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Sound Bites: Urban farmers bloom where they're planted

Urban agriculture has taken root in cities everywhere, including right here in the River City.  It comes in many forms: the community garden, the backyard vegetable patch, the rooftop bee colony.  But cultivating food in town can be complicated and wrought with challenges---so what is it that’s driving some city dwellers to skip the grocery store and get their hands dirty?   Libby Franklin reports in the next of our new series Sound Bites, created in partnership with Sauce Magazine.

Finally, a community garden Downtown

When you think of the places where food usually comes from and the sounds of farm life, you probably don’t think of this of  the screeching sound of a parking lot security gate.  But just north of the City Museum in downtown St. Louis, the Koken Manufacturing Company parking lot is a meeting place for Urban Harvest STL,  a non-profit group of downtown residents working to create the neighborhood’s first community garden.

Koken Manufacturing is leasing the land to Urban Harvest STL for food production.  It’s an open field in an otherwise industrial block, the former site of a ten story building owned by Brown Shoe Company. Mary Ostafi, founding chair of Urban Harvest STL, says that because the garden will be sitting on industrial land, the first thing they did was conduct a soil test.

“It’s not the healthiest soil. It is borderline lead contamination.  But, we weren’t surprised in the least bit.  That’s the situation in an urban garden, and you just have to be prepared for it.”

On a recent weekend morning, four dedicated volunteers were doing just that: preparing.  As they landscaped the site to prepare it for the construction of raised beds, they continually encountered debris in the soil.  Joe Ostafi, Mary’s husband is the architect who drew up the plans for the garden.

“We’re hitting brick, glass, and the other architectural accouterments you might expect to find in a landfill. ” 

So why push forward with a problematic site?  Urban Harvest STL says that despite the soil challenge, the site is ideal for the garden because of its proximity to downtown’s residential population; folks to work the garden and to enjoy its food.  Come spring, the group will fill raised beds with donated compost and healthy soil, safe for cultivating food.

The MLK Drive site wasn’t the first city space Urban Harvest considered. At first, they looked skyward, thinking maybe a rooftop might fit their needs.  But a rooftop presents a set of challenges all its own, challenges that Amos Harris and Natalie Semchyshyn Know well.

A downtown garden, seven stories up

A few blocks away Harris and Semchyshyn have turned the roof of their 7-story condo building into a leafy oasis tucked between air conditioning units and other rooftop fixtures.  It started out simply enough, just a few potted peppers to remind Semchyshyn of home in California.

But the peppers didn’t get pollinated.

“So we decided to get bees to pollinate the peppers.  And then it just grew from there,” says Harris.

Now the rooftop is home to three working hives, 70,000 bees who pollinate the garden, which is thick with fruits and vegetables, everything from tomatoes and strawberries to potatoes and bock choy.  (Also, Harris says, if you see bees in nearby City Garden, they’re likely visiting from their rooftop base.)  Even with the help of an army of bees, it hasn’t been easy.  Soil has to be craned up to the roof to fill planters.  A drip irrigation system was installed to compete with the scorching rooftop sun.  

“It gets really, really hot.  Really, really, cold.  And really, really windy,” Semchyshyn says.  “So, it’s tough for plants.  You just have to plant, and see what survives. ”

That  frustrating question about what will survive and what will perish must be one of the most simultaneously basic, yet mysterious parts of growing food anywhere——city or country.

Growing more than food

Justin Leszcz says learning to deal with failure has been one of the central parts of his new life as an urban farmer.

“When I plant something, I’m expecting it to die.  I’m expecting that these chickens could be eaten by a raccoon tonight, because it’s happened to us before.  I’ve spent months growing chickens and in one night, everything’s done.

Leszcz and his wife have turned their small Afton yard into Yellow Tree Farm.  It’s less than one tenth of an acre, but they use their limited space to grow what Justin calls “weird stuff.”  Because high volume isn’t an option, they concentrate on heirloom varieties of vegetables and heritage breed animals--exciting food that has gotten the attention of some of the city’s choosiest chefs.

This commercial success was hardly guaranteed, which was scary for Justin, because for him, growing food is more than a hobby.  It’s his new job.  Three years ago, he traded a steady, lucrative career in car sales, for the more uncertain life of an urban farmer.  His journey started with a movie called Home Grown about a California family that turned their yard into a working farm.

“At the end of the movie,” Leszcz says,  “I turned to my wife and said, ‘can I do that?’ and she said, ‘sure.’  She wanted me to be happy.  I wasn’t happy. I woke up to go make money.  That’s what it was about, you know. It shouldn’t be about that. ”

All over the city, it seems, people like Justin are growing food.  Some get paid for it.  Some get fed.  And though the food they grow is certainly delicious reason enough for days and weeks of toil, heat, dirt, and the occasional disappointment, for many city farmers, it is about something else, too.  For some it’s a political statement about where food comes from.  For others, it’s a spiritual way to be connected to the earth, for others, it’s just fun.

David Anderson has making wine for 20 years.  He grows his own grapes and is turning his Kirkwood yard into a vineyard.   He says he could buy the grapes and the wine cheaper than what it costs him to make them, and certainly easier.   But, he says  “it’s the satisfaction of getting out there.  I love to get dirty and sweaty and do that type of work and I get lost in the garden.  Nothing else bothers me at that time.”

Mary Ostafi at Urban Harvest STL says that her organizational meetings have been at capacity, and that the reasons people come are as diverse as the neighborhood itself.

"Some people are experienced gardeners that don’t have anywhere to currently grow their own food, so they’re interested in having a place to do that.  Other people just want to get involved in something that’s happening in the community and help build up our community and get to know neighbors that they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet.  And then some people just want some place that they can be outside in nature.  So creating a green space like this is going to be good for everybody. ”


You can read more about urban gardening in Ligaya Figueras' feature in the September issue of Sauce Magazine.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.