Above the traffic humming along Interstate 35 and buttressing a rail line, a dozen students stuck garden forks into black soil, prepping the earth for the fall crop of garlic.
"I like planting," said Suabzookatrina "Nana" Vang, a 17-year-old graduate of an online high school. "It's sometimes peaceful with the weather."
For a third year in a row, Vang is participating in Urban Roots MN, a St. Paul nonprofit.
Asked how to grow the emerald row of Swiss chard like the one along the edge of the 1-acre farm, Vang offered a simple trick.
"Don't have bad soil."
Farms across Minnesota are in harvest mode. Combines roll over cornfields in southern Minnesota. Beet trucks rumble in the Red River Valley. Here on Rivoli Bluffs in Railroad Island, a neighborhood on St. Paul's East Side, teenagers with Urban Roots chat as they harvest Broccolini on a plot overlooking downtown's skyscrapers.
Urban farming is a buzz phrase that elicits images of vegetables in the shadow of crumbling city warehouses. But on this small acreage — one of several across the East Side — the farm sits on a former snow dump site. It's part of a small, concentrated effort to build sustainable agriculture systems in the heart of a city food desert, led by student interns with a nonprofit gaining more acclaim.
"My family is pretty protein heavy," Eh Ku Paw, one of the interns, said. "So I've tried to introduce more fresh veggies into [the menu]."
At mention of a recent, delicious carrot soup, Paw's knees go weak.
The University of Minnesota Extension recognized Urban Roots, the St. Paul-based nonprofit, as the "farm family" of the year for Ramsey County at this summer's Farmfest. In July, Urban Roots received a $186,761 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which the organization hopes to use to further develop the market garden program.
Last week, Hayley Ball, executive director of Urban Roots, surveyed the student interns at the farm and restoration site.
"This crew spends a lot of time at farmers markets," Ball said.
The programming covers agriculture to conservation, potatoes to indigenous flowers. There's even a small orchard. Ball pointed to sheaths on new trees the interns are planting to protect the plants from deer, rabbits. She's spotted turkeys and foxes on the property.
Urban Roots traces its lineage to 1969, but it's operated in the current framework since the 1990s. Interns, ages 14 to 24, are paid at least $12.50 an hour. In the winter, they learn about nutrition and healthy soil, work in the fields when weather allows, and generate ties between young people and the food system that often feels alien in a city.
A 2018 assessment by Ramsey County found nearly 22% of residents — including 25,000 children — had low access to fresh food in grocery stores. The county says these food deserts exacerbate poverty, particularly among people of color, and lead to health disparities, from higher rates of diabetes to obesity.
Hunger-relief experts say the cause for alarm on food security has only risen.
This past summer, Urban Roots' intern ranks swelled to 80. Jaclyne Jandro, market garden education manager, credits "a focus on community and STEM justice curriculum" for the growth in the program over the last few years.
"We're incorporating the cultural aspects of STEM, getting in more voices and perspectives," she said.
At the bottom of the hill, Yee Leng Thao listens to a playlist on an earbud, pounding away on the dirt with a pick-ax before planting a service berry tree.
"I joined up with Roots because Roots teaches skills that school does not," Thao said, noting job skills and hands-on environmental learning. "Knowing that I am a part of restoring the Earth makes me happy."
Toward the woods and near a red shed, interns walked through the Broccolini, filling bags. Storm clouds amassed overhead, but the students didn't seem to mind, enjoying working in the fields before the coming winter cold.