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Seeds of change
Fondy Food Center promotes farm-to-table programs for city’s needy

Photos by Dan Bishop

December 2012

The first time Young Kim saw Hmong farmers scattering handfuls of seeds in the fields of the Fondy Farm, he didn’t quite know what to make of it.

"I thought they were crazy," says Kim, who serves as executive director of the Fondy Farmers Market on Milwaukee’s North Side. "They had these 10-foot wide patches and they were just throwing seeds randomly."

It turns out the ancient planting practice known as broadcast seeding is ideal for some crops, including the mustard and collard greens popular among Fondy Farmers Market shoppers.

"A lot of our customers come from a Southern cooking tradition, and one of the things they look for in their collard greens is really wide, big leaves," says Steve Petro, manager of the Fondy Farm Project. "By broadcasting you create more surface area for the leaves to grow into, so the leaves get bigger."

Since the farm project began in 2011, Kim and Petro and their staff have come to respect the growing practices of the immigrant farmers who tend the fields of the 80-acre farm located north of Port Washington.

"The Hmong come from a strong agricultural background," Kim says. "They are some of the most incredibly talented farmers I’ve ever met."

Last year, the Fondy Farm Project harvested 370,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, which were sold almost entirely at the Fondy Farmers Market. The open-air market located at 22nd Street and Fond du Lac Avenue stands out as an oasis in the urban neighborhood that otherwise has little access to fresh produce.

The market, which can trace its roots back 95 years, made a commitment to increase the availability of fresh produce in the city’s North Side neighborhoods after a 2002 Community Food Security Assessment concluded there was a high concentration of hunger and reliance on emergency food pantries in the area.

"The assessment found that neighborhoods on Milwaukee’s North and South sides were most insecure," Kim says. "It’s hard to find staple groceries in these areas and when people do find them, they’re often up to 25 percent more expensive."

While residents on the North Side of Milwaukee weren’t strangers to the Fondy Farmers Market, the organization sought to develop programming that would bring more of a community focus to the market. Today, its operating season is marked by several annual events, including a BBQ Cook-off on opening day in June, a Greens Throw Down in July and Haymarket Days in September, a long-standing celebration that features a watermelon seed-spitting contest and cooking demonstrations. Open four days a week from June to October, the market draws 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a week.

On Saturdays, the events at Fondy Market are more family oriented. A Taste the Season booth teaches shoppers how to prepare seasonal fruits and offers classes on canning and making preserves. There’s also live entertainment and youth activities, like pumpkin painting and herb gardening.

"Farmers markets can be kind of intimidating," Kim says. "Nothing comes in a box and you have to know what to do with the produce once you get it home. It takes some knowledge; those are the conversations we’re trying to foster."

Other efforts to connect Milwaukee’s North Side with locally grown food include the Fondy Market Match, which matches WIC (Women, Infants and Children) vouchers dollar for dollar. Kim says the Fondy Market also is one of the few farmers markets in the country that is able to accept food stamps.

"When food stamps converted from paper to an electronic system in 1998, it forced farmers markets out overnight because the technology didn’t exist to read the cards," Kim explains.

Not to be deterred, the Fondy Farmers Market acquired a wireless handheld food stamp card reader within a few years of the program’s electronic conversion in hopes of encouraging low-income shoppers to return to the market.

But the 80-acre fruit and vegetable farm near Port Washington remains the Fondy Market’s biggest venture to date to keep Milwaukee neighborhoods stocked with a steady supply of locally grown produce.

"Our vision for the Fondy Farm Project is to show the importance of small-scale, local food on both a local and national scale," Petro says. He currently oversees a co-op of seven farmers who rent a total of 40 acres on the Fondy Farm.

In addition to bringing more fresh produce to lower-income neighborhoods, Petro says the Fondy Farm Project seeks to empower the small-scale farmers who have traditionally sold their produce at the Fondy Market.

"We were worried about our farmers and whether they were making enough money," says Kim.

The Fondy Food Center, the nonprofit that operates both the farmers market and the farm project, discovered that small growers were paying excessive fees to rent land – as much as $250 to $370 per acre. And even at those prices, there was little guarantee the farmers would be given same parcel the next year.

"We found that most of our farmers had one-year handshake leases," says Kim.

Stephen Petro is the farm project manager for the Fondy Farm Project in Port Washington.

In contrast, the Fondy Farm Project asks its farmers to sign a three-year lease at a rate of $150 per acre for a season. In addition to reasonable rent, growers at the Fondy Farm are given opportunities to learn more about organic farming and sustainable growing practices.

"Our goal is to create a secure, economically viable farm cooperative for small-scale, local immigrant and limited resource farmers," Petro says. Ultimately, the hope is that the Fondy Farm project will become a model for similar efforts across the Upper Midwest.

In addition to traditional fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, corn and peppers that shoppers are accustomed to seeing at the Fondy Market, the Fondy Farm Project is trying its hand at growing recurring crops.

Young Kim is the executive director of the Fondy Food Center which included the farm in Port Washington and the farmers market on Milwaukee's North Side.

"In the past, the one-year leases prevented our farmers from establishing longer-yielding crops," says Kim, who noticed a lack of perennial produce like rhubarb, asparagus and berries when he became director in 2003.

To boost the variety of fruits and vegetables the farmers market currently offers, the Fondy Farm has planted apple, pear and plum trees and ever-bearing strawberry plants, which bear fruit all summer long.

"It will help with our goal of increasing the amount of fresh, nutrient-dense food available to residents on the North Side of Milwaukee," Kim says.

To learn more about the Fondy Farmers Market and the Fondy Farm Project, go to


This story ran in the December 2012 issue of: