"I'm more prone to calling it a garden this year. Before it was like, "don't call it a garden! It's a farm!"
We sat at the picnic table and watched the sun set on the abundant crops while Stephen told us about the challenges and perks of being an urban farmer. This garden has been functioning for about seven years and Stephen told us the story of the four individuals who got New Roots going. Everybody is a volunteer and they have initiated or helped with several other food and social justice projects in St. Louis. The produce that is harvested supplies an impressive number of CSA boxes for its size and it barely pays for the next season of the garden's existence.
It is difficult to operate not knowing if the yield will bring in enough money for another season of planting and harvesting, but that is the reality of most farms, rural or urban. One of Stephen's goals is to have this garden produce enough to pay for a gardener who will lead the project and volunteers, since that position doesn't exist right now and the garden is run on hopeful volunteer labor and luck. The volunteers do get to walk away with some of the food, but the whole project started when the founders realized that they couldn't afford their own produce on their rural farm outside the city. A garden that won't sustain the folks who work it seems doomed to failure, or, at the very least, ironic.
Despite the typical volunteer and practical urban issues, the kale is looking lovely, and as we sit chatting with Stephen a few neighborhood folks wander in to check on the crops and do some harvesting, thankful for this abundant gift of food amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. We watch the sun set and the city sky turn purple over the distant skyscrapers and abandoned brick neighborhood buildings...
Click here for Stephen's story in his own words...
We've had several sites that other organizations have taken over. But this will always be ours. This will always be ours.
I did not grow up being very food-conscious. Not uncommon for an American male growing up in the suburbs in this time period. I didn't grow up with any sense of food mattering. I'm from St. Charles, which is a suburb of here, maybe 20 miles west of St. Louis, and that's where I spent the first 18 years of my life...not thinking about food.
I was thinking about other things; I had the very good fortune to get a guitar when I was 12 years old and decided I had, you know, found my key to the world. I was like, "This is it! It doesn't have to be the oppressive culture that I was raised in. I don't have to...there are other options for me out there." I started playing in a band, got into punk rock, and surrounded myself with other peers who were unsatisfied with their rearing and bands that had really good ideas, critical of the culture, and just participating in something like a folk tradition like punk rock music.
You start to learn what it's like to make a world on your own criteria and of your own design and you go to a show and it's a bunch of kids who booked it, set it up, and started the band and found the venue, ran the door, and we just had the best time ever, you know? It was like, "clearly this is what I'm going to be doing in some capacity", something based on community, not just accepting what was given to us, but really looking at all the motivations for the choices we make at every level that I could wrap my head around at the time.
So, after high school, I moved into an independent concert venue of sorts, called the Lemp Art Center on the south side. That was a pretty natural extension of the direction that my life was going, just running a venue and making independent, noncommercial music accessible and regarding it as art. Especially always understanding the bridge between art and social change. That was something that I was really into, again, another extension of playing some kind of radical music, I guess.
For a long time I had my mind around the issues...you know...any of the issues that face us; understanding the motivation of, like, capitalism and the different distresses that people accumulate over their lives that encourage capitalism and all the heavy handed ways of that. That tragedy is always playing out in regards to economics and politics and all those things, and also the ways that we can and can't enjoy our lives because of the culture we live in. So...that's all a long way of saying...I guess I was prone to something like this.
You know, I was vegan, because I listened to propaghandi, because of the idea that killing animals didn't seem right, that really jived with me. When I was growing up I ate, like Boca Burgers and things like that, when they were first coming out; but really my sense wasn't about care for my body or care for my food. I hadn't really understood that part of the oppression is keeping us so out of touch with our food that we don't keep ourselves healthy, you know? Because healthy people are dangerous. A lot of it also has to do with understanding our own worth, taking care of ourselves, taking care of our planet, understanding that we're here to make a significant impact.
I found out about this place [New Roots Urban Farm] because...well, just a bunch of circumstances. My partner at the time, she was working at a small gardening business of sorts with Joseph Black, who, with three other people, started this farm. She was working with Joseph and we became shareholders for the CSA and I started volunteering here. I saw how magical it was. And then just realized that it was more in line with what I wanted to be doing.
