'Something sacred': Southern Minn. community garden expands to community farm, gathering place

A woman kneels down to dig in the garden.
Svetlana Amende crouches down to plant some of her produce into the ground at the community garden plots at the Living Earth Center in Mankato. Amende moved to town almost 20 years ago from Russia and heard about the community gardens through word of mouth. This is her sixth summer planting vegetables. She said she was happy to meet fellow community members from all walks of life and learning from them.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Just outside the School Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Mankato, buds of lettuce and cilantro are already beginning to poke up from the garden plots.

The two acres of gardens began three decades ago as a ministry of the nuns here, as a way to connect people with the environment and their community. They’ve since expanded into a nonprofit, called Living Earth Center, where that mission continues. This weekend, it’s about to expand once again — into a community farm.

“What happens when you’re actually out here and you grow it is that you also cultivate relationships,” said Laura Peterson, executive director of Living Earth Center. “You cultivate relationships with the land, you get in the dirt, you get dirty, you have sunshine, you have activity, but then you also have neighbors and those neighbors become friends.”

Over the years, the Living Earth nonprofit grew from a small community garden and advocacy group to a larger network of gardeners, volunteers and community members who attend classes about gardening.

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A collection of seedling plants.
Some hot pepper plants are housed inside the red barn at the Living Earth Center in Mankato. Classes and groups of people can come and learn about gardening and nutrition at the community garden.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

The gardeners come from different cultural backgrounds, with varying levels of gardening experience. Many hear about the programs through word of mouth, as a way to connect with produce from their own food traditions — which can sometimes be tough to find at a local grocery store. And Living Earth Center is focusing some of its recruitment efforts on connecting with people from local immigrant and refugee communities.

Peterson said many of the people who join the project are looking for more than just bitter melon, Jerusalem artichoke and lemongrass. They’re also looking for community.

“You have conversations about life and everything like that and that’s huge for community resilience,” she said. “I believe, full force, that these types of spaces are really, really important to the strength and resilience of our communities.”

That’s one of the reasons Svetlana Amende gardens here. She enjoys planting dill and garlic on her plot. She’s lived in Mankato for two decades, after moving from Russia. This is her sixth summer planting in the community gardens. Amende used to garden back in Russia and was happy to find others in her community who shared that interest.

A woman gestures out towards planting beds.
Living Earth Center executive director Laura Peterson tours the community garden spaces outside of School Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Mankato.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

“I was fortunate to discover a few years ago about this community garden, and it's a very nice, clean environment,” Amende said. “I really enjoy learning about different cultures, what they grow, what they eat and — most important — for me to grow my produce.”

There’s a huge demand for community garden space. Peterson said that Living Earth has had waiting lists, and has sometimes had to turn people away when there’s limited space. The interest in fresh produce hasn’t waned.

Now, Living Earth Center is taking their gardens a step further by opening up a community farm that will introduce fresh produce into their local food economy.

Recently, the nonprofit obtained the former Blue Earth County Community Farm site, off of Old State Highway 66 and Indian Lake Road. The new Living Earth Center community farm will grow produce to be donated to local food assistance programs.

The grand opening is set for Saturday.

Blue Earth County Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg was a part of the group that worked on transitioning the farm from the county’s to the nonprofit’s hands.

“The beauty is that Laura and Living Earth Center has already been doing the training, already been doing with kids and different organizations on how to grow vegetables and different things,” Stuehrenberg said.

A close-up of hands holding root plants.
Laura Peterson, executive director of the Living Earth Center in Mankato, holds Mexican tuberose in her hands. It was gifted to her from one of the gardeners at the community gardens.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

“This is exactly what Blue Earth County wants to do. We need to have a management program that we know who’s going to be there year after year. And now, that’s what we have. I’m just so excited about this. I’m just happy as can be.”

Already the plot is lined with neat rows of dirt where watermelon, carrots, hot peppers, zucchini, squash and tomatoes will soon grow. Carol Harder, the farm’s manager, said there’s already interest from people passing by the fenced plot.

“It’s amazing, just all the people that walk by and are curious,” Harder said. “They’ll ask me for information about how you grow something because they’ve had no experience [gardening]. Their own experience of obtaining food is from a grocery store.”

Living Earth Center is inviting community members to visit the farm on Saturday and learn more about working this land — and they’re looking for volunteers, too. Peterson said anyone who’s interested — no matter their level of experience — is invited to help plant or care for the land.

“There’s something sacred about this,” Peterson said. “There’s something sacred about bringing people together and being able to bring people together to share common ground, but also to cultivate something that’s just more than food. To cultivate and share ideas — and make friends and have conversations.”