PLANT A SEED
Madison urban farms encourage new opportunities for community, fresh produce
by Gina Musso
What started as a $300 investment in shelves, trays and seeds to use nutrients and grow plants in a spare bedroom ultimately transformed into a community space and urban farm, now growing 19 tons of produce annually in Madison.
SuperCharge! Foods on Madison’s east side is one of the many urban farming initiatives in the area working to propel efforts toward urban agriculture while developing community and promoting new sustainable farming practices.
SuperCharge!’s farming initiatives began in 2009 when owner P.T. Bjerke and his partner wanted to explore their passion for nutrient-dense yet “holistic” foods.
“We started to think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to not only be able to produce food that is good for giving the nutrition that you need, but it could also feed your psychological self, your spiritual self, your emotional self,’” Bjerke says. “Those types of things — the entire person — the holistic approach to it.”
The farming initiative started as a grow space in Bjerke’s spare room and expanded into his attic before he eventually tore down his garage and built a greenhouse in his backyard. In 2015, he grasped an opportunity to revamp the then-retail and tattoo shop where SuperCharge! now thrives.
“I strongly believe in community,” Bjerke says. “That’s why I originally got into this was the idea that we could actually nourish all levels of our community right from our own back door.”
Today, SuperCharge! operates a nearly 700-square-foot grow room that cultivates sunflowers, pea shoots, wheatgrass, radish varieties, broccoli, kale, and various other plants and herbs.
Their 60-gallon brewer uses ocean minerals, Himalayan salt crystals and biodynamic preparations to equip the produce with essential nutrients.
“The food that we grow here — the microgreens — are actually, many of them, a complete food, so sunflowers and pea shoots are what we started growing,” Bjerke says. “Within a few months, we were growing wheatgrass as well, and those are three of the most nutrient-dense plants that you can ingest. They’re loaded with trace minerals. They have all these essential amino acids [that] your body needs to create its own proteins. They have healthy fats, healthy carbs — all that good stuff.”
SuperCharge!’s aims are not only focused on cultivating holistically nutritional produce but also on cultivating a community space that reflects the neighborhood in Madison.
“We really wanted to create a space for all people of all walks of life — whether you’re a yoga enthusiast, whether you’re a fitness enthusiast, or you have health issues, whether you’re a mom with some kids. Whatever it is, we want to be able to have this food [that can] be accessible and affordable for everyone and have a space where those cross sections of the community can come and meet on common ground and share experiences with each other.”
Across town, young urban farming pioneers are working on ways to engage a different Madison demographic in the community of urban farming — the UW–Madison campus community.
F.H. King: Students for Sustainable Agriculture, a student organization that supports tower gardens on campus, aims to provide students and staff access to fresh vegetables and herbs grown inside two of the campus dining halls, including Gordon’s Dining and Event Center and Four Lakes Market at Dejope Residence Hall.
UW–Madison senior who is serving as co-director of the student organization’s urban agriculture initiative this year with fellow senior Marion McKinney. “We do that by sharing food with students, obviously, but also working to bring them to the land, if possible, to get involved in the system in a more personal way.”
The tower gardens, which reach just under 7 feet tall and 3 feet wide, use a water tank with nutrients that regularly filter through the tower to supplement the growing conditions normally provided to plants through soil.
“The appeal of a tower garden is that you’re using less space. You’re optimizing with that vertical build, and it also doesn’t require any soil,” Wolf says.
McKinney and Wolf maintain the tower gardens, which support the growth of Bibb and romaine lettuce, edible flowers and bok choy. They encourage students visiting the dining hall and all university housing staff to clip any produce they would like to eat.
“The goal is for people and students to go and clip them and eat them … If you clip them, more shoots will sprout and will continue to grow,” McKinney says. “So that’s actually a healthier way for the plants to grow.”
Across campus, students in the GreenHouse Learning Community at Leopold Residence Hall take a hands-on approach when it comes to experimenting with sustainable farming practices.
The community, which includes about a third of the students who live in the residence hall, is open to students with any major who are interested in volunteer opportunities, seminars, field trips, group meals and discussions centered around sustainability.
The initiative encourages residents to interact with the hall’s rooftop greenhouse, which is home to vertical shelving units that support the growth of a variety of herbs, greens and vegetables, including peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, okra, spinach, cabbage and eggplant, says Malachi Persche, who oversees the greenhouse’s operations.
“You can grow a lot more in Wisconsin than you think using a combination of intensive planting methods in your outdoor garden and indoor spaces,” Persche says. “There are so many ways to get involved as a volunteer in sustainable farming around Madison itself.”
Persche, McKinney and Wolf say the urban agricultural communities eliminate traditional barriers to pursuing agricultural production and gaining access to reliable food sources — a priority that aligns with SuperCharge! Foods priorities.
Persche predicts that an increase in energy-efficient and lower-cost lighting options, as well as creative ideas for spaces and structures that have the potential to house indoor farms, will broaden general access to profitable and sustainable indoor farming efforts.
“I think that a lot of folks view farming as something you either have to be not involved in at all or extremely invested in because there are so many barriers to entry based on capital expense for equipment and stuff like that,” Persche says. “But if we start having these lower-cost methods that use recycled materials, or vacant lots and extra rooms around town, I think people without a lot of experience or startup capital can more easily get involved.”
Indoor farms offer several benefits, such as the opportunity to enjoy local produce in areas with less than ideal growing conditions, as well as disease and pest exclusion, says UW–Madison Department of Horticulture Faculty Associate Johanna Oosterwyk.
They also offer opportunities to supplement communities in nontraditional ways, Oosterwyk says, pointing to a vertical farm that prioritizes hiring employees who have disabilities.
“They’re getting fresh local produce, but they’re also employing a segment of the population that is often underserved and, frankly, ignored by other employers,” Oosterwyk says. “So that’s not a food crop coming out of it, but it is absolutely a societal benefit.”
McKinney and Wolf are grateful that groups in Madison help facilitate conversations surrounding urban agriculture and bring in community members who do not have access to traditional large-scale farming efforts.
“Even in Madison, there’s a good amount of food deserts in the area,” McKinney says. “So I think urban agriculture has a huge role in our local community, and I’d love for this passion that a lot of people have for it to expand and to populate throughout the community.”
Ultimately, McKinney and Wolf are motivated by the excitement and energy moving sustainable and urban agriculture efforts forward.
“I hope that this inspires people to look for ways they can have weird stuff growing in their kitchen,” Wolf says. “That would be great.”
5 Urban Farms in Wisconsin
Traditional farms are spread throughout the state of Wisconsin, but you’ll only find urban farming in certain areas. Urban farming techniques aim to enhance produce’s nutrients, reduce water consumption and cut down on energy while expanding access to locally grown produce. Many of these nontraditional farms use vertical or stacked growing techniques to best use their space and hydroponics — the practice of growing plants using a water and nutrient solution rather than soil. These urban and indoor farming techniques also allow for the production of plants not typically cultivated in colder climates like Wisconsin’s.
Featured photo by Perri Moran.