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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Overcast
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Drumlin Farm's days may be numbered
Residents agree to move; efforts to save gardens could come up short
From left to right: Gerardo Jimenez, Celia Barrera and Wajid
Jenkins at the community garden.
From left to right: Gerardo Jimenez, Celia Barrera and Wajid Jenkins at the community garden.
Credit:Joe Tarr

For the past three years, Celia Barrera hasn't needed to buy much produce from the grocery store. She grows her own at the Drumlin Farm in Fitchburg.

"All my vegetables, I get here," Barrera says in Spanish. "I save a lot of money."

A native of Mexico, Barrera uses the produce to feed her family of four. But she's about to lose her plot.

The Alexander Co., which owns the nearby Novation business park, bought the Drumlin Farm in 2007 and has been threatening to evict the farmers - and tear down its two houses - ever since ("Losing the Farm," Isthmus 1/23/09). The five-acre farm is located on Oregon Road, near Route 14, just south of Madison.

Now the day of reckoning may be near. The six residents of the farm's two houses were evicted in January. They fought the eviction, arguing that they were entitled to more notice, but recently agreed to leave the farm by Sept. 8. The garden can remain for a few weeks longer.

A representative from Alexander Co. told residents the buildings might be razed on Sept. 12, says resident Wajid Jenkins. This worries historic preservationists who consider one of the homes, the Anderberg House, a landmark.

According to the Fitchburg Historical Society, Albert Anderberg of Sweden built the Anderberg House in 1900. Anderberg came to Madison to work on the state Capitol. He also built several houses in the area, including the Collins House on East Gorham Street.

Anderberg's daughter, Stella, painted intricate murals throughout the house. From the beginning, the Anderberg family farmed the land, selling produce at nearby markets.

Jenkins says Drumlin Farm provides myriad benefits to the community, especially nearby neighborhoods like Meadowood.

"This is crime prevention," he says. "People who live in dense urban neighborhoods need a respite. Coming up here, enjoying the fresh air just a short walk from your house, is the kind of break people need."

Disagreement over the homes and gardens has created a widening rift between Fitchburg and the Alexander Co.

On Aug. 18, the Fitchburg Plan Commission approved an amendment to the neighborhood plan to delay designating the Drumlin property as commercial. Says the sponsor, Ald. Steve Arnold, "I don't want to go ahead and give permission and say this is commercial property when we think we don't have enough park space."

And Fitchburg Mayor Jay Allen, in a tersely worded Aug. 26 email to Joseph Alexander, the company's president, calls the company's actions "strong-arm tactics" of the sort "not generally associated with positive working relationships."

But Allen, in an interview, says the city may not be able to prevent demolition of the homes. "They have a demolition permit which they took out in January," he says. "We don't have any way of undoing that. They have a legal right to do the demolition."

Joseph Alexander says there are no firm plans for the property or plans to demolish the homes. He adds that he's offered to sell Anderberg House to the city for a dollar so it can be moved.

The company is also willing to sell the land, to either the city or a nonprofit. Alexander is not against community gardens, but notes that his company "purchased the land to develop for commercial use." He says urban agriculture is "very far from being the best and highest use of that site in that neighborhood."

Jenkins disagrees, saying that whatever the Alexander Co. has in store for the property won't be as meaningful as the farm.

"When I look at what they produce with all their millions of government subsidies compared to what we produce with community effort," he says, "I'm proud of what we've done here."

Barrera says she and others are looking for a new place to plant next year, but "wherever I ask is all full and very small."

Kate Moran, who gardens at Drumlin, remains hopeful: "Drumlin has had so many lucky breaks. I say lucky breaks, but it's also the people who have risked their homes and well-being by continuing to live on the land after they were evicted," she says. "There would not have been a garden this year if there were not illegal tenants."

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