The Weekend Gardener
6:05 pm
Sat July 30, 2011

A tour of urban farms in St. Louis

For this installment of the Weekend Gardener, we're going to think beyond the weekends and look at what some innovative growers are doing full-time.

In February our science reporter, Véronique LaCapra, wrote about urban food deserts. Since that story, there's been a lot more going on in St. Louis to address the food desert issue. Besides smaller scale community gardens, there are quite a few urban farms: relatively small—compared to rural farms—production-oriented efforts. Whereas community gardens are more about feeding individuals or families, urban farms feed the larger community. Most urban farms are non-profit organizations with triple-bottom lines: to be profitable in order to continue production and provide employment, to be sustainable, and to serve the human need for fresh, healthy, and easily accessible food.

When getting established, an issue most urban farms face is contaminated soil. Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are common soil contaminates in urban areas. To grow edible food on this land, farmers need to truck in quality soil from elsewhere, which can be very expensive. Often farms rely on grant money to cover this start-up cost. Once farms are established, they can start composting and building their own healthy soil—like building equity in a business.

The quality of the soil is something successful farms boast about. "Just look at how black our soil is!" was heard a few times along a tour of several urban farms. This alternative form of "black gold" makes a difference. Careful evaluation of nutrient levels created a rich humus that allowed one small farm to get much higher yields than a larger farm also in the city. Other factors, such as crop rotation and spacing, are practices that influence yield as well; but healthy soil is like a living steam engine that keeps these farms pumping out productive plants year after year.

In the slideshow above, you'll see photos from an urban farm tour organized by Lincoln University Cooperative Extension's Innovative Small Farmers' Outreach Program. The first stop was the International Institute of St. Louis' Global Farm, an agriculture-based career training program for refugees.

The next stop was a visit to the first urban farm in St. Louis, New Roots Urban Farm, a farming collective located in the St. Louis Place neighborhood north of downtown St. Louis.

At the corner of Sarah Street and Martin Luther King Drive we found the Bee Sweet Urban Orchard, the site of several half-century-old fruit trees and now the home to 48 fruit trees and a vegetable garden. The site serves as a component of Mark Twain Community Resource Center's Hip-Hop Health program for kids.

St. Louis Catholic Academy was the next stop, with a large garden maintained by sixth graders. The garden supplies the school with some of its food for lunches.

The next stop, Yours Market on North Broadway, in the Baden neighborhood, provides job training and fresh produce grown on a relatively small but expanding farm behind the store.

Finally, the tour ended at EarthDance Farms, the site of what is believed to be the oldest organic farm in Missouri, the historic Mueller Organic Farm in Ferguson.

There are several other urban farms in the St. Louis area. One example is City Seeds, which provides job training and therapeutic horticulture to individuals who are homeless or underserved.

If you'd like to learn more about urban farming, visit the links to the farms above and check out the National Agriculture Library.

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