The Community Farmer That Could
This story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.
Molly Rockamann's farm in Ferguson, Missouri, isn’t particularly picturesque. The rows of kale and broccoli are covered with polyester sheeting and lined with burlap sacks donated by a local coffee roaster. Furniture in the open-air "living room" runs to trash-picked chairs and a couple of homemade benches. Rusty tomato cages sit heaped in a corner. The people tending the crops don't fit the stereotype of the hay-chewing farmer. One is a retiree and another a high-school student. There’s a nurse, a welder, and a professional barista, and they tend to shout at one another every time a plane flies low overhead from the nearby St. Louis Airport.
But for Rockamann, all these anomalies are part of the point. If organic farming is to have a future in this country—especially if it is to gain traction in urban and suburban outposts—she believes it’s going to take all kinds of people and whatever kind of scrounged-up miscellanea they can enlist to help.
Rockamann doesn’t actually own this 14-acre plot, but it’s taken the 29-year-old’s unique willpower to make it the community pillar it is today. She was volunteering on the land when she learned that the last descendant of the family that had been farming here organically since 1883 was in her eighties. Rockamann didn’t want to see the farm go and figured the best way to save it would be to "create a community of people attached to it." So when that last descendant was approaching 90, Rockamann founded EarthDance, a program aimed at bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together to learn and eat from this rich soil.
She designed her initiative to be part-time so that even those with families and jobs could participate, and for the initial nine-month program, she signed up everyone from home-schooling moms to middle-aged folks contemplating career changes. Each of the 12 "apprentices" spent 10 hours a week engaging in every aspect of the operation—from planting and harvesting to learning about organic pest management and manning the booths at the two St. Louis farmer’s markets where EarthDance sells its produce.
Rockamann has highlighted hair and a nose stud; her looks don’t exactly scream "farmer." But ever since she grew vegetables as a kid, she’s been preoccupied by the land. Stints in a farming program at the University of California, Santa Cruz and with mushroom producers in Ghana and sugarcane growers in Fiji underscored her devotion to organics—and to making them available to everyone.
The urban ag trend is terrific, Rockamann says, but she worries "that people may not take it seriously as a source" capable of feeding more than just the privileged few. Really scaling up production of organic food, she believes, will mean educating enough people to truly care about it.
To that end, Rockamann expanded her program and hired a farm manager to run the day-to-day growing operation while she concentrates on raising funds to buy the land. She instituted a community-sponsored agriculture, or CSA, initiative to get more produce out to the neighbors. Today, EarthDance has 34 apprentices and fills 100 boxes a week with enough produce, Rockamann says, to feed a "vegetable-loving family of four."
Aside from preventing this historic piece of land from being sold into residential parcels, Rockamann, who was honored with a 2011 NRDC Growing Green Award, says her priority is to ensure that successive classes of apprentices pass their knowledge on. She now offers farm tours to schools and recently instituted a film series in hopes of expanding the EarthDance community. It’s no accident that at the bottom of the online roster of available produce, the energetic young Missourian has listed her most valuable crop of all: "New farmers!"
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