Forced to downsize, Sweet Tooth Farm focuses on self-care: ‘We can come back stronger’

Sweet Tooth Farm, once a multi-acre urban farm in Des Moines, is now smaller and scattered thanks to a new city ordinance. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village Magazine

In the summer of 2021, Monika Owczarski was informed by the City of Des Moines that the land she was leasing for her urban farm, Sweet Tooth Farm, would no longer be rented to her.

Owczarski was devastated. On these two plots of land, she had been able to grow a little over an acre of full-production fruits and vegetables, a third of her yield dedicated to community fridges and food aid organizations. She estimates that last year, Sweet Tooth sold and gave away over 12,000 pounds of food. After years of building up the health of the soil, Owczarksi’s team had been preparing to ramp up production, not toss in the towel.

Still, she complied with the city, and by March, Sweet Tooth Farm no longer occupied the land. But Owczarski isn’t done providing locally grown produce to her community, however she can.

Sweet Tooth’s roots

Owczarski calls herself an “accidental farmer.” Before Sweet Tooth Farm was even a twinkle in her eye, she tended to a garden in her yard, which bordered a long-abandoned pocket park. Despite it falling into disrepair and becoming a hub for drug activity, the park was a popular hangout among the kids in her neighborhood.

“And we’re talking little kids, like my kids’ ages, 4, 5, 6, 7, those types, until midnight some nights,” Owczarski recalled. “And I didn’t want to be the white lady asking them to go home at night. I wanted to be Monika, who has to sleep. So I tried to make a serious commitment to just getting to know them as neighbors and kids that I cared about.”

At the time, she had been gardening for about 15 years. So Owczarski invited her young neighbors to help her in her garden, teaching them about the plants and trusting them with the hose.

“I don’t even remember the kid’s name, but I had these yellow tomatoes. They were sugary, sweet, whatever,” Owczarski said. “He kept saying, ‘I have a sweet tooth. I like candy. I got a sweet tooth.’ And he loved those tomatoes. And it was just a cute, fun thing. Like, wouldn’t it be cool if we could give access and opportunity to change ideas about what it means to have a sweet tooth?”

One of the plots Sweet Tooth Farm now occupies used to be a pocket park adjacent to Owczarski’s residence. –Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

After the neighborhood decided it wanted to revitalize the pocket park, Owczarski began renting the land from Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department in 2016, turning it into Sweet Tooth Farm. She has been growing on this land adjacent to her house since 2017. Those years of tending are reflected in the soil, which is now rich and fertile. But that’s certainly not the case for all plots.

When Owczarski was approached by the city to rent two more plots of land at the Central Place Industrial Park, there was a lot of work to be done to make the soil viable for food growing. After she signed the leases in 2018, she got to work building up the soil, which would be a several-year process, each harvest better and stronger than the last.

The food that came out of the farm would do some heavy lifting of its own, providing healthy, ethically sourced nourishment for folks in Owczarski’s community.

“Yes, people can buy things at the grocery store. But that’s because those prices are built on exploitation,” Owczarski said. “I think it’s really difficult. Because on the one hand, people need more money. People can’t afford to pay what these things are actually worth. But also, the amount of labor and time and resources that goes into food is sometimes unimaginable to people.”

Food insecurity and urban farming

And it’s no secret that access to healthy foods like the ones grown on Sweet Tooth Farm is shrinking for many people worldwide. As the climate crisis takes hold and supply chains get disrupted, prices for fruits and vegetables are sky-rocketing, even at the cheapest grocery stores. Now more than ever, the case for locally grown, healthy foods is strong. Which makes Sweet Tooth’s loss of land even more bitter.

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The termination of the leases are in accordance with a 2021 decision that the city would no longer lease land to be grown on. In an email announcement written by Development Services Director Erin Olson-Douglas in June 2021, she said the decision was “for the mutual benefit of all involved” and that the city would be helping urban farmers who must relocate to find land.

Des Moines Communications Manager Al Setka told Little Village that the city offered Owczarski a parcel of land after terminating the leases, but Owczarski said that the land was only .12 of an acre and that it was only offered to her after she reached out to the Parks and Rec Department.

Rows of plants at Sweet Tooth Farm, July 14, 2022.- Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Just months after the city terminated Sweet Tooth Farm’s leases, the Food Security Task Force of Des Moines released a document outlining findings and recommendations following an eight-month effort to address food insecurity in the city. The document leaned heavily on the idea of urban farming as a way to mitigate food insecurity.

As of now, there has been no new information about what Central Place Industrial Park will be turned into. According to the Des Moines Register, “the city will require a minimum at least 25% of each plot’s square footage be used for buildings.” The site will be intended for industrial, light manufacturing, and warehouse usage, among others.

‘You can’t get blood from a stone’

Currently, Sweet Tooth Farm is located on three plots scattered across the city, including the one on the land adjacent to Owczarski’s home. But the viable growing space has dwindled significantly. Owczarski went from growing on over an acre of land to just over a fourth of an acre in the past year. That has taken a toll on the amount of food Owczarski can produce.

“Last year we had such an abundance. And I said it the other day, you can’t get blood from a stone. We don’t have the same size. We cannot produce the same quantities.”

So while Owczarski and her team continue to look for more land to build up again, she is taking a much-needed rest.

“It’s been a rough two years, life is really hard,” Owczarski said. “I’m trying to give us, each other, grace and time and space. Because this isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon, right? We want to set up things that we can walk away from and they’ll continue to function.”

But even while taking the summer slower than she has in the past, things are still happening in the background. Owczarski said customers can purchase some food items from the online store, but she expects most sales to go to mutual aid shares.

“Which basically means people pay me to take this food to the refrigerator,” Owczarski explained. “So I get paid for my labor and the food. Which is wonderful for me, because it’s easy to plan and schedule.”

One of the food aid organizations with which Sweet Tooth Farm is closely partnered is Supply Hive Des Moines. The nonprofit was founded in 2020, focused on promoting “physical, mental and spiritual health while emphasizing sustainability within the movement for social justice.”

Executive Director Zakariyah Hill said Supply Hive’s partnership with Sweet Tooth Farms has been imperative to their organization.

“A key word in our mission is nourishment,” Hill said. “With a partner like Sweet Tooth Farm, we are not only able to give people food but also give people a relief in their anxiety because we’re committed to making sure they do not starve. We’re committed to making sure they can focus on everything else besides food. And we are committed to uniting community by showing them what it looks like to look out for your neighbors.”

Also in the meantime, Owczarski has teamed up with Radiate DSM, another urban farm that works closely with Sweet Tooth Farm, to create Rooted Farm Collective. The organization aims to assist urban farmers with land access and to build up the market gardening community in Des Moines. Owczarski said more specific information will be available soon.

“But you know, I think we’re also trying to just give ourselves permission to do some soil work, putting cover crop, and not be so hardcore,” she said. “So we can come back stronger. We can rest and we can nurture the soil and ourselves.”