A new generation is carrying on Milwaukee’s urban agriculture legacy by repurposing vacant factories and lots into farms and gardens. Last summer, brothers Joel and Jamie Lishosik began transforming a sliver of overgrown space in a parking lot on the northeast corner of Fratney and Keefe into Crops on Top, an urban farm with raised beds and greenhouses that yield organically raised produce.
Crops on Top opened last summer with one-third of the space being farmed while they built out the rest. This is their first full season. Joel and Jamie grew up in Mequon. The brothers have extensive experience in the food and beverage arena. Joel worked as a chef in Seattle and later went to Alaska, and then on to Antarctica, where he cooked for scientists studying climate change.
Jamie worked in bars in Dallas, Seattle and Alaska. He now works at Amorphic Beer (3700 N. Fratney St.), next to the lot where Crops on Top is located. Jamie knew the owner of the building that housed C&D Technologies, which manufactured batteries at industrial space on 900 E. Keefe Ave. until the plant closed in 2019.
“Crops on Top came about because we were thinking of gardening on top of the building, but we found out that’s not feasible due to the way it’s built,” Joel says. “Then we looked over here. This was an overgrown parking lot.”
The brothers put layers of mulch and dirt over the asphalt. They built raised beds and greenhouses from repurposed materials. “Everything here is reused and recycled,” says Joel.
Walls for many of the raised bed gardens came from shipping containers for airplane parts. Other raised beds are made from bark-covered ends of trees obtained from a local miller. Found tables hold trays of bib and Romaine lettuce, arugula and bok choy. A nearby welder nearby donated steel rods and helped the brothers weld a trellis system for tomato plants. A wooden stepladder holds trays of strawberries, and an old cedar chest that Jamie found on the street was used to grow potatoes. For shade cloth, they have netting once used by Holton Brothers masonry to keep bricks from falling off buildings.
From Arugula to Zucchini
The 118-by-65-foot farm has a bounty of produce, with something for everyone.
Joel and Jamie use Blue Ribbon Organics soil and compost, and worm castings from Slinger, Wis.-based Dirt Dynasty. For insect control, they use companion planting, insecticidal soap and neem oil. They do succession farming, in which crop planting is staggered. “As we pull stuff out, we keep going by planting another crop every two to three weeks. Last year, we played a lot at the end of seasons to see how far we could go into winter,” Joel explains.
Ground cherries, a sweet, juicy fruit with a slight pineapple flavor, grow well on the farm. “I pull a full tray every two days,” Joel says. He uses ground cherries in salads and slaws, relishes, chutneys and jams.
Crops on top has several pepper varieties such as cubanelle, ghost peppers, jalapeños, sweet and bell peppers. They’ve got carrots, beets and mini broccoli, which is like broccolini but not as leafy, with a more tender stem. A bed of herbs sprouts basil, Thai basil, sage, parsley and mint. Tomato varieties include cherry, black prince and San Marzano. They’ve got horseradish and garlic bulbs, beans and even okra. “The okra grows like crazy here,” Jamie says.
Joel’s preferred method of preparing okra is to grill it. “The big drag on okra is the sliminess, but there are ways to prepare it and grill it so it’s tasty and not slimy.”
Customers can also find scallions, chard, mini eggplant, squash and a few varieties of mushrooms. The brothers planted two-year-old asparagus roots and hope to offer asparagus next spring. They’ve recently added fruit trees.
The farm stand is open each Thursday and Friday from 10 am to 5 pm Crops on Top is also at the Riverwest Farmers Market (2700 N. Pierce St.) every Sunday from 10 am to 3 pm through Oct. 30. They partner with Amorphic Brewing for monthly events.
For more information and future events, visit facebook.com/Crops-on-Top-104210168532191 or instagram.com/cropsontop.