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Facing extreme weather, Spanish Lake farmer makes changes to routine and crops

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Shideh Ghandeharizadeh
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NPR Next Generation Radio
Extreme weather changes have impacted the work farmers do, and it’s no different for Mitchell Pearson, who runs an urban farm in Spanish Lake.

This story was reported in partnership with NPR's Next Generation Radio — finding, coaching and training public media's next generation.

SPANISH LAKE — North St. Louis County farmer Mitchell Pearson can tell that something’s off in the environment just by observing birds and insects when he examines his produce and feeds his chickens and goats every morning.

“The crickets, they make noises when the weather changes. I’m watching the birds, like I might see cardinals certain time of the year or [see] different species of birds out,” said Pearson, who lives in Spanish Lake, Mo. “[They] let me know that oh, something’s not right.”

In recent years, Pearson has noticed many irregularities that have made it challenging to grow fruits and vegetables on his 13-acre farm, Phi Global. Climate change has brought unpredictable extreme weather and hungry pests to the St. Louis region, which Pearson said has ruined much of his produce this year.

During the month of April, St. Louis witnessed record-breaking high and low temperatures. The cold snap set his tomato planting season back a month.

“If climate change is going to affect the temperature,” said Pearson, “it’s going to throw off the timing of our food becoming, you know, ripe.”

Pearson is adapting to late springs by building hoop houses, a greenhouse-like structure that can be used to extend the growing season, keeping seedlings warmer for longer and protecting them from pests.

He also lost all of his squash, worth about $600, due to a squash vine borer infestation.

In the summer, Pearson changed his daily routine to accommodate sustained 100-degree days.

He used to wake up to tend to the farm at 10 a.m., but now, he often wakes up before dawn or works later in the evening to avoid dangerous heat.

“I don’t mind having to get up at 5 in the morning,” Pearson. “But my staff may not be used to getting up so early because [I employ] a lot of city folks.”

He has been growing fruits and vegetables in Spanish Lake for five years, after he retired from 30 years of teaching. Pearson grew up on a farm, and his family has farmed for four generations, largely in Kansas and Oklahoma. Like his family, he grows mustard greens, purple peas, red okra, onions and collard greens.

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Britny Cordera
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NPR Next Generation Radio
Mitchell Pearson, founder of Phi Global, sits on a tree on Sept. 12 in a forest on his farmland in Spanish Lake. “It’s important to teach the next generation how to care for and respect the land,” he said. “We as adults have to question if we respect the environment because we teach through behavior, not by what we say.”

He believes growing food locally can help fight climate change.

“Not only does our food taste best,” Pearson said, “locally grown is healthier for the environment. You reduce that carbon footprint when you buy a tomato grown in the region instead of having it shipped from Texas or California.”

Ultimately, Pearson is trying to reclaim history by growing food at his farm. Collards, which are rich in iron and contain antioxidants that can help prevent cancer, are one of the few foods enslaved African Americans were allowed to grow to provide nutrition to their families.

He wants to build an urban farm school in the near future to teach community members how to grow their own food. Urban farming is important for community health, cohesiveness and cultural exchange, he said.

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Britny Cordera
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NPR Next Generation Radio
Mitchell Pearson, founder of Phi Global, picks and holds a handful of ripe tomatoes on Sept. 12 at his farm in Spanish Lake.

He’s especially focused on educating young people — Phi Global is within a five-mile radius of four elementary schools in the Riverview Gardens district. Being near the schools allows him to invite children over to taste fresh vegetables and play with the chickens and goats, Pearson said.

“Farming is labor intensive. I’m out here sweating a lot,” said Pearson. “I love it. Farming makes me hopeful and gives me another day to live.”

Follow Britny on Twitter at @becordera.

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.

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