3 planted seed, many reap benefits of an URBAN OASIS

3 planted seed, many reap benefits of an URBAN OASIS

Farm grows produce in urban neighborhood

By Michele Munz

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

06/19/2007

ST. LOUIS — The new soil was washing away. The broccoli was purple. Bugs were eating the collard greens. Bind weed and Bermuda grass were taking over. A neighborhood dog killed most of their dozen chickens.

The three dreamers who built a farm in the middle of north St. Louis with the idea that urban areas should grow some of their own food and to provide fresh, chemical-free produce to the poor were beginning to doubt their abilities. They felt alone.

“We looked at ourselves and thought, ‘Who is going to do this? Who is going to do all this work?'” said Trish Grim, 26, who grew up in Springfield, Ill.

Without fertilizers and chemicals, the tasks were endless. The three were working part-time jobs to make ends meet.

“We didn’t have any clue how much work we were getting into,” Grim said. “This was not something that three people can do two days a week.”

Over the next two years, however, the New Roots Urban Farm would flourish, feed area residents and teach kids. Others would come to share the three founders’ dream.

The idea of creating an urban farm took root in early summer 2004 among rows of squash on an eight-acre organic farm near Eureka. Grim, 26, and her boyfriend, Joseph Black, 28, were working as farmhands.

Grim and Black, who grew up in Chesterfield, met at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. When Grim graduated with a degree in linguistics, she joined Black, who was already working on the farm.

They met Amy Gerth, who was involved in the Catholic Worker community, which operates shelters in north St. Louis. Gerth wanted to start a gardening education program for kids.

While pulling weeds for hours, the three shared their dreams and ideas. They were disappointed with the organic market, feeling its focus was mainly on high-end markets. Their efforts weren’t reaching those in need of safe, fresh produce.

Gerth’s compassion for the poor, and the couple’s commitment to the environment blended into the notion of creating a farm in St. Louis. “We thought we could bring the food and grow it directly where it’s needed,” Grim said.

So Grim and Black left the beds of fancy lettuce and baby zucchini growing in rich soil along the Meramec River and headed to an area of decaying houses and weed-infested lots. They went from living in a pre-Civil War cabin to the Kabat House, a hospitality house run by Catholic Workers for the homeless and mentally ill.

The three bought six city lots on Hogan Street in the St. Louis Place neighborhood. The half-acre site sits across from a juvenile detention center and next to an old Catholic church where Mass hasn’t been held in decades. They got a state grant to cover the $7,000 purchase.

The neighborhood they chose has little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. On Sunday, Bob’s Quality Market on North Florissant Avenue had crates of soda sitting on the produce shelves. Salama Supermarket at 14th Street and Cass Avenue had wrinkled green peppers and wilted iceberg lettuce among handfuls of citrus fruits in an old drink cooler. Two fried-chicken restaurants and a hamburger outlet are the only eateries along North Florissant, the main thoroughfare.

Limited access to nutritious foods is one of the reasons overall rates of obesity are highest among low-income people, especially women, researchers say.

BLOSSOMING interest

Gateway Greening donated tons of soil and compost to get the farmers started. Because old foundations were under the site, they built raised beds to plant in.

They incorporated as Community Supported Agriculture, where shareholders pay $500 and each week get bundles of eight to 10 different fruits, vegetables and herbs. The payments provided money for seed and tools to get started.

The urban farmers loved connecting residents in the city and near suburbs to their food.

As Jenny Donelan, 36, of St. Louis, picked up last week’s bounty, which included carrots, broccoli and green beans, her 5-year-old daughter, Ellie asked, “How do they get broccoli at the grocery store?”

“It comes from far, far away,” Donelan responded. “… It’s kind of crazy.”

This year, the farm has 24 shareholders and a long waiting list.

The commitment of the shareholders, who also volunteered on the farm once a month, is what kept Grim, Black and Gerth from packing up those first few months. The excitement from neighborhood children deepened their resolve.

In that first season, the children just showed up, wanting to plant and fighting over who would get the hose. Many were from a nearby shelter for abused women and their children. Afterward, the children ended up in Grim’s kitchen, wanting to know how to cook what they helped harvest.

Now the farm has a youth program, where up to 15 children can come on Tuesday and Friday mornings, help harvest, discuss nutrition and help cook lunch under the canopy of the farm’s new outdoor kitchen.

The farm’s outreach efforts have become more organized. In the first two seasons, it donated produce to shelters and food pantries and sold produce cheaply to residents.

This year, the farm got funding to start the North City Farmer’s Market, which takes place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday through October on the 14th Street Mall. Each month, the farm distributes 240 $5 vouchers to area food pantries that can be used at the market, Grim said.

On a recent Saturday, residents filling up their bags with inexpensive collards, turnips and onions talked about how excited they were to be able to walk to the market instead of taking the bus to get affordable produce.

Denise Strickland, 43, walked down from the only business on the mall, a hair salon, to buy fruit for lunch. Otherwise, she would’ve gone to a fried-chicken restaurant or to another nearby eatery to get a BLT sandwich. “This neighborhood really needed something like this,” she said.

GROWING Involvement

Grim, Black and Gerth are no longer alone.

The farm is now run by a nine-member collective, which includes two interns. Most of the members of the collective live nearby. They get by with little money, ride bikes and cook their meals together.

“People here are really dedicated to service. It’s such a rare thing to find,” said Stephen Inman, 22, who grew up in St. Charles and joined the collective in October.

The group wants to acquire more land nearby, hire workers and get health insurance. This year, a $50,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health is funding the farmer’s market, vouchers and youth program.

One recent morning, the farm was blossoming with plants such as tomatoes, green onions, kale, garlic and asparagus. Melon and pattypan squash seedlings growing in the makeshift greenhouse were waiting to be planted.

Grim pulled off a sheet protecting the 70-foot-long bed of green beans from rabbits. “There’s a ton of them, and they have absolutely no bug damage,” she said as she snapped open one and took a bite. “Look at them, they are perfect.”

She sat on the edge of an open bucket and started picking. She told the intern to pick the big ones that have curled at the end and leave the other ones.

They still have room to grow.

mmunz@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8263