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Saint Paul's Egg/Plant Urban Farm Supply: a hip shop for the neo-rural renaissance

Walking into Egg/Plant Urban Farm Supply, a customer is likely to feel a wave of ambition, mixed with just a touch of nostalgia. Memories of a grandmother's canning afternoons might rise up, blending with a fresh resolution to finally turn that organic vegetable garden into a personal produce aisle.

Although the urban farm supply store in St. Paul occupies a small space, it's well-stocked with all manner of project resources, from hard-cheese kits to books on raising ducks to heirloom seeds. In a side room, clay pots await avid gardeners and sizable bags of chicken feed are marked with customer names. A backyard space and separate building host educational events, with classes ranging from worm composting to kombucha brewing.

As if that wasn't enough to get customers started on new projects, the owner herself, Audrey Matson, is only too happy to direct them to local experts, answer questions about chickens and gardens, or even give a few tips on cheesemaking. When she looks around the store or gestures toward the backyard, there's obvious affection not just for her retail endeavor, but also for the many customers who are creating a tight-knit group of urban farmers and nouveau homemakers.

"I'd thought about doing an online-only store, but I really wanted a physical place where people could gather and learn from each other," she says. "I love the idea of the store becoming a place where there's a community of people who are all committed to sustainability, and they're swapping ideas."

A Fresh Start

Matson started the store in April 2010, after growing weary of driving to far-flung feed stores to feed her small flock of backyard chickens.

She was familiar with retail operations, having managed bookstores in the past, but left that profession to stay home with her kids. She'd pondered a shift to garden design, and earned a Master of Agriculture in Horticulture at the University of Minnesota, while working at a garden center.

While there, she noticed significant trends cropping up, most notably that customers were moving away from ornamental plants like flowers and shrubs, and instead sought supplies for vegetable gardens, canning, and composting.

After starting an urban 4-H group in St. Paul that pursued activities like community gardening and worm composting, Matson and her husband began raising chickens, and the jaunts to rural feed stores gave her ideas about what type of store she'd like to have within the city. Working with a volunteer from WomenVenture, she created a business plan and found a retail space on Selby Ave.

The store hit a snag with some zoning issues--apparently, an old St. Paul law dictates that retailers can't sell plants outside, and she intended to feature numerous plants in her store's backyard area--but after garnering an exception, she opened the doors and the operation's been a growing success ever since.

Because Matson can't compete with large-scale retailers and farm stores, she focuses instead on unique products that are hard to find, such as organic fertilizers and pesticides, and heirloom vegetable seeds.

"I've been a seed-catalog junkie for years," she says, with a laugh. "It's nice that I can finally put that knowledge to use."

A Trend Toward Tradition

Opening a store during a recession, in a tough retail environment, might seem risky to any but the most hardy optimists. But Matson's timing is excellent; there's a strong movement toward recapturing traditional skills like knitting, tapping maple trees, and beer brewing. Many of Egg/Plant's customers are on the younger side, with small children, and Matson believes they're excited to learn crafts and techniques that their grandparents or great-grandparents would have taken for granted.

"It's funny, because my generation didn't really have the desire to learn those traditional ways when we were in our 20s and 30s," says Matson. "But now, there's just such a wave of interest in sustainability and living that simple lifestyle, where you're involved in what you eat and what you make."  

The recession and recent contamination scares combined to drive a shift toward frugality and food safety, but organic gardening enthusiasts aren't just trying to save money and grow "clean" vegetables. Matson notes that many people in the city are finding that growing their own food gives them a connection to nature and the seasons that they might not have had in the past. In earlier times, city dwellers might have moved to farmland to groove on that feeling, but these days, there's no need to get out of the metro, since so many backyards are well-suited for chickens and vegetables.

Along with culinary creations comes interest in other old-style skills. Knitting, in particular, has been growing in popularity for years, and now people are looking for other avenues for adding more homemade crafts into their daily lives, Matson notes.

"In many ways, there's a shift toward 'homemaking' in the real sense, where people are choosing to spend more time at home and they want that space to be sustainable and meaningful," she says. "It's not like our grandmothers or even mothers, where they didn't have a choice."

What Matson discovered, and has seen many of her customers find, too, is that activities like cheesemaking, organic vegetable gardening, and sewing don't just result in useful products, they also create a deep sense of satisfaction. "There's something about working with your hands, to make what you need, that's so much better than just going out and buying something," she says. "We're excited to keep expanding here, bringing in products like beekeeping supplies and mushroom-growing kits. The move toward sustainability isn't a trend, people are in it for the long haul, and we're happy to be part of the movement. It's just really fun."

Elizabeth Millard surveyed urban chicken-raising in the Twin Cities in our December 7, 2010 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Egg/Plant offers its wares on Saint Paul's Selby Avenue.

The small store is amply stocked with hard-to-find urban-agricultural necessities.

Matson, right, and husband Bob (left) talking seeds, etcetera with a pair of customers.

A wall of canning supplies

All photos by Bill Kelley

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