Saltless Sea Urban Farm in Duluth, MN

A Kiss the Ground Farmland Program member

This month we’re excited to feature Starr Brainard of Saltless Sea Urban Farm! Starr farms on half an acre in her backyard, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota. She purchased her house four years ago, and has been actively farming for three years. Due to Minnesota’s harsh winters the growing season is very short, but she makes the most of it.

This year Starr’s summer CSA included edible flowers, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, kale, collard greens, lettuces, herbs, carrots, beets, shallots and leeks. Her proximity to Lake Superior creates a slightly more moderate climate, often causing her first frost to be later in the season than farms located further from the lake. When the ground is covered in snow and frost, she continues to grow microgreens indoors for her restaurant buyers. Rainfall in Duluth is moderate, but with abundant regional surface water and access to municipal city water for irrigation, water isn’t an issue for Starr. 

The Beginnings: Environmental Studies

Starr has been an environmental advocate since high school, and went on to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies. By the end of her schooling, she became tired of the paperwork and bureaucracy associated with her studies, and began to yearn for getting her hands dirty (pun intended). She desired a line of work that allowed her to make a tangible difference in mitigating climate change and landscape degradation, while providing for the human needs in her community. The most obvious solution was farming and agriculture. After completing a permaculture design course and volunteering on various farms, she came to the conclusion that urban farming would suit her goals and lifestyle. 

Regenerative Agriculture Training

Starr attended the Sustainable Farming Association’s one-day summit, and took Soil Health Academy’s Regen Ag 101 online course when in-person training was no longer available due to the pandemic. Though she had already been disrupting the soil as little as possible, the training gave her a broad overview of regenerative agriculture. This enabled her to pick and choose the practices that would apply to her small urban farm. All of her garden crops start with tarping and mulching, including any fallen leaves on her property. She then builds raised beds that are irrigated on a timed drip system. 

Starr has discovered that a portion of her yard must have been a garden in years prior, because the topsoil is rich and healthy while other areas seem to have at one time been covered in concrete. She’s applied compost to the land since day one through collecting kitchen scraps from neighbors, bringing in manure from a local horse farm, and buying compost from a local purveyor. Starr expressed how community is a deeply integral part of urban farming. She marketed her CSA program this year by handing out flyers, sharing on social media, and by word of mouth at the farmers market (where she still sets up a booth weekly). She says the farmers market is the best starting off point for building a CSA program. She gathered much of these skills through attending the “Farm Beginnings” class through the Land Stewardship Project, which included holistic financial planning and business skills training. 

A Shift to Full Time Farming

Though Starr started the farm three years ago, this is the first season she has farmed “full-time.” She left a position with the Duluth Community Garden Program, and still works two days a week at the Food Farm, a well established CSA farm in the area. This was also the first year that she started CSA sales; most of her sales previously were made at the farmers market, which is still a large part of her business. She increased her sales to restaurants this year as well, as her farm is small enough to be considered “qualified exempt” by the Department of Agriculture so she can sell directly to restaurants without additional permitting. She also has a Cottage Foods permit to sell value-added products without a commercial kitchen. In the shoulder season, she dries herbs and edible flowers from the farm to help boost sales when less fresh produce is ready.  Many states have adopted similar Cottage Food laws because preserved products are often a boon to small-scale fruit and vegetable producers, like Starr.

Starr experimented with raising ducks for eggs on the property, but after several years of doing so, she realized that the per-unit net profit from duck eggs had been a mere dollar. Although she misses the ducks dearly, she expressed how hard it is to leave the house when you have a flock to care for. 

While she’s happy with the acreage she currently has, Starr has developed a particular interest in perennial fruits and envisions eventually moving to a bigger property so she can experiment in fruit production. If she’s able to hire extra labor at that point, she would also consider farming on additional vacant lots in her neighborhood.

When we asked Starr how she would advise a beginning urban farmer, she offered the following: “You’ll get better at this. Don’t worry; you’ll get better.” Despite feeling like she doesn’t always know the right path forward, she’s noticed that the gardens look and perform better year after year, simply because persevering with the naturally steep learning curve. “Be patient with yourself. Don’t be afraid of doing a CSA.”