City Grown: Farming on Main Street goes mainstream

No longer are the sprawling acres of the countryside the only place where chickens peck, goats roam and fruit hangs heavy on the vine. In cities throughout the U.S. – and right here in St. Louis – stewards of the local food scene are redefining the term locavore. Backyards are becoming homes for barnyard animals, bountiful vegetable gardens are thriving seven stories up and vacant lots are being sprinkled with cherry trees.

Here, a handful of city slickers discuss the ins and outs of transforming unassuming urban spaces into their own little slices of farm life. Their stories may just inspire you to do the same.

Ben Birkner
Nestled deep behind an 80-year-old home in Charlack is Ben Birkner’s self-deemed “city farm,” where he tends a sizeable vegetable plot and keeps chickens and goats. Yes, goats. “Anyone can keep a goat,” said Birkner, who was raised on a farm in Waterloo, Ill., and spent his formative years working on a nearby goat farm. “All you need is a place to keep the hay dry, give them fresh water and a roof over their heads. You don’t need a big area,” he said as he positioned Etta, one of his Alpine dairy goats, in a stanchion and began to milk her while she chomped happily on sweet grain.

Birkner has been raising goats for three years. This year marks his second season milking them, a task that he now adeptly completes in 15 minutes (and one he admitted used to take him twice as long). He enjoys the sweet, raw milk as a beverage and for making fresh cheeses – from feta and French chèvre to mozzarella and ricotta.

With fond memories of growing up on a farm, Birkner built his own Green Acres because he’s “all about being self-sustaining in the backyard.” Part of getting his hobby farm to that cyclical state was taking advantage of everything Mother Nature offered him – for example, constructing the structures for his animals using reclaimed materials and using the goats’ uneaten alfalfa hay as fertilizer for the vegetable garden.

Another essential step toward creating this synergy was learning ways to keep his neighbors happy – a task that proved difficult at first because he had trouble discerning which ordinances applied to his North County backyard. Eventually, he learned that he needed to abide by St. Louis County ordinances, which require him to keep livestock 150 feet from a dwelling. “You can’t tell I have this going on,” said Birkner, who keeps his animals in the backyard, some 300 feet away from the street. The extra effort has meant no neighbors bleating about his pet project. In fact, Birkner’s next-door neighbor is one of his biggest supporters, lending a daily hand with the garden and even animal-sitting when he leaves town. In exchange, Birkner lets her “keep the spoils” of her labor.

Natalie Semchyshyn and Amos Harris
Four years ago, Natalie Semchyshyn and her husband, Amos Harris, began transforming the rooftop above their downtown loft into a vegetable garden. Having always harbored potted plants, Semchyshyn started small. Early success with container gardening prompted her to think bigger, and soon the couple had ordered custom-made wood planters lined with plastic. Suddenly, the sky was the limit.

These days, the 3,500-square-foot edible paradise that sits seven stories above Eighth Street is filled with a bounty that rivals any vegetable plot resting on solid ground. Beets, tomatoes, hot peppers, eggplants, potatoes and even squash all claim some space. Leafy greens like kale, Swiss chard, bok choy and sorrel sit snugly in planters, while pole beans gracefully climb the wall behind them. Herbs of every kind are tucked here and there, with room enough for edible flowers like nasturtium, whose pretty petals brighten up a salad or cup of tea.

But growing food seven stories above street level hasn’t been without challenges. One of the first problems the couple had to tackle was a lack of pollination. After tiring of hand-pollinating plants with a paintbrush, they added beehives; their colony now pollinates the rooftop flowers as well as other pockets of green space downtown. The rooftop’s microclimate posed other difficulties. The extreme summer heat – Semchyshyn estimated the temperature on the rooftop to be 10 to 15 degrees hotter than at street level – led them to install an automatic drip system so the plants didn’t parch. Hanging plants holding sweet, juicy strawberries aren’t part of the drip system, and thus need to be watered multiple times a day – maintenance that’s been hard to keep up in light of tending to the needs of the couple’s young daughter, Ember. Severe wind, another issue unique to rooftop farming, will send tall plants flying, so towering fruit trees aren’t an option. After some trial and error, columnar apple trees and a dwarf peach tree have proved to be survivors, while a small service berry tree slowly blossoms inside a 7-foot-wide planter that also houses bamboo.

Prior to their daughter’s birth, the couple had contemplated adding a Japanese garden with fountains to their sky-high plot of land. Now, their thoughts move toward ways of including their daughter in the rooftop project: A new Barbie-brand gardening set – complete with a small hand shovel and pink kneeling pad – awaits the day when Ember finds her own green thumb. Oh, and there just might be space for a kiddie swing.

David Anderson
of young grape vines stretch neatly across David and Barbara Anderson’s front yard. Each row is home to a different varietal – Norton, Chambourcin, Traminette and Vignoles – chosen “because they grow well in Missouri and they make good wine,” said David, a longtime member of the Missouri Winemaking Society. With 24 total vines in the ground, David expects to eventually yield enough juice to make a 5-gallon batch of wine for each of his varietals.

