Urban Farms cultivate sustainability in South Bend and Elkhart
What is urban farming, exactly?
How does it differ from community gardens or my backyard vegetable patch?
And why even bother, when there are huge tracts of farmland so close by?
All of the urban farms I visited have unique origin stories and slightly different missions, along with a few important commonalities. They are for-profit operations using intensive, organic practices for high yields from small plots of land. Borrowing techniques from permaculture, square-foot gardening and French intensive gardening, they generally use raised, densely planted beds, inter-planting or layering, and multiple plantings per season. The soil is heavily enriched with manure and household compost, which reduces food waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. These farmers are making a living in the city by being deeply attuned to nature, and improving our neighborhoods and the environment in the process.
South Bend Homestead
Michael and Samaree Totten of South Bend Homestead bought their 19th-century home and its quarter acre of land with the idea of creating an organic urban farm. They have a homesteader’s DIY pioneer spirit, improvising, learning from mistakes, adjusting to the challenges of agriculture within city limits. Rabbits eating the strawberries? Michael is building raised boxes that will line the side of the house next year. Corn drawing mice to the yard? Cross that crop off the list.
Everything starts from seed in a greenhouse, including 30 varieties of tomatoes, several types of greens and more exotic offerings such as Jerusalem artichokes and Eight Ball zucchini. After starting in 2015 at other markets, the Tottens now sell their produce and homemade pickles exclusively at the South Bend Farmers Market.
Their activities feed a snappy website, with a free e-book titled A Beginner’s Manual to Planning, Planting and Harvesting Your Garden, a blog, videos, recipes and information about their classes and farm tours.
The couple’s initial impetus for the farm was, according to Michael, their “similar interest in growing things and getting back to basics, to stop consuming so much.” They want to encourage others to do the same. As Samaree says, “Even if you do something small, like grow a couple of tomato plants in a pot—whatever your family enjoys—even if that is the only thing you grow, you’re still participating and providing something healthy for your family.”
Red Oak Farm
With the vibrant colors of this extravagantly flourishing garden, it’s hard not to imagine Red Oak Farm as the flowering of something. It may be Nicole Bauman’s many years of experience: She grew up on an organic farm and has long been involved in farming and community gardening.
The garden is also a natural offshoot of the experiment in urban sustainability that is the Prairie Wolf Collective. Bauman and her husband, Jason Shenk, along with the others living in the group’s Red Oak Community House, grow as much of their own food as possible, use minimal fossil fuels and electricity and all participate in community outreach.
Bauman’s farm, a scant eighth acre leased from the city of Elkhart, is even more remarkable since this is only its second year of gentle hand cultivating and seeding. She uses all heirloom, open-pollinated plants to preserve seed sources. Her labor-intensive methods—eschewing even organic sprays and thus encouraging pollinators and other beneficial insects; never tilling the ground, which breaks apart the natural layers of soil life—are paying off.
Much of the produce is dedicated to CSA shares, but there is a Thursday afternoon farm stand on-site. One afternoon last summer there were coolers full of lettuces and other greens, piles of beets and radishes with their own pristine leaves and some eyebrow-raising spiny Japanese cucumbers.
Five years ago, lifelong gardener Nick Licina bought the empty lot down the street and started growing on it. He has since acquired four other lots where houses were razed, making up the half acre of Jelena Farms.
Though nominally retired, Licina possesses a restless energy and an entrepreneur’s love of building something from nothing. His gamble was to try to create a sidebar economy, he says, “a commercial garden inside the city of South Bend, to prove that you can profitably grow vegetables and make a livelihood in a city.”
Richie Janssen, the farmer collaborating with Licina this year, has had free rein to experiment with the land. With a degree in plant biology and four seasons at a Michigan organic farm under his belt, Janssen has been applying his skills to building healthy, fertile soil. He explains, “The ground is not nice, agricultural soil like you would find out in the country. It has a history of use as property in the city, so there are a lot of different textures and layers in there.”
Jelena’s plots are fragrant with herbs, a market niche that makes up a significant portion of its sales. In addition to supplying local restaurants, Jelena’s produce can be found at the Three Oaks Farmers Market and the Purple Porch Co-op market.
Janssen will be off to other adventures next year, but he and Licina hope that someone will pick up where he left off, improving the land.