A visit to a century-old North St. Louis County farm as a teenager inspired Molly Rockamann’s life’s work. “My dad took me to there in high school, and it got me interested in farming and food,” she says. “I met the owners, Al and Caroline Mueller, and kept that memory of them in the back of my mind, thinking about returning one day to work.”
Those 14 acres of land in Ferguson are now the headquarters of EarthDance FARMS, a nonprofit co-founded by the 28-year-old Rockamann with the mission of inspiring other local farms. “What drew me was the idea of preserving this particular farm,” she says. “It’s prime agricultural land in the middle of a neighborhood.” In existence since 1883, it’s a designated historical landmark and considered the oldest organic farm in Missouri. Caroline Mueller still owns and lives on it and rents land to EarthDance.
Before launching EarthDance in 2008, Rockamann traveled abroad, doing everything from studying in Ghana to farming in Fiji. “I majored in environmental science at Eckerd College in Florida, and spent a semester in Ghana,” she says. “I wanted a career in environmental education, but I was also interested in food systems and nutrition. I realized that agriculture was the intersection of everything that appealed to me.” After further studies and research in California, farming in Thailand and an organic project in Fiji, she returned to St. Louis, ready to get her hands dirty in hopes of helping local farmers.
Rockamann says her ultimate goal is to preserve more farmland. “There’s this great movement toward locally grown food, but we’re not going to be able to grow the volume of food needed on just urban plots,” she says. There’s also a need for more growers, she notes. “The average age of farmers is 57.”
For its part, EarthDance has established an organic farming apprenticeship program for aspiring farmers. Led by Rockamann and EarthDance co-founder Colleen Wilson, the season-long classes give freshman farmers an opportunity to learn about growing food organically on an actual working farm. “We started last year with 12 apprentices doing everything from field work to selling at farmers markets,” Rockamann explains. “This year, we’re gearing up for 25 apprentices.” There is also a pilot Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in the works. “With CSA, members get a share of the harvest,” she notes. “We’ll start with our group of apprentices—each will be a pilot member.”
Besides keeping the land in production, EarthDance also has plans to install an artist-in-residence program, conduct dance workshops and host concerts on the farm. “There’s a farming culture we’ve gotten away from,” Rockamann says. “People think of farms as quaint, but they really functioned as centers of culture—the way communities interacted, celebrated tradition, and kept practices alive. But what’s happened is that after generations of selling the land, we’ve lost our connection with the land—and with each other.”
Rockamann says she’d like to see the resurgence in sustainable farming and the local food movement continue. “People are finally seeing the difference between spending a dollar at the farmer’s market versus spending it at Walmart,” she says. “You may be spending a little bit more, but the food you get is healthier and fresher so you’re getting more nutrition out of your dollar.”
Rockamann says eating better quality food helps families—and communities—stay connected. “All those cultural traditions of food preparation and preservation bring us together through our palates, and help us reconnect with our past. My grandparents had a huge garden, so much of my food history happened while sitting at their dining table,” she says. “I still think about them a lot when I’m farming. I wish they were here to see what I’m doing.”