Entrepreneurial Opportunities Growing in the Backyard
From wind power dotting the prairies to bio-fuels research at the University of Minnesota, Morris, this state is emerging as a leader in the green economy. That's made Minnesota, especially the Twin Cities, an ideal place for enthusiastic young talent to start careers and congregate.
For college students like me, the shear benefits of green living also make the area attractive. While my home state of Oregon and East coast cities get the public transit attention, Minneapolis and St. Paul's transportation plans have incorporated a well-linked network of buses, rail, bike access and walkable neighborhoods. These trends, along with other sustainable living solutions, suit green-conscious and car-less college students well.
Many of these young, ambitious folks participate in a fellowship called Summer of Solutions (SoS). The program is an attempt to depoliticize green economics and bring sustainable lifestyles directly to communities. SoS's approach to sustainable economic development is a little different than the typical college service project. We're trying to create entrepreneurial ventures. About 30 students participate in the two-month program, which is part of the non-profit Grand Aspirations. Founded in Minnesota in 2008, Grand Aspirations now has SoS programs in a dozen cities across the country, all focused on a vision of creating economic value by capturing the potential of the nation's young people.
In the words of co-founder Timothy Den-Herder Thomas, "Grand Aspirations seeks to help young people build careers and create an economy that benefits themselves and their communities." The main project focus areas include: community energy efficiency development, bike and transit access, sustainable re-industrialization and urban agriculture initiatives.
This summer, SoS participants are finding that important pieces are still missing from Minnesota's green economy strategy. In work at Minneapolis urban agriculture sites, participants have found cumbersome city and state policies that actually prevent the creation of some community-based green jobs. The program "Homegrown Minneapolis," sponsored by the City of Minneapolis, aims to encourage community gardening. While the program has spurred significant growth, some communities the program supports have questioned the efficacy of several policies. Because of city codes, most food grown on these plots cannot be sold for profit at farmer's markets, taking away a viable economic and employment opportunity for neighborhoods.
Additionally, current law requires community gardens to submit a $250 damage deposit, adopt a $2 million certificate of liability insurance policy, endure a long application process, and obtain sponsorship by a 501(c)(3) [non-profit] organization. I understand the city's perspective; it doesn't want people tearing up open space only to leave it an unkempt eyesore or potential target for lawsuits. However, there must be some compromise to streamline the startup process for urban gardens, reduce fees and ease restrictions on selling produce for profit. Would-be urban farmers and vegetable-loving citizens should have a better mechanism in place to navigate the confusing regulations that prevent them from creating a beautiful urban space, turning a profit on their produce, or even starting up at all.
Similar roadblocks to community agriculture arise from state and federal policy that promotes large-scale, commodity crop production. The federal Farm Bill rewards large producers-with the ultimate goal of making them competitive exports-instead of healthy, community-sustaining growers. Costly health regulations geared toward quality control in meatpacking plants and large-scale crop processing have unintended consequences on the growth of smaller family and urban farms like the one in Minneapolis's Harrison Neighborhood, which generally don't carry the same level of health risks.
As SoS seeks to implement a system which encourages the entrepreneurship our economy needs to grow, our participants are discovering the old rules aren't working for self-starters and local businesses who are trying to implement green, job-creating initiatives in their neighborhoods. We need these entrepreneurs to succeed if we are really going to build a sustainable future that benefits everyone.
The solution to Minnesota's green economy roadblocks is to think small. The young people working with Summer of Solutions are not economic analysts or experienced politicians, but we can tell you that a national recovery will begin growing at home, in the backyards of would-be urban farmers and entrepreneurs.