June 9, 2014

Our City Farm

I had an appointment with Jeri Villarreal at her farm, Our City Farm. As I approached the farm, I realized that I was on a busy city street, with four lanes of traffic and space for parking. The farm was across from a parking lot, there was a vacant lot directly beside it, and the neighborhood looked worse for wear. Jeri must be an incorrigible optimist to farm here.
Just after I arrived, another car showed up, and out popped a man. Granted, I had no idea what Jeri looked like, but this man did not look like he belonged to the woman's voice I had spoken with on the phone. He was not even her emissary. His name was Mike, and he, too, was hoping to meet with Jeri. He had come to apologize to her. And, he wanted to discuss the fate of thirty tomato plants. On the other hand, I had come to discuss the battles she had waged farming in the middle of St. Louis and what was working well for her. And, as it turned out, Jeri had come to talk with someone about building a fence.

So, I will start with the fence. Jeri purchased this lot from the City of St. Louis. It had been vacant for about ten years and she thought it looked like the perfect spot for a farm. She used a Kickstarter campaign to finance the purchase. Once she got the farm planted, other folks thought it looked like the perfect spot as well. But they thought it was a perfect spot, because there were fresh vegetables for the taking and a nice stash of tools to walk off with. One evening as Jeri drove by the farm, she noticed a woman working there. This was quite suspicious, so Jeri drove round back only to find the woman preparing to drive off. As Jeri approached the woman in her car, she noticed that the freshly harvested vegetables were sitting in her basket in the back of this woman's car. She confronted the woman about stealing vegetables and the woman insisted they were her vegetables. Then Jeri pointed out that the basket in which the vegetables sat was Jeri's basket. The woman backed down from her position and admitted that it might be Jeri's basket. But this did not stop her from driving off with the stolen goods. So, the time has come for Jeri to build a fence around the property in order to have some control over who comes and goes.

Jeri is committed to providing healthy food for the surrounding community. When she got here, the neighborhood was a food desert. She set up a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Last year it grew to support 30 members. An urban CSA is a beautiful thing. Customers don't drive miles to pick up their weekly share of farm-fresh food; they just walk down the street. Farmers eliminate the majority of transportation costs and refrigeration expenses, while selling very local, fresh food.

Jeri has also embarked upon educating her community about nutritious food that they can grow themselves. She offers free weekend workshops about urban agriculture, food justice issues, and healthy eating. She also offers CSA discounts for those who wish to work at Our City Farm. "Will Work For Food" has very positive connotations in Jeri's world. In just three short years, Jeri has grown Our City Farm from a vacant lot to 48 raised beds with a greenhouse on the way, by actively involving the surrounding community.

During my farm visit, a truck showed up with a load of mulch. Jeri steered the driver to dump in an appropriate spot. Most urban farmers inevitably come up against the issue of where to get all the farm inputs they need to create a healthy growing environment. Although the dirt under Jeri's farm tested out just fine, she did not want customers to be wary of contaminated urban soil. There had once been a building at this location. Although it had been covered with clean soil, Jeri says, "If you dig down a few feet, you're going to find ... a building." Thus Jeri put down a geogrid below all the beds and trucked in fertile river bottom soil, compost, and now mulch.

Our City Farm is Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). This means that the farm produces food without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or GMO crops. Certified Naturally Grown is an alternative to the National Organic Program (NOP). NOP is the federal program that establishes and enforces organic standards. CNG is a grassroots effort geared to meet the needs of small farmers that sell directly to their customers. All of the farms I have thus far visited in the southern U.S., with one exception, have been CNG farms.

One of the requirements of the CNG program is that a farm use CNG or organically grown seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock. When 30 tomato plants appeared in her beds overnight, Jeri was concerned. Since she did not know the provenance of these plants, she had to pull them out in order to maintain her certification. And that is how I happened to meet Mike. Over the past year, Mike had taken notice of the promising beds that Jeri had built. He had mistakenly come to the conclusion that Our City Farm was a community garden that could use some extra tomato plants. It turns out that Mike is a guerrilla gardener, who rescues plants. As Mike puts it, "I have learned to rescue plants from dumpsters of various nurseries and commercial outlets ... and find homes for them ... and I do that in places that I think need planting." Mike had come to apologize to Jeri in person for trespassing on her farm and taking transplant liberties with her beds.

Between helpful strangers cultivating mystery plants in her beds, thieves making off with her produce at the height of its maturity, having to truck in all the necessary growing media, and putting on free educational workshops, I wanted to know if Our City Farm was making a profit. The answer was a resounding YES. Her first year on the farm, Jeri was thrilled to break even. She spent about $15,000 and brought in about $16,000. Last year with a larger CSA, gross revenue increased to about $50,000 with expenses hovering just over $30,000. She is excited that this is a profit-making venture. Did I mention that Jeri has an off-farm, full-time job and kids at home? She is obviously an expert at juggling 10 activities at once. As she thoughtfully responded to each of my questions, she was accepting apologies from a guerilla gardener, guiding a dump-truck driver, and awaiting a fence consultant. In the interest of finishing all of her unfinished infrastructure projects, Jeri is scaling back the CSA this year. Her enthusiasm, however, is unrelenting.

Our City Farm is not taking new customers at this time, but if you are near Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis and you want to eat naturally grown heirloom varieties, such as rainbow swiss chard, freckles head lettuce, purple podded peas, and red russian kale, look to join the CSA in a future year.