Ethan Neal Of Pillsbury United Communities: Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture; Why It’s Important and Why You Should Get Involved

An Interview with Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine

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Urban farming can be a ton of work! We don’t use any mechanized tools, so everything we do is by hand. Weeding, to seeding, to turning compost. It can be a physically exhausting labor of love.

The recent growth of Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a modern revolution in the agriculture sector. What exactly are the benefits of Urban and Community Farming? How is this better for the environment or our health? What are the drawbacks? How can one get involved? To address these questions, we are talking to leaders of Urban and Community Agriculture who can share insights based on their experience.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ethan Neal.

Ethan Neal is a 7th generation farmer and laborer born in Iowa and raised in Northfield, Minnesota. He is director of food systems at Pillsbury United Communities, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit whose program areas include food accessibility. Ethan is dedicated to providing families with choice and access through food shelves, community meal programs, outdoor and hydroponic farms, feeding Pillsbury United’s goal of a food system nurtured by and for the community.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Growing up in Southern Minnesota and Iowa, I was surrounded by agriculture. However, I didn’t learn to grow food for human consumption until I moved to Minneapolis and started working with Pillsbury United Communities in North Minneapolis. That is where I learned to grow food, rather than corn and soybeans for cattle feed or gasoline. That was nearly 11 years ago now, and I continue to learn more every year. It is incredible how much knowledge is in our urban communities about food and agriculture. Growing up, I never dreamed of farming in the city. But it is now one of the parts of my job that I love the most.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

I have had the opportunity to learn about a lot of different forms of agriculture in Minneapolis. That can include different farming techniques like permaculture or hydroponics. But one of the parts of agriculture that I find fascinating and incredibly important is the culture behind the garden or farm. In the Phillips community of South Minneapolis, we are home to one of the largest urban Native American communities in the country. It is in Phillips that I learned about “food as medicine” working with medicine makers from different tribes, working with Indian Health Board doctors, and countless other mentors that have helped me understand the bigger picture of what growing food means for community. It isn’t just a business transaction. It is passing down culture and knowledge; it is our first medicines and plays an incredibly important role within society.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Communication and intercultural communication has been a key trait in my success. At Pillsbury United, we have an incredibly diverse staff and work in incredibly diverse communities. In our 9-person food team, we speak more than eight languages between all of our staff. In the communities we serve, we have neighbors that speak more than 100 languages in total. The ability to not just translate but to slow down and listen has been incredibly important. I can’t go into these spaces with answers; I have to take the time to listen and work alongside everybody to build out these new systems and to be agents of change within currents systems.
  2. A positive attitude. The work we do in the food shelves and free meals programs can be full of inspiration, but it can also be the first introduction for many to what the realities of homelessness, poverty, failing social systems, etc. can look like. I grew up with privilege. I know that. And it can be disheartening to deliver meals into homeless encampments where people don’t even have access to working toilets, places to cook or store food, and some of the bare necessities. Working within those realities, providing support to folks who are at the end of their ropes, can be difficult, so finding a way to remain positive and focused on our mission is an incredibly important trait to continue forward. We can’t let those things weigh us down as individuals, and it can be difficult not to bring those struggles into our personal lives. But we must continue forward and know that we are making a difference and a change in the real lives of the people who call Minneapolis home.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If there is a solution, then why worry? If there isn’t a solution, then why worry?” If you are facing a problem, think about it for a while. Seek advice from colleagues and mentors. If there is a solution to the problem, you have no need to worry. Begin the solving process. If you have racked your brain and talked with people about the problem and you don’t see a solution, then why worry? It seems simple, but it keeps me going as we come up against new problems every day.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I see so much pride in my work. From the farms we have grown from bare ground to the new walk-in coolers we have built in the food shelves to increase the amount of fresh produce we can store, I find pride in so many different aspects of my work. However, for me, it is always going to be the people with whom we have worked. Especially the young people who have worked within our food system and have moved on to other roles within our greater community. For example, we were working with a young person who was experiencing homelessness who got connected to our nonprofit bike shop, Full Cycle. Once in case management and working on their skills at Full Cycle, they came into our urban agriculture program and became a fairly proficient farmer and hydroponic farmer. They obtained housing, got started in college, and eventually moved on to working with another nonprofit. They became a case manager for Native American women experiencing homelessness who found housing in a hotel block in a suburb of Minneapolis. It was there she noticed that the women there weren’t being fed and didn’t have access to food. She connected with another case manager, who happened to have been an AmeriCorps member with Pillsbury United, who connected all of us. I was able to connect them to meals and groceries, the one former intern was able to provide the transportation support, and we were able to provide healthy meals to the women at the hotel. But it all started because we were intentional about supporting youth, providing job skills, and helped them find their place in the community. It was a beautiful moment.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. Can you help explain to our readers what Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture is?

Community Supported Agriculture is an agricultural model that connects farmers directly to their customers. Direct business to customer sales. Typically, a customer will “buy” farm shares in the future harvests of the farm. It is supporting the farm at the beginning of the season, when the cost burden is typically felt by the farmer, and the customer and farmer reap the rewards together throughout the growing season. For me, this is a great way to get fresh produce and produce that you may not have purchased if you were to go to the grocery store. There are farms with thousands of clients and farms with a couple, so this is an agricultural model that can be done at different scales.

