Thursday, July 15, 2010

St. Louis Area Urban Farm Tour: A Report

Reported by: Janet Hurst, ISFOP Farm Outreach Worker, Warren and Franklin County
Organized by Lincoln University Cooperative Extension (LUCE) on July 14, 2010.

Lincoln University’s Urban Farm Tour was a smashing success! The tour was sponsored by Lincoln University’s Urban Impact Center of St. Louis and the Innovative Small Farmers’ Outreach Program (ISFOP). The idea for the tour came about after one of our rural ISFOP clients asked if we could arrange a tour to view the urban projects. As we talked about organizing such a tour, our phones rang off the hooks with people wanting to sign up. Many of us were curious to know, “just what is it that the city farmers do differently from the rural farmers?”

It is all about scale; intensive plantings, rigorous soil preparation, innovative marketing and more. Our rural farmers usually have no shortage of land, so intensive planting has not been considered by most. When we see a relatively small city garden producing over 4000 pounds of food a year we certainly want details! How do they do that on such a small lot? Our large expansive rural gardens certainly don’t have that type of yield! So, there is something to be learnt and the urban farmers are more than willing to share!

First we went to “EarthDance”. Vicki Lander, the farm manager, provided a great tour and explained the history and background of the farm. Molly Rockamann is the driving force behind the farm, now living out this dream she began in her college years. EarthDance is located on the Mueller Farm and is the site of a flourishing garden. “The garden grows more than just food, it grows skills within the 30 apprentices who plant, weed, harvest and devote time to this effort. An in-house Consumer Supported Agriculture or CSA covers shares for 39 people. Right now, there are about a dozen varieties of summer vegetables for our people to enjoy”, said Vicki.

A peaceful work scene was observed. The youngest farmer was about 8 years old, diligently carrying his bucket-full of weeds to the compost pile. His mom said, “That’s the best thing, my kids can be involved and learn the things I didn’t as a child.” Multi-generational, multicultural, multifaceted, EarthDance is an oasis.

All too soon it was time to leave but, “Bowood Farms” was waiting for us. Bowood is located in the middle of the city, the garden across the street from the wonderful Café, sales room, and nursery area. Of course, seeing the roof top gardens had inspired us all; it made us wonder how they have made good use of every bit of available space. After touring the gardens, we sat down in a beautifully-decorated café for some fabulous meals prepared by Bowood’s chef. There is nothing like sitting down for lunch with a group of interesting like-minded people, sharing information and learning new skills. And the food? It’s hard to imagine getting more local and fresh produce than those coming from their own garden just across the street. Menu items included Mediterranean plates, roasted vegetable sandwiches, salads, fruits and Bison from Bowood’s Clarksville farm. We could have lingered over tea and coffee all afternoon but then we would have missed……….

“City Seeds and the Gateway Greening”! Annie, the garden manager, gave us a tour of this prolific garden and explained the mission of City Seeds. “The vegetables are only a part of what we do, we are growing people.” Through their efforts, clients who are referred to their program, learn a variety of skills. Working closely with the St. Patrick’s center, the focus of the garden is to teach and employ the homeless, chronically addicted to drugs and alcohol, mentally ill, and recently released prisoners to grow foods for the less fortunate (if that is possible!) and to sell at the farmers' markets. Food is also distributed to low income senior centers, food pantries and “meals on wheels” programs. Sunflowers, green beans, tomatoes, tomatillos and more were in full production. As we toured the garden, we realized that we were on a little island in-between the city streets and the busy Interstate Highways. The location itself made the garden all the more poignant. Once again, we were convinced that it doesn’t take a lot of land to grow plentiful of food, nor to do a lot of good for the society.

Our last stop was “New Roots”. New Roots is in its 6th year of operation. It was started by our own Trish Grim, who subsequently served as ISFOP Small Farm Specialist for the East Central region (and now has left the Program to get back to farming on her own) as a neighborhood effort and a CSA. New Roots has provided food to various food pantries and organizations and is a true working farm, small scale, in the heart of downtown St. Louis. A model of intensive growing methods, there is no shortage of enthusiasm among the group’s organizers and the volunteers. Beans, carrots, beets, herbs and all sorts of vegetables were in full production. Chickens dispose of weeds, creating the base for the beautiful compost. Bees work happily in the side yard. If this space was not surrounded by the city scape, you would firmly believe you are in your grandmother’s backyard garden! We all left Urban Roots inspired and felt what we saw was something we would like to work towards.

Keep in mind the van temperature registered 106 degrees F! So we returned to Schlalfy Bottleworks and they graciously allowed us to use their meeting room. We discussed the tour, what our participants hoped to gain, their goals and what they saw that could pertain to them. There is something about being in a room of people with dreams and visions! So inspiring and the energy is contagious. New friendships blossom almost immediately, contacts are made and things begin to happen. Last but not least, we all enjoyed the Maplewood Farmers’ Market. What an array of fruits, vegetables, artisan foods! Picture perfect berries, onions and beets with lines of people 10 deep waiting to purchase these “picked this morning” food. At some point in time, tomatoes cease to be merely food and are elevated to art! Beautiful. Of course I had to buy cheese from Baetje Farm.

Our thanks to all who came on the tour, those great farmers and businesses who allowed us to visit their gardens, EarthDance, Bowood Café and garden, City Seeds, New Roots and Schlalfy. Karen Davis of Lincoln University was the organizer for the day, and as always, she was very efficient and gracious.

Lincoln’s Innovative Small Farmers’ Outreach Program is available in several area counties. Farm Outreach Workers (FOWs) offer one-on-one assistance to farmers and provide researched-based information and training. Anyone wishing to learn more about ISFOP, needing any kind of assistance, or for scheduling a farm visit, should contact Janet Hurst or David Price

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