EarthDance has breathed new life into Missouri’s oldest organic farm. The nonprofit is sustainably growing food, farmers and community one person at a time, through hands-on education and experience at the former Mueller Farm.
Founder Molly Rockamann set out to save the 130-year-old farm in 2008. With the help of The Open Space Council, which works to conserve natural resources, she achieved her dream, launching EarthDance on the 14-acre property in 2009.
EarthDance has quickly taken root, growing to become a leading provider of sustainable agriculture education in the city. The eight-member staff takes growing organic food a step further by teaching others the practice. Through nine-month apprenticeships and free workshops with agriculture experts, it has changed the lives of 94 graduates, 70 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members and thousands of produce buyers, Rockamann says. “We are doing more than just growing organic food and going to farmers markets. We are really working on propelling the good food movement forward.”
Earthdance is harkening back to the days of old on the family farm. “So few of our generation have actually grown up on farms and lived our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ farm lifestyle. They haven’t seen or tasted food fresh from the farm,” Rockamann says. “We are really in the business of re-skilling people to meet a basic human need of providing food for their families.”
Down on the farm, the day starts bright and early with a field walk, where staffers educate apprentice 'farmies' on soil quality, crop growth and organic ways to fix pest issues. Next comes the list of chores for the day—from crop transplants to weeding. Some sessions are reserved for educational field trips to neighboring farms, while others are dedicated to demonstrations in the classroom and selling produce at farmers markets, Rockamann says. “All of these people want to feed their families organic food, so there’s this kinship that develops.”
Growing organic farming helps people eat more healthfully, and sustains farms and ecosystems into future generations, Rockamann explains. “Health begins in the soil. Everything we eat is part of us, so we really need to be focused on what kinds of food we are putting into our bodies and how it’s grown.” As the fastest growing sector of agriculture, organic farming also is preserving the economy, she continues. EarthDance apprentices who may have been in-between jobs are starting their own organic farm businesses. Some successful graduates include Mary Ostafi, who started Urban Harvest STL; Anna and Dean Gall, who launched Deanna Greens & Garden Art; and Jamie Bryant, who now runs Blue Bell Farm on a seventh-generation family farm in Fayette.
EarthDance also is reaching younger and older generations through educational field trips for classes and church groups on its farm, and a summer camp, where local middle-school students learn about healthy eating. And free tours are open to the public five times a month. “We have seniors to preschoolers coming,” Rockamann notes.
As for what sustains EarthDance, its largest fundraiser is the Farmers Formal, held each November. Last year’s fifth annual event raised more than $63,000.
So the farm’s future is bright. And Rockamann envisions expanding the farm school to serve even more St. Louisans and people across the globe. “We’ve already had international applicants.” When it comes to the property, green construction will be going up in the form of an education center, packing shed, greenhouse and event barn, which will welcome live music and dance groups, among other things. “Being EarthDance, a lot of people ask if we dance here,” Rockamann says. “I think there’s a very natural connection between creative expression and the natural world, especially on a farm.”
For more information about EarthDance, call 521-1006 or visit earthdancefarms.org.
Volunteer Spotlight: Moria Ross
Moira Ross’ kids closed their eyes and bit into a store-bought tomato—and then a tomato grown at EarthDance organic farm in Ferguson. The taste-test has never failed—even the kids say the organically grown food is always better.
From seed to sale at the farmers market, Ross has learned every step of the sustainable farming process as a former apprentice and current volunteer at EarthDance. The local mom, who has launched two farmers markets, joined the farm after her daughter became interested in healthier eating. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “I really believe in EarthDance's mission to educate people on how to grow their own food and farms, and I found there was a real need at farmers markets in the region for more growers that produce food sustainably.”
Each February through November, EarthDance educates a new class of 'freshman farmies' on its 14-acre organic farm. Four years ago, Ross was one of them. And she learned it all started with good soil. Then it was on to planting, from brown cherries to potatoes and kale; identifying and taking care of pests without chemicals; picking and cleaning; and taking the produce to the farmers market to sell. Ross came with the intention of putting healthier food on her family’s table, and left the program wanting to “tear up the backyard and feed the neighborhood.”
Ross says her fellow 'farmies' were of all ages and walks of life—a high school student who was inspired to major in agriculture, to people in-between jobs who went on to work for farmers, a school or community garden, or even launch their own organic farm. “What really surprised me about EarthDance is the job creation, especially in this bad economy,” Ross says. “It doesn’t take a four-year college degree to learn how to grow sustainably, and there are internships and job opportunities following the apprenticeships.”
Years later, Ross continues to volunteer at EarthDance. “There’s no other program that has this breadth of exposure, and it’s an opportunity that I want a lot of people to have.” EarthDance is feeding the local economy, she emphasizes. “You are doing something good for the environment, and you are doing something good for people.”