In January 2011, Jeri Villarreal and her husband started wondering if there was a connection between the foods they were eating and the fact that their three children had food allergies. The Villarreals began raising chickens and growing vegetables in their backyard in St. Louis city to get fresher, healthier foods.
“I didn’t know how vegetables grew,” says Villarreal. “I’d get so excited to see something grow. Everything was magical; I felt like a kid.” Villarreal thought, “If it’s good for our family, why wouldn’t it be good for everybody?” So began Our City Farm, an eight-person CSA raising chickens, eggs and vegetables. Through the help of Kickstarter, Villarreal purchased a lot from the Land Reutilization Authority and moved the farm to the Central West End in 2012. The CSA has now grown to 33 members strong.
How do you decide what you grow each season? We try to grow things that are popular. Swiss chard was popular the first season, then it changed to kale, so we grew all types of kale. It’s hard to keep up with what the trends are. One of the things [about] growing in raised beds is that we can start a bunch of different types of crops and experiment. We have about 25 vegetables each season.
What are you planning to experiment with this season? Small purple bok choy. I think it looks adorable. Last season we let our radishes go to seed and sold radish seed pods, which were really popular.
What’s the most challenging part of urban farming? Getting the entire infrastructure in place. Getting water to the vacant lot was a $6,000-plus endeavor. Luckily we were able to use a local food grant to pay for half of it. Everything is just very expensive growing in the city. Limited space, limited resources. For electricity, we’ve decided to be off-grid and use solar power and other sources.
You work a full-time job on top of this. How do you balance both? I usually try not to think about it too much. I’m like that cartoon with the coyote running across the cliff and he doesn’t realize he’s off the cliff until he looks down, and that’s when he falls. So I keep looking forward. My husband and I try to schedule things and the kids are used to coming to the farm to help as much as they can.
What’s in store for Our City Farm in the future? We leased three-fourths of an acre right down the street from the farm. We plan to grow grains on that, like heirloom black turtle beans and amaranth. We’ll mill grains [like amaranth] and sell them as local [flour]. In our greenhouse we’re going to put in a hydroponic system so we can grow salad greens and herbs all year. We already [host] workshops on how to grow in small spaces, but we’d like to get more into nutrition, so we’re thinking of adding an outdoor kitchen area so we can focus on that.
Our City Farm, 4539 Delmar Blvd., Lewis Place, 314.282.5290, ourcityfarm.com