by Sara Graham
When you think of a "farm," you likely imagine a sweeping vista of corn, soybean and wheat fields. And this is, in fact, what you see on much of Missouri's more than 27 million acres of rural farmland. However, there is rapidly growing interest in producing food closer to where we live, in the urban cores of our major cities. Previously abandoned lots and underutilized rooftops are being transformed into productive "foodscapes" in St. Louis.
In just the past couple of years, we've witnessed an explosion in urban agriculture, led by city residents who want to increase local access to fresh food, to serve as an example for healthy eating, and provide a model of self-sufficiency. Here are ten of Gut Check's favorites.
Dirty Girl Farms (3911 Juniata Street, 63116; 415-309-1988) Mission: To grow for and sell directly to local, visionary chefs Sells: Unique and unusual culinary and medicinal herbs, edible flowers, heirloom greens, small batch premium ice creams, single herb tinctures Founded: 2013 How it works: Employees deliver direct to restaurants daily Who's buying: Elaia, Blood & Sand, Holy Crepe, Sidney Street Cafe, Niche, the Purple Martin Challenges: "It's physically demanding," admits owner Anne Lehman. Favorite part: "I enjoy delighting chefs with new produce and talking shop with other growers," says Lehman. Future plans: Year-round growing through a subterranean farm and a rooftop farm designed by a structural engineer, a roofing company, a solar company, a landscape architect and Dirty Girl Farms
Hot Skillet Farms (63118; 314-616-2688) Mission: To provide the local community with fresh, affordable food options grown using organic and sustainable methods of production Sells: kale, collards, arugula, Phoona Kera cucumbers, sour gherkins, heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, celery, beans, squash, pumpkins, snake gourds, nasturtium, herbs, sunflowers, handmade goods and eggs Founded: 2012 Annual production: 243 dozen eggs How it works: Produce prices are kept low by offsetting with sales of handmade vegan soaps, balms, lotions, perfumes, body butters and an array of upcycled clothes Who's buying: Customers at Tower Grove Farmers Market Challenges: Labor intensive (this is a one-woman effort); access to water and electricity Favorite part: "I find that I love the pace of the work -- slow and sometimes tedious, but steady and rewarding," says owner Jennifer Dormuth. "I watch as people all around me rush about anxious and angry, and I am grateful for my time in the garden." Future plans: Hugelkultur beds for enhanced water retention, a rooftop organic hydroponic system, beekeeping, a program for returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
Urban Harvest STL (314-810-6770) Mission: To grow our own food in our neighborhood and provide a platform for the community to participate, learn and grow together Founded: 2011 Annual production: 2,000 pounds How it works: All-volunteer community garden that grows food for its members and their families, and it donates weekly to the St. Patrick's Center culinary training program for the homeless Challenges: Locating space downtown Favorite part: "I enjoy transforming unused, forgotten city spaces into beautiful gems for the community," explains founder Mary Ostafi. Future plans: Downtown rooftop farm as a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm with a strong focus on education
Our City Farm (4539 Delmar Boulevard; 314-282-5290) Mission: To grow where customers live, foster a close relationship with the food people eat and the people that produce it, and provide food security for the community Sells: Heirloom, non-GMO certified and naturally grown produce; eggs from heritage breed hens; pasture-raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken Founded: 2010 Annual production: 8,000+ pounds Who's buying: CSA members that live within 15 miles of the farm, local restaurants, small stores Challenges: Cost of installing water for irrigation, cost of installing a security fence Favorite part: "Our favorite part is when our customers come to the farm and ask questions about the way things grow or bring their children to see firsthand where their food comes from," says owner Jeri Villarreal. Future plans: Year-round growing with a new hydroponic greenhouse; beehives; orchard expansion
