It’s only fitting that someone born on Earth Day has dedicated her career to caring for the planet. That Earth Day baby, Krista Leraas (above, right), has spent more than a decade working on farms and leading sustainable agriculture programs, and now she has partnered with Dina Kountoupes (above, left) to promote urban farming and gardening with their new business, Harvest Moon Backyard Farmers. Offering everything from full-service kitchen gardens to grow-it-yourself kits to garden coaching, design, and consulting services, Leraas and Kountoupes hope to have a busy summer this year encouraging Twin Cities residents to nurture their green spaces into potential food sources.
“The notion of a farm is that it’s there to produce food. The notion of a garden is that it’s there for aesthetics and it’s a hobby. We want to produce food and provide that connection to the land,” Leraas says. “It’s so new that we’re still developing the language for it.”
Though the Harvest Moon name is new for 2011, Leraas and Kountoupes have been planting and tending to area gardens for several years. After receiving a master’s degree in culture, ecology, and sustainable community from New College of California, Leraas moved back to Minneapolis and developed the Backyard Harvest program for the Permaculture Research Institute – Cold Climate. The non-profit program followed a similar model, offering urban farmers who would contract with local homeowners and businesses to grow and maintain food gardens. When PRI decided to discontinue Backyard Harvest after two successful seasons, Leraas approached Kountoupes, who had been one of the program’s urban farmers last summer, to see if she wanted to partner on a new for-profit venture, and Harvest Moon was born.
“I wanted to see the program continue. It’s an opportunity I’ve always wanted to do – sustainable urban agriculture,” said Kountoupes, who earned a graduate degree in environmental education from the University of Minnesota after working in sustainable farming in Costa Rica for four years.
While the two women share an obvious passion for sustainable food systems, their slightly differing talents and backgrounds complement each other. Kountoupes’ years of leading community and youth gardening programs – she was the program coordinator for St. Paul’s Farm in the City program for several years – fuel her interest in environmental education for adults and children alike. Leraas’ history with PRI led to Harvest Moon’s participation in local Habitat for Humanity and The Aliveness Project programs, for which they’ll grow gardens that produce food for area food shelves and meal programs, as well as coach new homeowners to start their own gardens.
“I’m into big-picture sustainability. I’ve been working in it since 1999. I care about food and grew up on a farm. Dina is into working with kids and the educational aspect [of gardening],” Leraas says.
That educational component weaves into almost everything Harvest Moon offers, from the planting of the gardens themselves to the newsletters and recipes Leraas and Kountoupes plan to share throughout the summer. The duo works with clients to design functional gardens that yield the most produce for the available space, integrating vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are planted and harvested throughout the season. (A patch that may hold arugula in June will give way to heartier squash or potatoes in October.) Even the flowers serve a purpose besides adding color.
“Everything we plant is edible. Everything is in there for a reason – to deter insects or predators, for example,” Kountoupes says.
The women see the coaching and consulting side of the business to be just as valuable as their more hands-on gardening services, though. Guiding enthusiastic but inexperienced gardeners through the process is an important part of their overall goal of “creating a community of food and people.”
“As long as you’re not doing any harm, you’re not going to mess it up. There’s no way to become a good gardener unless you do it,” Leraas says. “We hope it’s a gateway to true urban agriculture – you start with a garden and then you have chickens and bees!”
South Minneapolis resident Norma Ley has worked with Leraas through PRI’s Backyard Harvest program and has contracted with her again through Harvest Moon this year. She credits the program for shifting her large backyard garden’s purpose from aesthetic to functional, and she has noticed the effect it has had beyond her property lines.
“The neighbors all had to see what was going on and bring their grandkids over to pick tomatoes. My neighbor started his own garden. It’s like a seed you plant and it keeps growing,” Ley says.
The Harvest Moon farmers couldn’t ask for better feedback.
“Seeing people’s perception and relationship with place evolve is a measure of our success,” Leraas says.
Harvest Moon Backyard Farmers charge anywhere from $160 to $1,950 for established packages, and $45/hour for consulting and coaching. Prices for custom work vary greatly; email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.