It was very symbolic of...like, I'm sure that in a band I wrote a song about feeding people, you know what I mean? But this was like, "Oh! Why don't I just go feed people!" It was seeing this place as, oh, these aren't just a bunch of ideas, like in art, it's like...a different kind of art, you know? It's still composition in lots of ways. I don't know why my mind is going this way because I don't actually come here and think of it as an art, but it is, you know? The management of any kind of organization is, and of course the growing of the food, and thinking of all the components of the community as a whole and what they need. I guess that's how my mind is kind of geared to this stuff.
So, New Roots was started...what year was it?...this is our 7th season, so '04...by Trish Grim, Joseph Black, Amy Girth, and Molly Dupre. They had various backgrounds in agriculture. They came it from their own place, just like I came to it. They were all working at a rural farm in Eureka, Missouri and were growing food for high-end farmers markets and restaurants, participating in that, enjoying the outdoors, and getting their hands dirty, cultivating the earth, but realizing that they caouldn't even afford the food that they're growing. And that so many people in the world...there's a lot of people who don't have access to that food. So they set out with that mind; they thought, what better way to address this issue than to go where there's the most food insecurity and start a farm? Like, let's just get down to business and handle it, and see what happens.
At this point we see this as urban homesteading essentially. We have gardens and chickens, composting toilets. We share resources and live as simply and sustainably as we can muster. That gives you a sense of why we'd end up here. This land was...I wish I knew more of the story of who actually owned it, but it was some nonprofit or cooperative or corporation or something owned it who were friends of ours who just didn't want to see it get developed.
So was this vacant and empty, or was there a structure here?
Probably in the late '80's it was all razed. There were 4 buildings, and where the grass is right here was the alley. If you look you can see the bricks still. And then this structure was here; I don't know what that was, some kind of dumpster or something. That was here. Telephone pole was here. That ailanthus tree was there. Maybe there was another tree or two, but you can look at our website and see the previous things; pretty cool. So they bought this land for something like $7,000 with money that they just borrowed from friends and family, and started the CSA. I think the first year was like an 8-person CSA.
So that's how it started; just these four people found this land in this community because of what was going on here. They brought in all the soil of course, you know, it's all toxic city soil here. We're always amending the soil. We make our own compost, we pick up food scraps, we get horse manure, we...actually that big pile of compost that you see out there is part of a really convenient setup right now where the city...the city composter is broken so they are contracting out an actual company that makes good compost. We're in this window of opportunity where we can be getting city compost for free. So we always are amending the soil and we're always bringing in these damn woodchips, this constant thing. We're considering other things, like maybe a living mulch, cover cropping.
Our yields get better and better every year. We're always testing our soil for heavy metals and things like that and we've never had any issues with it.
So some projects that New Roots has done since starting in the mid-auts...there's the CSA which at times has been as many as 22 families, shareholders who come twice a week and pick up their stuff. We do that from March through the end of October. We did a project called City Seeds, partnering with Gateway Greening and the St. Patrick Center where clients from St. Patrick Center, which is like a really smart, good rehabilitation, homeless shelter of sorts with really good people running it and really good heads on their shoulders. We would get clients from there. Then we helped start another site called City Seeds, which I feel like is like 2 and a half acres. It's not all gorwing but there's quite a bit of food growing there on this 2 and a half acre plot that they got; clients from the St. Patrick Center would get paid, like minimum wage to work there.
You mentioned some roles that people play...what do you think the role of the farmer in our society should be?
The role of the farmer...things that come to mind...like, having a love, a real love for the land around you, real care, real stewardship of the land. That should be the role of the farmer, but then also there should be a system in place that allows that, or even encourages that. But currently a farmer isn't encouraged or even allowed to feel that kind of love for her farm. It's just a rat race of keeping up...trying to, like, get a subsidy, you know what I mean?
The word "culture", like "agri-culture"...I go back and forth between thinking, "was agriculture a good idea for humans?" I don't know; it kind of got us into this mess, this whole civilized mess that we're in, but I would like to think that it's possible for humans to organize themselves and their environment in a way that leaves the earth better than when we showed up. And I think that's possible. So of course, when I think of agriculture I'm leaning more towards, like, permaculture, you know? Farmers being encouraged and invited to consider ways to grow food intentionally in the sense that it can be there, like "perma-", permanent, sustainable, you know? To have something there for future generations to be like, "Thanks!" instead of like, "Thanks a lot for getting us into this," you know?
Farmers, they should definitely be the stewards of the land, but also deserve nothing but love and respect from their society as a whole. It needs to be one of the highest, most praised positions in human culture, the farmer. Two percent of Americans are farmers now; it should be something that most of us are participating in to some degree.