I eventually got up, admittedly later than the working world, and dug through a few drawers for the kind of socks that induce foot perspiration in any weather. My friend, Shannon, had given me an address, but I typed the wrong one into my Internet machine and proceeded to drive around Downtown St. Louis for fifty-five jaw-tightening minutes. Maybe these sluggish missteps reflected not my incompetence, but the need for a personal paradigm adjustment.
If I were playing the associations game during a road trip and someone said, “concrete,” I would not say, “harvest.” Serve me “urban” and I will not shout, “rutabaga!”
For a nation that appreciates the opportunity to unload its baby mandarins and flaccid pears, canned food and homelessness are wedded by forces of excess and need. City Seeds Urban Farm is trying to confuse us by introducing organic abundance to a plot of land two blocks from Union Station and fresh food to people who need it.
Established two years ago with the support of a three-year USDA grant, City Seeds is a food security project. According to 2003 statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 852 million people worldwide are chronically hungry due to extreme poverty and up to 2 billion intermittently lack food security, meaning consistent access to food. The City Seeds project is the result of collaboration between ten St. Louis organizations, led by Gateway Greening, a nonprofit “dedicated to community development through community gardening.”
Parker Smith holds a degree in horticulture from Illinois State University and is one of the farm’s co-founders. She believes that lower income communities in the City of St. Louis often lack access to grocery stores and fresh produce. Two of the grant’s stated goals are to promote healthier lifestyles amongst these populations and to offer job skills training and horticulture therapy to individuals with varied histories that may include homelessness, mental disabilities, emotional disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse and non-violent crime.
“We’ve had a number of clients this season go on to get jobs in the horticulture field because of their experience here,” Parker said. “Many people, whether they’ve struggled with issues in their past or not, find gardening therapeutic. Horticulture therapy is just incorporating that into what the St. Patrick Center does, whether it be physical therapy or dealing with substance abuse. It just helps.”
The St. Patrick Center, according to its website, is the largest provider of homeless services in Missouri, with twenty-two programs annually serving more than nine thousand people. The organization provides shelter through the Rosati Transitional Living Center on North Grand Avenue and serves a hot lunch to as many as 250 people 364 days a year at its main facility.
The clients, who earn minimum wage, are only eligible to work on the City Seeds Farm if they are actively participating in a second St. Patrick Center program, such as drug or alcohol rehabilitation, employment placement or prisoner re-entry, have been referred by their counselor and passed a physical exam. About fifty individuals have worked on the site since the program broke ground in the spring of 2006 and twenty-five to thirty clients are currently involved. The farm consists of thirty vegetable beds, a fruit tree orchard and a pumpkin patch.
The developing horticulturalists work from 7:30 to 11:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, though most clients are limited to two weekly shifts. On Fridays, the group prepares their produce for sale at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market the following day, in partnership with New Roots Urban Farm. Local Harvest Grocery Store also buys some of the fruits and vegetables and donations are made to Operation Food Search, a St. Louis food bank that distributes free food to three hundred food pantries and soup kitchens. The remainder of the produce is available to both clients and volunteers to take home for their soups, salads and sweet potato pies.
I talked to Christian Sparks, the St. Patrick Center program coordinator, as I palmed my voice recorder to protect it from the soaking rain. Christian works alongside the clients every farm day, and didn't seem bothered by the drizzle.
“Other than days like this,” he said, “well even on days like this, I just love being out here.”
As this was the final harvest of the season, the washing and packaging stations were overflowing with Swiss chard and other greens.
“We have to be real picky about how it looks,” he said, “because we’re essentially in competition with other people who are selling produce [at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market] and we want ours to look the best.”
Christian explained that, as part of the pre-employment program, clients rotate Saturday shifts at the New Roots Urban Farm booth, selling the goods that they have produced. Participants must attend two classes that review procedures for handling money and interacting with the public. Operation Food Search also visits the farm three or four times a season to provide instruction on food preparation, recipes and nutritional information. During the last session, they served butternut squash and black bean chili.
