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North St. Louis Residents Want Foul-Smelling Farm Out Of Neighborhood

Perennial City Composting co-founder Tim Kiefer at his small chicken farm in Visitation Park on June 19, 2020.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Perennial City Composting co-founder Tim Kiefer has been composting chicken manure at his farm just north of Delmar Boulevard. Several neighbors claim it's caused offensive odors.

About a year ago, Jermell Hasson Williams called the police because he smelled a terrible odor and thought someone might have died in the vacant house next door. 

Instead, he discovered that the strong rancid odors were coming from a two-acre farm nearby owned by a local urban agriculture company, Perennial City Composting. 

Williams and his neighbors in the Visitation Park area north of Delmar Boulevard claim that the smell is coming from composted chicken manure. They’ve asked city officials to move the farm out of the neighborhood.

“It smells so bad I can’t open my windows no more for fresh air,” said Williams, 33. “It’s the same problem on the other side of the street. People can’t use their backyard for holidays. This community, people been wearing masks way before COVID-19 due to the smell.” 

City inspectors did not find any offensive odors. But Department of Health officials say there are approximately 80 chickens on Perennial City’s farm, which has four parcels. St. Louis residents are allowed to have up to eight chickens per lot. The Department of Health Animal Care and Control officers cited owner Tim Kiefer for having too many and told him he’d have to appear in court.

Kiefer said he does not know how many chickens live on the property and does not believe he has violated the city’s chicken ordinance. 

“There are different ordinances in the city, seemingly well-meaning and also not super clear or not well-informed,” he said. 

City officials also say that Kiefer does not have permits to operate the farm in the neighborhood. Residents claim that the property is zoned for multifamily residential use and not for commercial purposes. 

Jermell Hassan Williams standing at his pickup truck in his neighborhood Visitation Park on June 19, 2020.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Jermell Hasson Williams says he can't open his windows because of the foul odors from Perennial City Composting's farm. He's asking the city to move the farm out of the neighborhood.

Kiefer, 34, lives in Skinker-DeBaliviere, a neighborhood south of Delmar Boulevard across from Visitation Park. He and his wife founded Perennial City Composting more than two years ago to help St. Louis-area residents and restaurants compost food scraps. The couple paid $9,500 for the lots, which were owned by the Land Reutilization Authority. 

They began building the farm in April 2018 and planned to allow neighbors to build community gardens and teach them how to prune fruit trees and other valuable agriculture skills, Kiefer said. 

“Our mission is to catalyze the launch and success of rewarding urban agriculture endeavors in north city St. Louis through innovation, education and structural assistance to increase the health and happiness of the community and help alleviate the city’s vacancy burden,” Kiefer said. 

A few residents support Perennial City’s farm. Kiefer has listened and communicated with neighbors about the farm’s operations, said Adrienne Gaines, who owns three townhouses across the street. 

“It’s like you’re baking a cake: Sometimes you might get it right; you might not. But you continue to work on what you’re doing until you perfect it,” Gaines said. “Tim has been working on [composting], and he’s got it to the point where it’s pretty good. We still have some issues with it, but that’s going to happen and on our block, we’ve accepted that.”

Containers of composted chicken manure at Perennial City Composting's farm in Visitation Park on June 19, 2020.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Kiefer collects food scraps from restaurants, feeds them to chickens and then harvests their manure. He uses it to build "composting bioreactors."

But Kiefer did not tell all the neighbors that the operation could emit foul odors, said Tosha Phonix, a food justice organizer at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Phonix supports residents who want the farm to leave the neighborhood. 

“He’s not being honest, he’s not being straightforward and telling them all the complications that might come with this. Because if he told them, you know what people are going [to say]: ‘I don’t want to smell that,’” Phonix said. 

The majority of residents who live on Cabanne Avenue and Windermere Place have complained about the farm, said 26th Ward Alderwoman Shameem Clark-Hubbard. 

“I am so upset with his level of privilege and being wrong,” Clark-Hubbard said. “Something tells him it’s OK. It’s frustrating because people feel taken advantage of because they were not privy to any of this happening.”

Tullia Hamilton, 72, and her husband live on Windermere Place, behind the farm. They’ve spent much less time in their backyard in the last year due to the odors and are worried that property values in the neighborhood will drop. But they’re not against urban agriculture, she said. 

“I am all for environmental justice. But this is no way to do this,” said Hamilton, 72. “But [Kiefer] sprouts this missionary attitude, right? Like he needs to come here and bring something to us savages, this is a wilderness that he’s taming. To me, it’s really racist. We didn’t ask for it.” 

Tullia and Irvin Hamilton, residents of Visitation Park, standing in their backyard on June 19, 2020.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Tullia and Irvin Hamilton have lived at their house on Windermere Place for about 20 years. They've gone out to their backyard less due to the odors from Perennial City's farm.

Perennial City Composting does not make any decisions based on race, said Kiefer, who is white. He also grew up with Black neighbors on Chamberlain Avenue, not far from the farm. 

“We’re aware and learning more about the devastating systemic injustices and broken promises,” Kiefer said. “The lots we are on are an example of this, something that developers would not be allowed to do anywhere else in St. Louis.”

Perennial City’s biggest mistake was building the farm next to a private street, Windermere Place, Kiefer said. He speculated there wouldn’t be as many complaints from neighbors if the farm was two blocks north.

Hamilton and her neighbors hope that the city takes action against the farm soon. 

“I resent the idea that table scraps from white neighborhoods are being dumped behind my house,” Hamilton said. “There’s this notion I think that as long as you’re north of Delmar, the people here really don’t matter.” 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.