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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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7 Young Farmers Get Down & Dirty, Establish Big Muddy Urban Farm to Supply Sustainable Produce to Omahans

June 14, 2012 |

In just under three months, seven young farmers have taken the germ of an idea to create a sustainable urban farm to supply a community in Omaha, Nebraska with fresh vegetables and herbs and made it into a reality in the guise of Big Muddy Urban Farm. Big Muddy Urban Farm consists of five decentralized plots situated in North Omaha. The urban farm’s founders, who collectively brought Big Muddy to life and work its urban fields, aspire to create a new source of sustainably grown produce and herbs for their city, to become a self-sustaining farm operation and inspire other area residents through educational and volunteer opportunities to grow their own food.

I recently spoke to Tyler Magnuson and Ali Clark, two of the founders of Big Muddy Urban Farm, to learn more about the story behind the farm, how it operates, the farming practices that it embraces, the challenges that it faces and more.

The Interview

Q: When did you start Big Muddy Urban Farm?

Tyler Magnuson: We started planning for this in December and started planting in March 2012. If I heard of someone doing that, I’d think that they are crazy because farmers plan starting September. We thought we were crazy when we started doing it, but it took a lot of hard work and a lot of cooperation – three to four meetings a week. But, you can start a farm in three months, if you need to, basically! A few of us were working another urban farm last year, and then we got fired or something in October, so in December we decided to start our own farm and that was 6 months ago now.

Q: How did you obtain the various plots of land that collectively make up Big Muddy Urban Farm?

Tyler Magnuson: If we had moved to a new town and started an urban farm in three months, it never would have worked. But because we had all these connections and relationships based in urban food production, we were able to build on those and create a space so that we could grow.

Some of it is rental, some of it is a partnership with nonprofits. We got one piece we’re growing on in exchange for being a vendor at a smaller neighborhood farmers market. So we’re at the farmers market and we bring our CSA members and foot traffic to the market, but we get the land for free. It’s kind of a win for us, and a win for those who are [providing] us land – and we’ve known those people for five years. We’ve definitely capitalized off of the relationships that we have built in Omaha.

Q: What do you grow on the farm?

Tyler Magnuson: We grow pretty much everything vegetable-wise, except for the brassica family – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower. First of all, that stuff takes up a lot of space and it’s really hard to grow organically. When we were ordering seeds we decided not to do that this year. There’s some stuff we grow specifically for CSA, other stuff we grow specifically for the market – like sweet corn. We also grow flowers and we’re going to have chickens pretty soon.

Q: When and why did you decide to embrace organic, sustainable practices?

Tyler Magnuson: All of us who have been involved came from some sort of either community gardening background or climate activist background, so it was never a question of “when are we going organic?” Obviously we want to grow food without chemicals for a variety of reasons, but mainly because we want people to eat healthy and not consume things that are toxic for their bodies.

One of the five Big Muddy Urban Farm plots. Photo Credit: Big Muddy Urban Farm

Q: Does Big Muddy Urban Farm have a desire to be certified organic?

Tyler Magnuson: I can’t speak for the rest of the collective, but personally I really have no want to get certified. I want people to trust our farm and come to our farm to see how we grow. You know, I don’t feel like I need to prove anything by getting organic certification. People can come and observe what we do, and that should be enough. It seems like organic certification is geared towards this bigger market where you have Whole Foods and other bigger farms and you’re growing for people who are really removed from you, so they want some certification to know that you’re growing well. We don’t want to be on that type of scale.

Q: Can you describe some of the unique sustainable, organic agriculture practices that the farm employ?

Tyler Magnuson: I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything super-unique, as in other farms aren’t doing it. We practice companion planting, trying to conserve water through various means – we have rainwater catchment in one of our systems, using beneficial flowers to bring good insects in and keep bad insects out… a whole bunch of different things. A lot of things that we’ve picked up from other community gardens that we’ve been a part of.

Ali Clark: We use all heirloom seeds. In terms of seeds, we try to purchase from companies that exclusively sell or put an emphasis on those kinds of seeds rather than some of the larger seed companies that also sell GM or non-organic seeds. Also, Co-planting rather than using insecticides on our crops. So far we haven’t really had a problem with pests, I mean we haven’t used fertilizers, we’ve been using manure or compost for the soil so that the plants grow stronger.

Q: How does the farm make money?

Tyler Magnuson: We haven’t sold to any local restaurants yet, but there are a few that we already have connections with. It’s been pretty hot, so we haven’t had a huge abundance of stuff, especially right now. As the summer comes in, that’s when we’ll be selling more to restaurants. CSA is our top priority. There’s a local food truck that just started up in town this year called Localmotive – we are growing a certain type of potato that they specifically wanted, so we have about 100 pounds of that that we’re planting.

Q: Is the farm profitable, or self-sustaining?

Tyler Magnuson: We’re not really putting money into it or getting any money out of it [laughs]. Fridays we have our CSA harvest, and last Friday was the first time that we got any money personally from the farm and we decided to take ourselves out to dinner at this restaurant that supports local food. I guess we had plans going into it to be able to pay ourselves a certain amount of money. But then more people came on and we had more upfront costs than we [anticipated], which I think is normal. There are benefits of having a collective and a lot of people working, and those are really awesome, but also the rewards then get spread thinner. We can’t pay everyone a living a wage – or we can’t pay any of us any money yet [laughs], but hopefully in the future that’s something that we can supplement – at least supplement all of our dollar bill needs from the farm.

Q: What challenges does the farm face?

Tyler Magnuson: I guess just a challenge of seven people. We have five different sites that are all not terribly far apart, but removed from each other to some extent. Then we have seven people, so on a coordination level, we’ve learned a lot of lessons on how we work together and how we can work together efficiently. We’re still getting better at that. Like I said before, there are lots of rewards to having that many people, but there are a lot of challenges as well. Other than that, we’re starting a small farm in a city that is a superfund site for the EPA, which poses more challenges when you’re [considering] growing food safely for people who want to eat local foods.

Ali Clark: Finding land that is viable to grow on, especially in Omaha because there’s a lot of soil contamination, and on top of that soil that just hasn’t been growing things other than weeds and grass. We’re working on the soil quality as well, using different techniques like compost, and we’re adding soil manure to one of our sites next week in order to improve the soil and add life back to it.

Also, we’ve been learning a lot about how to communicate within our own group – so that was a struggle that we dealt with a lot in the beginning but we’re definitely finding more of a balance there. Some of our members don’t have cell phones, so that’s kind of tricky. So once you’re out in the field, you have to make sure that you know where people are, so that if they want to connect, they can.

Q: What does the future look like for Big Muddy Urban Farm?

Tyler Magnuson: I think we would really like to buy some of our own land in the city instead of renting, and have more stuff based around permaculture – more fruit trees, more perennials. Also expanding it so that we don’t have to work boring day jobs that aren’t fulfilling. We’d all really like to not work at all and just be doing the farm. Right now a lot of us have part time jobs and also farm, so it can get really hectic. Expanding our operation a little bit so that we can have more time to put towards it, so that our farm is profitable.


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