“I’m a meat eater,” Christian said, “but it may have been the best chili I’ve ever eaten.”
A few months ago, Christian informally surveyed the clients to see what they valued the most about their experience on the farm.
“For some folks, it’s an important part of their ongoing recovery process—it’s good just to be out here with other people who are trying to do the same things, trying to turn their lives around. For other people it’s a matter of doing things they didn’t know they could.”
In addition to maintaining the farm’s vegetable beds, the clients have the option of establishing their own plots.
“We have one young lady out here that has some partial paralysis,” Christian said. “One day she was just showing me her bed and she said, ‘I didn’t know I could do this!’ and her whole face was lit up. She’s really come a long way.”
“I think my favorite crop that we raised out here is hope and change, and the green stuff just happens to be a by-product.”
The first client I spoke with was Derrick, who has been working on the farm since April. I asked him what he liked best about the experience.
“Everything is good, but mostly washing, weighing, and getting the stuff ready for the market,” he said. “That’s what I prefer to do, but I do it all. I’ll put it like this, that’s what they say is my specialty. This right here.”
“What do you consider or think about when you’re preparing the produce for market?” I asked.
“I’m not thinking,” he said “I’m in a meditation mode. I just look at ‘em and boom! Just go through it and don’t think about what I’m doing.”
“You might be mad the morning you came in here and this right here helps take all the worries off your mind.”
Annie has been with in program since late March and tends individual beds established by clients who have left the farm, in addition to her own.
“It’s interesting for me to rekindle the flame,” she said. “In the olden days, you [gardened] with your grandparents and now you’re grandparents are gone on, so it’s quite interesting to start all over again. I’ve learnt a lot since I’ve been here. We’ve planted a lot of things that I knew nothing about. And now I know something about them.”
“It’s relaxation. It’s educational. It’s experimental. It’s adventurous.”
We both laughed.
“I like to aerate the vegetables,” she said. “You know, break up the soil around the bottom of the vegetables and then make sure that the water goes all the way down to the bottom of the plant, where the root grows.”
She led me into the rain for a tour of her individual bed. On the way over, we passed James, who had remained unsheltered, washing and sorting greens since I arrived. I found out that he was the most veteran client horticulturalist, having worked on the farm from its inception.
"It was just clear land," he said.
“What do you like about this work?” I asked.
“The money!” he said.
James didn't want to be photographed, but he was willing to display his product.
When I approached Annie’s bed, I saw that most of her crop had been harvested and that some insects had attacked her collard greens, but a few string bean plants, chard and tomatoes continued to grow.
She described her plan to take a floral arrangement class and learn more about soil during the break between growing seasons. Except for James, the clients I spoke with expressed interest in returning next year. There are no limits on an individual’s participation in the program, as long as the client’s counselor approves. Nonetheless, the end of the season was a difficult topic for Annie.
“I’m kinda okay with it, but I’m kinda not okay because now I’m like, ‘Okay, so what am I gonna do now?’” she said. “But I’ll find something to do. I’ll find something to do.”
“When the okra gets this big,” she said, redirecting my attention, “I usually take them home and let them dry out and then I open them up and take the seeds out and put them in an envelope and save them for next year to replant. And you’re stepping on one of them.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Okay,” she said.
The last person I talked to was Dennis. He had only entered the program four weeks earlier, but could already attest to its rewards.
“This is great for me,” he said. “It’s a therapeutic situation. I can really get in tune and in touch with nature and myself, if that’s not sounding too philosophical or ignorant or whatever.”
“I’m just saying, I’m urban, so the only thing I knew was concrete, you know. I go to the grocery store and look at [the produce], but to sit here and watch it grow. I didn’t know okra grew up tall.”
“I didn’t either,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
This morning I woke up a bit warmer and rode my bike to the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. The City Seeds farmers had sent me home with a bag of tasty radishes, but I stopped by the New Roots Urban Farm booth for few green peppers and an eggplant.