gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

Just down the street from us is one of the coolest things this city has going for it (if you ask me): the urban farm known as City Roots. Since 2009, Robbie McClam and his crew have been farming these less than 3 acres of land and, in addition to growing local produce for Columbia residents, have become a real hub of community life and sustainability in the city. You can count on them being there at the weekly farmer’s market. If there’s a community-building or educational event taking place, City Roots is likely to be behind the scenes either organizing, hosting, or supporting it. And they are great neighbors. When we first moved here a few months ago, Dan and I picked up a truckload of compost for a dime from them — compost made out of the vegetable scraps they pick up weekly at our neighborhood grocery store and local restaurants. That’s just one example of how they keep nutrients and resources cycling in the community. During my recent visit, I got to walk the grounds with farmer Robbie and pick his brain about what they do and how they do it. cityroots-2The entire farm is essentially a demonstration site for environmentally friendly farming practices. The main retail and educational space, known as The Barn (above on the left), is passively cooled and built to meet LEED standards.cityroots barnThe farm also demonstrates how to grow food while caring for, rather than depleting its soil: practicing sheet mulching and crop rotation, minimizing tilling, growing cover crops such as winter rye (left) and clover (right) in the image below.. and of course, managing the large-scale composting operation from which I myself have benefited.cityroots2 cityroots chickensAnimals are incorporated into the system. The farm’s chickens are not only egg producers, but farm workers as well, scratching their way through the weeds under the blackberry and blueberry bushes and fertilizing the soil as they go. The bees in the apiary do the pollinating. The extensive vermicomposting system has worms turn more organic scraps into beautiful fertilizer. What’s particularly impressive, though, is the aquaponics system in one of the greenhouses: in a 3,000 gallon sunken-down tank, they’re presently growing about 700 tilapia fish and circulating the tank water through a system of beds devoted primarily to watercress and nasturtium (used in their salad mixes), which functions as a biological filter to clean and aerate the water before it goes back into the fish tank. And apparently the plants love the water fertilized by the fish. Have you ever seen nasturtium exploding like that?cityroots-4cityroots-7The farm is currently heavily focused on microgreens. Two large greenhouses are pumping out nutrition-packed seedlings of broccoli, radish, beet, snow pea, sunflower, mustard, the gorgeous red amaranth etc. to be sold at farmers’ markets and through the farm’s CSA program. This allows year-round production. I tasted quite a few of the microgreens while making my way through the greenhouses, and loved the variety — and especially the surprising punch of some of them.cityroots-3cityroots-8The story of how City Roots started is as inspiring as seeing the farm in action. Robbie McClam was trained as an architect and was working in the construction business when he heard an NPR interview with Will Allen of Growing Power. The next thing he knew, he’d signed up for the organization’s Commercial Urban Agriculture program and had set his mind on starting an urban farm in Columbia. What he says now of his new vocation compared to his earlier, extremely complex job of managing construction projects is, “Farming is much harder.” The land he leased presented big initial challenges: the soil was mostly compacted sand, the lot turned out to be zoned as industrial land. But the City Roots farmers persisted, bringing compost from the city’s composting program to cover the entire lot and getting some fertility going that way — and actually managing to change the zoning! cityroots-9I think you see by now why I’m so proud to have these folks in my neighborhood…

5 thoughts on “A farm in the city: Visit to City Roots

  1. Amazing! I wish I had them down our street 🙂

  2. That’s fantastic! How inspiring.

  3. jolynnpowers says:

    we all need more of these in our communities !

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing this! We are coming to Columbia in a couple of weeks and plan a trip to the farmers market – I’ll look for City Roots there.

  5. sojournable says:

    Wow, this is my dream. I have no means to start up or replace my income with it, but it’s my dream nonetheless.

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