Ferguson Non-profit Buys and Preserves 129-year-old Organic Farm

EarthDance creates a model for land conservation and organic farming education

When someone “buys the farm,” it’s not usually cause for excitement.

But when Molly Rockamann of EarthDance and Ron Coleman of The Open Space Council walked out of a title office on Thursday, May 24, they were elated. The Ferguson-based non-profit EarthDance purchased the Mueller Farm – a 14 acre farm that’s been producing organic food in North St. Louis County since 1883.

The purchase preserves the legacy of sustainable agriculture on that land. It also ends a four-year struggle to achieve land security for the farming non-profit organization, which was established in 2008.

EarthDance is in its fourth season of growing not only food on the Mueller Farm, but also farmers. Seventy-two graduates have gone through its nationally-recognized Organic Farming Apprenticeship Program, and several of those graduates have already gone on to start their own farms. Many more have started community gardens, school gardens, farmers markets, and more, revolutionizing the foodscape in St. Louis one seed at a time. With all of these successes, one thing has been holding EarthDance back from expanding: lack of land tenure.

“Until now, we’ve only been able to get a single-year lease,” said Rockamann, founder and executive director of EarthDance. “In order to thrive, organic farms need to be able to plan and plant for the long-term. It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding that we finally have the ability to plan for the future of the farm, and that we’ve preserved Al & Caroline’s legacy.”

The Open Space Council, along with a few donors, provided funds to purchase the farm, with the understanding that a conservation easement will be placed on the land to protect it from development. Ron Coleman, executive director of The Open Space Council, said, “We’re excited about helping to acquire this open space, because it means healthy food, healthy people, and healthy communities for the long-term.”

For decades, Al and Caroline Mueller grew organic fruits and vegetables on the land, and were well-known in the community for their sweet corn and tomato plants. Al represented the farm’s third generation. The first and second generations gradually sold off parcels of the farmland to encroaching development, until what remained was 14 acres.
Al and Caroline were also pioneers of the organic farming movement at a time when other farmers were following the ways of “progress” to put chemical fertilizers and pesticides on their fields. “People would come from all over the state and region to see the Mueller Farm and learn their natural farming practices,” Gertrude Bozler, sister of Caroline Mueller, recalls.

For over 60 years they grew and sold produce from their farm stand and at produce row, and even shipped sweet potatoes to customers in Georgia and California, as they had developed quite a reputation for their organic practices. Unfortunately though, with no children to keep the farm going, the farm’s future was in jeopardy.
When Al passed in 1999, Caroline posted an ad in the Missouri Organic Association newsletter: “Organic Farmland for Rent.” John Wilkerson, a retired professor, took her up on the offer and rented an acre on which to farm vegetables.

“As we think about feeding people in urban areas in the future it is important for environmental reasons to preserve farms with fertile ground, such as the Mueller Farm, near these urban areas. [The Mueller Farm] stands out as one of the few farms in the region to use organic methods during the last half of the 20th century,” states Wilkerson, former president of the Missouri Organic Association and tenant farmer at the Mueller Farm.

Molly Rockamann met Wilkerson at the Ferguson Farmers Market in 2008, and was thus re-introduced to the farm she’d visited as a 15 year old that had left an indelible mark. She believed that the farm was worth saving, and approached The Open Space Council, a local land trust organization with over four decades of experience in land and water conservation. With their support, EarthDance has flourished.

In addition to the Organic Farming Apprenticeship Program, EarthDance offers regular farm tours to the community, and hosts a farm-to-table summer camp for middle schoolers. With a class of 28 farm apprentices this year, EarthDance is operating a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program and sells at two farmers markets each week. Special events include Pesto Festo at the Ferguson Farmers Market in July, FARMS Rock! at the Old Rock House in August, and Farmers Formal at Washington University in November.

Big plans are in store for the Mueller Farm: future infrastructure includes a greenhouse, packing shed, office space, education center, small livestock barn, commercial kitchen, and an art barn for on-farm events. But first, additional funds must be raised. EarthDance is also seeking plumbers, carpenters, landscapers, and contractors to lend a hand in their farm-raising.

For more information, www.earthdancefarms.org.