The simple definition of Urban Farming is literally growing food in an urban space. As crazy as that sounds, that can be revolutionary for many people. Whether that is a large-scale aquaponics farming operation growing food for sale, a community garden, or a youth farm, all of those things qualify as urban farming if it’s done in urban spaces. At Pillsbury United, we are trying to broaden the definition of what is farming, who is a farmer, and how people connect to their food.

Can you help articulate a few reasons why Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture is better for the environment?

Urban farming has a few unique ways of being better for the environment. One of the unique ways that it can be better in an urban environment is the water retention rates of urban farms compared to turf grass. In Minneapolis, our watershed eventually goes to the Mississippi River, which then has a massive impact on everything south of us. We have been partnering with the University of Minnesota these past couple years to research the ability to store carbon, have higher water retention rates, and even help remediate heavy metals from industrial pollution. It is possible to reverse some of the negative environmental trends we see in agriculture and in industrial pollution; we just have to have the will power and support to start making the changes that are necessary to reverse these trends. We try to use our urban farm sites as locations that we can have those conversations with community members, local political leaders, and even executives at large food companies that are located in the Minneapolis metro region.

Community Supported Agriculture almost always includes polycultures. Growing many different types of vegetables that work well together, that can help retain and rejuvenate soil quality, and plays an important role of connecting customers with produce grown in their region. Being from Minnesota, especially in the wintertime, our fruits and vegetables are traveling a lot of miles to get to us. On ships, in trucks, stored in massive cold storage, and so on and so forth. So reducing the number of miles your food travels is an incredibly important way to reduce emissions that impact climate change.

Can you help articulate a few reasons why Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture is better for our health?

There is a ton of science that talks about the closer to the actual harvest a plant is when it is consumed, it has higher rates of vitamins and proteins. Quite literally, the plant is healthier for you the closer to the harvest you get. So for us, that means salad lunches that we harvest ourselves! Both CSAs and Urban Farming allow people to consume produce that is closer to its harvest date. I would also say that CSAs especially get people to try new things! If you’re adventurous cook or eater, getting a CSA that is growing vegetables you have never heard of is a great way to introduce new healthy plants to your diet.

Keeping “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture that people should think more deeply about? What can be done to address that?

This is a complex question. There are always going to be “what ifs” about everything we do. One unintended consequence I have seen is zoning in the city garden lease program. We are able to garden for a few years in vacant lots, we put our time, our money, sweat, and tears into those places, but then the city ends up needing to sell the properties to create more housing. We have a housing crisis in our community, and we see that when we are out working. So it puts urban farms up against increasing affordable housing, which is also incredibly important. But food access and everything I am talking about is also incredibly important. So it shouldn’t have to be one of the two, but there are times that it is, and people have to make decisions.

Where should someone start if they would like to “get into” urban farming?

There are several ways to “get into” urban farming. Maybe you have a home with a backyard where you can start growing things. Maybe you live in an apartment, and you want to set up a simple hydroponic farm. Or maybe you have time and dedication and want to volunteer with a nonprofit doing this type of work. There are always weeds to pull, seeds to plant, and food to eat. You just have to start researching a bit to find it.

How does inflation affect Urban Farming? What steps have you taken to keep costs down?

For us, when food prices go up, our food stays the same. We practice seed keeping, so we aren’t as affected by seed increases for the most part. We create our compost to add to the gardens. We have grow lights to start our seeds indoors before the outdoor growing season begins. So our fixed costs are very low now that we’re up and started. And our food will continue to remain local and affordable.

Can you please share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Got Involved With Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Urban farming can be a ton of work! We don’t use any mechanized tools, so everything we do is by hand. Weeding, to seeding, to turning compost. It can be a physically exhausting labor of love.
  2. Voting with your dollar is how consumers can be the change they wish to see in the world. Never underestimate the value of where you choose to spend your money. If you choose regenerative agriculture and CSAs, vote for that change by purchasing from farmers.
  3. In an urban environment you may find different “pest issues” than rural places. Instead of deer eating our watermelons too early, sometimes neighborhood kids just can’t wait until August and open every melon looking for a ripe one, and all of a sudden we don’t have a harvest come late summer. Things like that will happen. Brush them off, educate those youngsters about the importance of patience, save the seeds, and grow again.
  4. “The best day to plant a tree was 50 years ago. The next best day is today.” If you want something that takes time, you have to do that thing today so you can enjoy it in 50 years. So much of my life is trying to invest in the people and places around me and around our city so in 50 years we can all reap the rewards.
  5. Growing food is revolutionary. Controlling what goes into your body is a form of autonomy that is difficult to explain. We all have the choices of what foods we eat, but we don’t all choose where those foods come from or how they were grown. When you make those decisions, you are expressing a form of bodily autonomy that is invaluable. It is something so many of us had removed from ourselves and our communities. Whether that was by personal choice or larger unequitable systems. Growing a garden and eating what you grew is a form of regaining that personal independence and autonomy.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

This answer might be a bit odd, but every Tuesday my partner and I watch Finding Your Roots on PBS with Henry Louis Gates Jr. I think he is just so brilliant and interesting, and I would love to have breakfast with that national treasure of a human.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Our website is www.pillsburyunited.org and that includes all the other amazing work that Pillsbury United is doing alongside our food systems work. We also have @puc.farms on Instagram.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

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