When the Andersons decided to make the move from Collinsville, Ill., to St. Louis back in 2009, finding a plot of land where David, a hobby winemaker, could grow grapes was top of mind. When they saw this sunny, 1-acre hillside lot overlooking Ballas Road in Kirkwood, they knew they were home.

Since the vines are only in their second growing season, David will have to wait three more years until he can turn the fruit of his labor into wine using a specially outfitted wine kitchen in his basement and then aging it in his custom-built wine cellar. Meanwhile, he’s doing everything he can – above and below the ground – to ensure a great harvest. First it was the soil that needed to be prepped, the hard-packed clay loosened to encourage growth of the root system. Next, there was a Geneva Double Curtain trellis system to construct. In this high-yield method, the trellis supports two permanent branches, which are then turned at a 90-degree angle from the rootstock and supported by wires. Each year, the canes are trained downward and, as the shoots grow, their weight pulls them down in a curtain-like manner.

David also keeps a close eye on pests. He won’t let Japanese beetles get the best of his green foliage, which can also be dinner for hungry deer. But living near a semi-wooded area means he will also have to contend with raccoons and birds. Netting, he’s hoping, will deter the hungry two- and four-legged creatures from nibbling his prized grape clusters.

Peace Park
Can one orchard really make a difference? Absolutely, say organizers at Grace Hill, a nonprofit organization that’s spearheading a renaissance of the College Hill neighborhood in North City.

The dozen apple, pear and cherry trees planted this summer at Peace Park are just the latest improvements to this one-square city block of green space that sits on the corner of North Grand Boulevard and Strodtman Place. The park has long served as a safe haven for the neighborhood thanks to the tireless work of Reverend Otis Woodward, a 40-year resident of College Hill. Years ago, Woodward brightened the empty lot by planting flowers, building a children’s playhouse, posting a sign forbidding violent activity and constructing a “peace table” on which he left food for the hungry and homeless.

“College Hill is a neighborhood that has kind of been left behind,” explained Barbara Kasten, director of community relations and marketing for Grace Hill. Her organization, which provides health care and human services to St. Louis city residents, sees the revitalization of green spaces such as Peace Park as an important element in transforming College Hill – both by serving as a gathering space for the neighborhood’s residents and by providing them with the means for self-sufficient gardening.

Last year, organizers from Grace Hill, along with a cadre of more than 100 volunteers from Aramark, built a dozen raised vegetables beds and planted 30 Bald Cypress trees at Peace Park. This past summer, with the support of Monsanto Fund, Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, Midwest Bank and Aramark, they added an orchard and laid 50 tons of mulch to create a walking path. Come fall, picnic tables and a composting zone will be constructed.

Though the orchard is still in its early stages, Kasten anticipates many blooming changes within the next year. Juicy red cherries, free for the picking, will hang from trees. Those raised garden plots will again be lush with leafy greens, radishes, tomatoes and other fresh produce – hopefully maintained by committed green thumbs from College Hill.

Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center
What's so great about keeping chickens? “Having chickens is sustainable. They make compost, get rid of food scraps and give eggs,” answered 17-year-old Kayla Nong, a high school senior at Maplewood Richmond Heights (MRH) who, as “alpha chicken,” serves as the student leader for the school district’s two-year-old chicken program.

Nong, along with a slew of other “chickenologists,” have learned quite a bit about caring for chickens like Lady Gaga, Domino, Pearl and the dozen others in the flock that lives at the Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center. The small band of students was established to research chicken care to ensure the MRH flock was well-managed. Today, they teach others how to do the same: speaking to groups, attending conferences and even writing a book on the topic, Chickenology: The Art & Science of Keeping Chickens, that was published this spring.

Meanwhile, a set of their MRH peers – the “chicken stewards” – tackle the everyday chores of caring for the flock: feeding the animals, cleaning the coop and, of course, collecting eggs. “The hardest part is changing the coop bed when it’s my weekend – especially when it’s hot,” said 16-year-old Curtis BoClair, who worked as a steward during his freshman year and later became a chickenologist. BoClair is proud of what he and his peers have accomplished. “Not many high schoolers can say that they wrote a book. People all over the country are wanting to know what we’ve done and I’ve been a part of that.”

The chicken project has influenced the students in ways not possible inside a classroom, helping them to understand the most important lesson in farming: How their food lands on their plates. “At first, I thought they were stinky farm animals,” said 14-year-old Janai Robinson, who admitted she now recognizes the “healthy positive outcomes” of raising chickens. Facts at their fingertips, the chickenologists are quick to cite the freshness of their chickens’ eggs compared to the average 45-day-old ones sold in grocery stores. One chickenologist even became a vegetarian after befriending the MRH chickens and learning about factory farming. Others are enjoying the real world-implications of this school project. “They are live animals,” said Nong, who has, on occasion, issued warnings to stewards for neglecting their duties. “You have to show up on snow days, and during summer and winter breaks.”