How urban agriculture projects in St. Louis are investing in more than just food
Just a few blocks north of Union Station in downtown St. Louis, a 2.5-acre farm sits hidden in plain sight next to the on-ramp for I-64. Despite its size and relatively busy location, few people are aware of its existence.
It isn’t the only farm in the area that no one knows about.
There are several urban agriculture projects in the city of St. Louis, including the many community gardens sponsored by Gateway Greening. The farm just north of Union Station has a mission that extends beyond sustainability and environmental awareness. City Seeds is a service of the St. Patrick Center that gives homeless men and women an opportunity to become farmers. During a four-month rotational program, they learn vocational skills and engage in horticultural therapy.
The Global Farms program at the International Institute and the Sweet Potato Project started by Sylvester Brown are also transforming pieces of St. Louis’ urban landscape into community gardens for underserved communities in the city.
The International Institute currently has two farms, each of which is divided into small plots of land shared by people who came to the United States as refugees. Staff from the Institute are available to help these new Americans acclimate to Missouri’s climate and to facilitate the process of selling produce to various vendors.
The Sweet Potato Project was started by Brown in 2012 with the goal of giving kids in North St. Louis a safe place to do dignified work while learning entrepreneurial and horticultural skills.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh spoke with the directors of each of these urban agriculture initiatives to hear about how they are growing more than just food in their gardens.
Mang Zam came to St. Louis as a refugee in 2009, and he was one of the first clients to participate in the International Institute’s Global Farms project.
“We are from our own country, but here the world is much different,” Zam said. “Winter is very cold, snow...summer is very hot, so how to plant, that’s what they train us.”
Joel Walker, senior specialist for the Global Farms initiative, echoed these remarks when he joined Don Marsh in studio. He explained that new American farmers need to be trained by Institute staff to understand the weather, different horticultural techniques (i.e. composting, fertilization, insect control), food handling requirements and safety practices for working with power tools.
Refugees with agricultural backgrounds are identified during the resettlement process and referred to Global Farms. If they are interested in participating in the program, they receive one year of training that includes lessons in operating a small business.
Each farm is just under one-acre in size, and that acre is divided among 12 families on the South Farm and 22 families on the North Farm . These families represent approximately 13 countries, including the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Liberia, Burma, and Bhutan.
“Initially it was set up for people to get jobs on farms and in agriculture,” Walker said. “However, once people settle in the city, they do not want to move out into the rural area because they’ve already developed a whole lifestyle and community here.”
While most participants have outside jobs and see the farm simply as a side project or way to provide fresh food for their families, some are interested in selling to vendors like Saint Louis University or City Greens. One farmer grossed $4,000 just last year.
“They really love farming,” Walker said. “You can see it every day when they’re out there and they bring their children and families … they have a new chance and a new place to excel, and they are taking that opportunity and running with it.”
Sweet Potato Project
Tamara, whose last name will remain anonymous, is a second-year participant in Brown’s Sweet Potato Project. She took a break from planting seeds in a bed in front of Union Avenue Christian Church to tell us about her involvement with the program.
“I didn’t enjoy it at first because it’s a lot of work and it’s very hot,” she said. “But I’ve grown to it, and now I don’t mind doing it at all. I actually like doing it.”
Brown started the Sweet Potato Project in 2012 because he wanted to empower young people like Tamara to make a difference in their community of North St. Louis.
“I really don’t care if they stay in urban gardening or not,” Brown said. “I just want to plant that seed of entrepreneurism and healthy, natural living.”
A former columnist with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Brown sees enormous potential for the area in what he calls the “food movement.” His vision is to use some of North St. Louis’ vacant lots to promote economic development and community pride through urban agriculture.
Accomplishing this mission, however, will require political and financial support that Brown says he is currently lacking.
"These kids have bought into the notion that they can actually change their communities, and that's powerful stuff."
The kids who participate in the Sweet Potato Project are paid for their work, but this year Brown has encountered significant financial difficulties that forced him to limit to the number of students in the program from 35 to 15. They do not have their own piece of land yet, and acquiring that land is what he identifies as the most crucial next step for the program.
In spite of the many challenges, Brown says this is one of the most personally rewarding projects he has ever worked on.
“The beautiful thing is it’s not just a summer job,” Brown explained. “These kids have bought into the notion that they can actually change their communities, and that’s powerful stuff.”
The City Seeds Therapeutic Job Training Program has two central purposes:
First, it helps St. Patrick Center clients develop skills that assist in the transition to permanent employment.
Second, it helps provide a safe and healthy environment in which farmers can relax and find peace.
There are three sessions per year, with each session lasting about 10 weeks. During their time in the program, clients attend classes both at the farm and at the St. Patrick Center’s main campus in downtown St. Louis. In class, they learn how to understand soil, plant seeds, harvest crops and use lawn mowers and other garden machinery.
“We actually focus on both hard and soft skills,” said Sydney Boyle, director of the City Seeds program. “It’s a lot about can you show up on time, can you maintain a schedule, can you take direction.”
While City Seeds is not directly responsible for setting people up with housing or employment, they coordinate with the numerous services provided by the St. Patrick Center. Often they find that clients’ motivation to continue working on other programs comes from the desire to participate with the farm.
Some of the produce from the farm goes back to the St. Patrick Center and is used to help feed those who rely on the Shamrock Club for meals.
Pete Kolich is the Food Services Director for the St. Patrick Center, and he said that clients love to receive produce from City Seeds. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not often included in donations, so healthy, organic contributions from the farm are welcome.
Deborah, who asked not to include her last name, is a former client of the St. Patrick Center’s women’s night shelter program. She has continued to participate in the program even after the Center helped her to find stable housing last year. We spoke to Deborah at the farm one morning in June to hear about her experience with City Seeds.
“You’re amazed about how they plant a seed then you see it … you know, grow," she said. "That’s amazing for someone like me not to ever did this before. My mental state is okay. I’m in a nice neighborhood, I’m content…and I’m going to be honest with you, I’m kind of happy. I’m kind of happy now.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.