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Working a plot of land at Rice Street Gardens in the east metro is a multigenerational event for Esther Brown.
Brown grew up on a farm in Nepal, and moved to the United States as a young woman in 2009. She settled in South Dakota, married a man from Colorado, and two years later moved to Minnesota, where her mother and other family members had settled.
After a life of farming, Brown’s mother had few opportunities in Minnesota to grow her own food. But that changed three years ago, when the family got a plot at Rice Street Gardens, a large community garden in Maplewood.
The garden has about 260 plots, and is used by a diverse group of people from the surrounding communities. Many of them are elders. But Brown brings her two young children as well, to show them where vegetables like hot chilis and Asian spinach —common in Nepali dishes— come from, and let them learn from their grandmother.
“I want to be a role model for my children. I want to encourage them to be healthy,” she said.
But the future of the garden is at risk due to a $2.5 million purchase agreement that the owner, St. Paul Regional Water Services, reached with PAK Properties, a local developer, last October. The firm has until the end of 2021 to make an initial $50,000 payment toward purchasing the site*, the water department said. It’s unclear whether PAK Properties will go ahead with the plan, but that doesn’t mean the future of the community garden is secure.
St. Paul Regional Water Services was upfront about the potential land sale when it allowed the garden to launch in 2016. But now community members and environmental advocacy groups are trying to figure out if there’s a way to keep the garden growing for years to come.
“What can we do to support long term ownership of this?” asked Dominique Diaddigo-Cash, a community organizer with the Sierra Club.
A place to belong
Rice Street Gardens is massive. Rows of 16-by-20-foot plots line a lot on Rice Street that sits adjacent to residential, commercial and industrial buildings. The plots stretch over two acres, down to a wooded wetlands area. A second section adjacent to Roselawn Avenue is basically its own lot. A large shared tool shed sits in the middle of the rows, next to a massive directory. Each plot is labeled with its gardener’s name. Huge rainwater barrels ring the edges.
The gardeners at Rice Street includes many Bhutanese, Hmong, Karen, and Nepalese gardeners, as well as local white, Black and West African residents. By co-founder Katheryn Schneider’s estimate, there are seven languages spoken at Rice Street Gardens. The gardeners include many retired immigrants from farming backgrounds who come to grow crops and socialize.
“They go to the garden and see people from their own community,” Schneider said.
For many older immigrants, like Brown’s mother, coming to the United States can be isolating. It’s hard to learn a new language after 50. Many spend their days in apartments caring for their grandchildren while their children work, Brown said. But gardening and connecting with the land —and other people who speak their language— enhances their physical and mental health.
“The garden gives them a sense of belonging and identity,” Brown said.
When the garden began, Schneider said organizers underestimated the demand, and anticipated having about 100 plots. Each plot is $20 for the season, and there’s almost always a wait list. Several families share plots with each other.
Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo credits the garden for being an inspiration for the Rice- Larpenteur Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to injecting public investment into community improvements in a neighborhood that can be easily overlooked because of its location on the border of three cities. That effort has garnered investments in infrastructure improvements for the area, such as new public art installations and pedestrian improvements at the intersection of Rice Street and Larpenteur Avenue.
“The garden is what grew the community to come together,” MatasCastillo said.
An odd spot
For years, there was a small collection of greenhouses on the site where Maplewood, Roseville and St. Paul come together, along with a for sale sign. Co-founder Schneider lives nearby and used to drive past the lot and imagine a community garden.
St. Paul Regional Water Services, which serves St. Paul and surrounding suburbs, purchased the lot for $2.5 million in 2014, believing it could be used for a facility someday. Schneider called the semi-autonomous governmental board and asked about placing a community garden on the land.
With no immediate plans for the land, the water department was receptive to the idea, and Schneider began working with Galilee Lutheran, a church across the street from the lot, on the project. They received permission from the water department and the city of Maplewood to put a garden together. The group was told the land was likely going to be sold sometime in the future, but they made the most of the space. McCarron’s Pub, a bar next to the site, let the gardeners use its former well. The city of Roseville drops off compost once a week during the growing season.
The group began signing up neighbors and reached out to the Bhutanese Community Organization of Minnesota and the Karen Organization of Minnesota to include the sizable local communities from those backgrounds in the space. The response was tremendous.
“Now it’s the pride and joy of everybody,” Schneider said.
An uncertain future
Gardeners at Rice Street have been told they can tend the soil for at least one more season. But the future of the land beyond 2022 is uncertain.
Because the land sits on the edge of three cities and has remained undeveloped, it’s not part of a U.S. Census Tract, according to Ramsey County Commissioner MatasCastillo. That status poses a unique challenge to PAK Properties’ plan to build affordable housing, she said: Projects need to be in a census tract to receive the tax credits the firm was seeking.
PAK Properties did not respond to a request for comment, but MatasCastillio says the firm is moving on from the project. Now, officials and organizers say the most likely outcome is that Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, which had been considering partnering with PAK Properties on the site, will take the lead. The nonprofit housing organization is still interested in developing part of the property, but is figuring out what its involvement will be, a spokesperson told Sahan Journal.
It’s too early to say what might happen with the site, just how large any future development on the land could be, or when construction would displace current gardeners. The current garden is so large that a multifamily housing building there could leave room for a sizable community garden space.
MatasCastillio says no matter the future of Rice Street Gardens, she believes that urban farming can play an important role in helping people access healthy, affordable food and community building. There are other Ramsey County owned sites in the Rice-Larpenteur area that could be used for community gardens if the current garden is developed, she said, including lots on Larpenteur Avenue.
But the current site has turned into much more than what its founders imagined, Schneider said. Over five years, the farmers have built up healthy soil using organic methods like crop rotation. Many of the current farmers live within walking distance, and even a nearby alternative site could limit access.
The Sierra Club took a survey of current garden users about the land and its future. In responses reviewed by Sahan Journal, many said they believe affordable housing is important. But they value what they have.
“It doesn’t mean we should give up what we think is healthy for the community,” Brown said.
Brown said she feels obligated to help voice support for keeping Rice Street Gardens. As an immigrant who arrived in the country as a young adult, she speaks English fluently, unlike many older gardeners, she said. She wants to help them express how much the space means.
The garden serves a deeper purpose, Brown said, and she hopes that isn’t lost as the land changes hands.
*Clarification: This post has been updated to further explain the nature of payments needed to continue the developer’s purchase agreement for the site.