EarthDance Organic Farm School (233 South Dade Avenue, Ferguson; 314-521-1006) Mission: To sustainably grow food, farmers, and community, one small farm at a time through hands-on education about the importance of organic agriculture, and to preserve the site of Missouri's oldest organic farm Founded: 2008 Annual production: 18,000 pounds How it works: Five-month long farm and garden apprenticeships, classes and workshops open the public, tours and volunteer opportunities Who's buying: More than 60 CSA shareholders, Ferguson Farmers Market, City Greens, Local Harvest, Basso and Lulu's Local Eatery; excess produce is donated to cooking classes at Operation Food Search Challenges: Securing ownership of originally rented land, installing on-site refrigeration and a greenhouse Favorite part: "Our favorite part is witnessing folks from all walks of life visit our farm and become part of the EarthDance community," says Program Director, Rachel Levi. "We love to see a school kid from the city taste a Sungold tomato that she picked herself. And equally, we love it when a farm neighbor drops by and tells us a story about when he had his first summer job at the Mueller Farm." Future plans: Two high tunnels to extend the growing season; a packing shed to wash, weigh and pack; an education center and event space
Gateway Garlic Urban Farm (7601 South Broadway; 314-570-4945) Mission: To grow organic garlic as a sustainable crop and teach others to do the same as part of a self-sustaining economy Sells: Garlic Founded: 2007 Annual production: 3.5 acres Who's buying: Local restaurants and CSA programs Challenges: Overcoming skeptical neighborhood residents and city officials Favorite part: "My favorite part is hearing from others that we've inspired them -- it makes sweating in the 90 degree heat doing backbreaking work worth it," says owner Mark Brown. Future plans: Overseas sales; an organic store, an organic line of food, diversifying crops; selling wool from recently added sheep
New Abundance Farm (1515 Benton Street; 618-972-6793) Mission: To empower people working on issues of food access and nutrition education, and to bring more fresh food into areas with fewer grocery stores Founded: 2013 How it works: "We focus on the nonprofit side of farming, says owner Ann Johnson. "We focus on growing food specifically for food and nutrition classes, and partnering with people and organization focused on such issues, such as the Hope Build Foundation. We would like to be the farm that can donate vegetables to such programs." Who's buying: Customers at North City Farmers Market; excess produce is donated to Operation Food Search's Cooking Matters class Challenges: Finding the best way to ask for help, finding the most efficient ways to partner with people already working on the same issues Favorite part: "My favorite part is meeting new people who I wouldn't have met otherwise, and meeting so many people who are incredibly knowledgeable about growing," says Johnson. Future plans: Installing a solar-pumped rain barrel irrigation system, expanding produce production, selling to Crown Mart, Bob's Quality Mart and other local corner stores
Ezel Stone Urban Farm (7601 South Broadway) Mission: To focus on urban agriculture and teach self-sufficiency Sells: Lettuce, kale, rainbow chard, bok choi, collards, onions, tomatoes, radishes, leeks, eggplant, peppers, kohlrabi, okra, carrots Founded: 2013 Who's buying: Customers at Cherokee Farmers Market, Local Harvest Grocery, Los Punk and Black Bear Bakery Favorite part: "I enjoy introducing people to new varieties of produce, such as the three kinds of carrots I planted this year -- 'Amarillo Yellow,' 'Cosmic Purple' and 'Scarlet Nantes,'" says owner Thomas Hood. Future plans: Expanding the farm and buyer market
Stinger Honey Mission: To supply bees for backyard garden and the local community to promote pollination and to sell honey locally Sells: Honey, bee-pollen pellets (also gives away beautiful blue eggs from her Araucana chickens -- it's against Clayton ordinance to sell them) Founded: 1987 Annual production: 1,200 pounds How it works: Eight hives of bees on 1.5 acres Who's buying: Winslow's Home, University Gardens, Starrs Liquor, Parker's Table, Jennifer's Pharmacy, Gateway Arch Gift Shop, Clayton Farmers Market, Mid Town Market, Straub's Challenges: Collecting the honey Favorite part: "I like explaining why this honey tastes different," says owner Joy Stinger. "The local linden trees impart a unique flavor of citrus and orange blossom."
Urban Buds: City Grown Flowers (4736 Tennessee Avenue; 573-999-6293) Mission: To occupy a niche market in St. Louis by providing unusual, locally grown, organic, fresh flowers and to promote urban agriculture as a viable, self-sustaining business Sells: Flowers like bleeding hearts, delphiniums or baptesia, and honey Founded: 2013 Annual production: 35 buckets per week; 3,000 stems a week during peak season; 93 flower varieties on one acre Who's buying: Customers at Tower Grove Farmers Market, local florists, selected events Challenges: Securing capital, navigating city regulations and neighborhood policies, higher city taxes (that don't include rural farm subsidies) Favorite part: "We enjoy doing something we love and waking up every morning and walking just a few feet into paradise," says owner Karen "Mimo" Davis. "We also value being recognized as an asset to a neighborhood by residents and local government alike." Future plans: Increase sales and production; installation of a high tunnel to extend the growing season