fresh produce to a “food desert” increasingly daunting.

The market was losing small growers.

He says many rent land at exorbitant fees, with little assurance they’d have the parcel the following year.

“We found that most of the farmers had say a one year hand-shake lease. This project came about because we were worried about our farmers and how they were doing and whether or not they were making enough money,” Kim says.

The Fondy Farm Project secured 80 acres of land north of Port Washington and offers farmers reasonable rent.

So far, they are working about half of the parcel.

“It’s $150 an acre a season and they have to sign up for three years,” Kim says.

Now well into the project’s second season, Kim didn’t anticipate the thrill of showing off too many crops to name under the blistering sun.

“Last year it was so wet; we made the gravel road a priority because the farmers were getting stuck. So we put in the road, and then this year it’s dry,” Kim says.

You are hearing water being pumped up from 40 stories below ground to feed Fondy’s new irrigation system.

“They’ve never had irrigation; they’ve never had tractors. The biggest thing they had maybe was a Rota tiller,” Kim says.

The project is phasing in other shared amenities.

A petit but powerful grower Brigid McGeehan is putting muscle behind a garden fork.

She is working fertilizer into an patch of dense clay soil. She especially delights in the new hoop house – a portable greenhouse – this one about the size of a city bus.

“We built this on the 15th of April - a life changing day,” McGeehan says.

McGeehan relishes the possibility of extending her growing season “under plastic” and of learning from and sharing with fellow farmers.

It’s Manager Steven Petro’s job to bring together growers like McGeehan, originally from Ireland, and the majority of growers here, who are Hmong. He introduces them to ideas that may be new.

“Part of it just having farmers SEE it instead of forcing things on people. So it’s very much having a conversation with farmers,” Petro says.

And he observes how growers from different cultures approach their work.

For instance, while Western farmers plunk down seeds in uniform rows, others adhere to an ancient technique known as broadcasting.

Petro says scattering seeds liberally seems to work especially well with “greens” – such as collards.

“A lot of customers come from a Southern cooking tradition; one of the things they look forin their collard greens is really wide, big leaves. By broadcasting you create more surface area for the leaves to grow into, so the leaves get bigger,” Petro says.

Petro marvels at the ability of some farmers to “read” the land in deciding what to grow, where.

“A lot of the growers farmers have farmed their wholes lives; so a lot of the stuff, even if they don’t have a name for it, they don’t even sometimes realize they’re doing it, it’s like a second nature,” Petro says.

Petro greets the son of one of the farm’s most prolific producers.

She’s dubbed her parcel Dragonfly Acres.

Son, James Yang barely breaks his gallop as he gathers the items on his mom’s harvest list of the day.

“Potatoes, little baby onions over there, that’s about it,” Yang says.

As the young man’s silhouette disappears, Steven Petro explains that his mother was literally born in a farm field in Laos.

“When she moved to Milwaukee with her husband and her kids, she really tried to get her kids, and continues to try to get her kids out here just to get that experience,” Petro says.

The project is unearthing something unexpected and intangible, according to Fondy director Young Kim.

“You know I went into this thinking, farmers’ profit was the main thing. It’s much more than just profit – it’s lifestyle, it’s cultural preservation," Kom says.

Kim does not question whether farmers can successfully grow here – there is proof of their collective skill.

Last year, they harvested 370,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables and sold nearly everything at Milwaukee’s Fondy Market.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.