THE BLOG
05/23/2011 07:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Old Roots Spring Anew in Young Farmers

With young people revolutionizing the good food movement, it's slightly ironic that at 29, I'm farming on one of the oldest agricultural landmarks in Missouri. I first visited the Mueller Farm as a teenager, when my dad took me there to visit Al and Caroline Mueller, who had been working the land since FDR was president. Since I was his "vegetable-eating" kid who grew food in our backyard, my dad thought I might like to see a "bigger garden." It seems only fitting that now I'm back, trying to help the Mueller's legacy grow into even bigger "gardens" throughout St. Louis.

I've had vignettes of EarthDance dancing around in my head for more than a decade -- a sometimes fuzzy image of using food and farming (and some good music, too) to organize communities to live more sustainably. But it took traveling to farms on the other side of the world to realize that my food calling was here at home in St. Louis, right on the Mueller's farm. By 2008, Al Mueller had long since passed, and Caroline was quickly nearing 90 years-old, without any children to carry on the farm. It was clear that if someone didn't step forward to steward the farm, it would soon fall victim to cement and bricks -- in fact, today it's surrounded on all sides by housing.

I realized the only way to preserve the farm was to connect more people to it. And in my mind, the best way to help people feel connected to the ground was to grow food on it.

And so began the EarthDance Organic Farming Apprenticeship program. Typically farms require apprentices and interns to live on the farm for the full season and be physically capable of working all day in the fields. I wanted my program to be different -- to be accessible to people who didn't have the luxury of temporarily throwing their day jobs out the window.

My goal was to reach a wider range of people, particularly urban residents who often feel disconnected from the rural agricultural communities that neighbor them. EarthDance apprentices can stay living in town and at their jobs or schooling, yet learn everything they need to be successful organic farmers. Although part-time, the program is designed to maximize learning opportunities by requiring eight hours per week in the field or selling at farmers markets, and two hours per week at enrichment sessions or on field trips to other organic farms in the area.

Our apprentices are as diverse as the crops we grow. This year, our apprentices span five decades in age, from a high school student to retirees. We've had nurses, welders, teachers, graphic designers, nutritionists, bookstore managers, landscape architects, baristas -- you name it. They come to EarthDance excited and nervous, and emerge as farmers and family.

What I didn't realize was how our students wouldn't just grow vegetables or herbs -- they grow personally, and they forge relationships with others. This has been one of the most gratifying aspects of EarthDance for me. People come to us wanting to learn organic farming -- to engage in food production in a way that builds healthy soil, keeps our waterways clean, and is beneficial for all living beings -- and they come away with so much more.

Our apprentices find a community that shares their values, create bonds with people from entirely different socioeconomic backgrounds, become more self-aware and confident in their abilities to pursue their own goals, and learn to truly be team players all at the same time.

Now in our third year, we've seen 42 apprentices complete our nine-month training program. And our graduates are already making a difference in the community: starting school gardens, selling at farmers markets, operating Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, and cultivating urban gardens. EarthDance's presence continues to crop up throughout St. Louis, as we sell at three local farmers markets, host an educational film series, convene an Educators Learning Circle, and offer farm tours to school and community groups.

I'm thrilled with what we've achieved so far, but I know that there is so much more we can do. Although we've temporarily put down roots at the Mueller Farm, we're now gearing up to start a capital campaign in conjunction with our local land trust partner, The Open Space Council, to purchase the farm. We want to preserve the farm, the production that happens in its soil, and the community that grows as a result, for generations to come. We'll continue to teach folks of all ages where their food comes from and how to grow it themselves, incubating beginning farmers as they develop their own farming enterprises.

I feel so fortunate and grateful to do this work and be living my dream, especially at my age. Too often, people feel compelled to put their dreams on hold until retirement. Today, young people all around the country are doing incredible work to change our nation's foodscape: growing vegetables and raising animals, running farmers markets, teaching gardening to children, hosting healthy cooking classes, getting fresh produce into food banks, securing conservation easements on farmland, and driving grassroots campaigns to affect policy changes.

I am both humbled and honored to receive this Growing Green Award from NRDC, as I am just one thread in the patchwork quilt that is our good food movement. It is a quilt that has been handed down to us from our ancestors. I know that Caroline and Al Mueller created a patch on this quilt and I am hopeful for the day when I know that that patch -- the Mueller Farm -- will be preserved as a working organic farm forever.

Meet the other 2011 Growing Green Award winners at www.nrdc.org/growinggreen.