The Inspiration of City Roots
While living in Asia I could not resist the attraction of the markets. Was it the attraction of the different fruits, vegetables and proteins or was it the fact that the market was the place that people connected with one another or the fact that most foods were fresh, local and thus were closely connected to the roots that had brought them life?
Roots and the connection to our heritage through food are often lost as we become an ever more urbanized society. People ache to re-connect and to grow new roots wherever they are and many of us find the process most difficult.
Sensing this disconnect Robbie McCain stepped from his successful career as an architect and developer to found City Roots, a 3 acre farm in the inner ring of Columbia, South Carolina. As Robbie puts it “cities are the places people move to when they leave their roots behind” and he wanted to do something about that and enrich people’s lives by bringing the growing of food closer to them.
Not a newcomer to farming, Robbie, had grown up working summers on a family farm in southern South Carolina. At the time he called it “The worst job in the world, I’m never doing that again”. Yet, while earning his architecture degree at Clemson he spent much of his free time at and around the horticulture building and was tempted to change his major but the time it would add to his schooling and his dislike of science discouraged him from acting on his thought. But, through it all he sustained his love of farming and now practices his passion,
His son, Eric was completing his masters in architecture just in time to find architectural firms hit by the economic downturn downsizing rather than hiring. His Dad offered him the opportunity to help him while together they would practice architecture on a project basis. Eric jumped at the chance not knowing that in City Roots he would find his passion and purpose in life. Eric is the “front man” for City Roots and as Dad says “his energy seems to know no bounds” and he is involved in every aspect of the farming operation. “Originally I felt guilty, I told Eric that he won’t get rich but he’ll make lots of friends”.
City Roots is more than a small farm in the middle of Columbia it is a small farm that is developing intimate relationships with the community.
The City Roots MISSION
Our vision is to produce clean, healthy, sustainably grown products while enhancing and educating our community about the benefits of locally grown food, composting, vermicomposting and other environmentally friendly farming practices.
I talked with Robbie as he continued to work on the installation of a solar array on the property adjacent to the original farm. Formerly housing a dry cleaner the property has soil contamination issues that prevent it’s owner, Aramark, from building on it as planned. City Roots has already installed two greenhouses where they raise micro greens in trays that sit above the soil and now the solar array, putting “unusable” land to a usable purpose. As Robbie puts it, “Aramark has been a good, helpful and generous neighbor”.
Today, City Roots grows approximately 125 varieties of fruits and vegetables, keep bees not only for honey but for pollination, raise chickens not only for eggs but for the fertility they add to the soil. They’ve expanded significantly with another 5-acre property owned by Heathwood Hall an Episcopal School nearby. This property is organically certified and under irrigation. They’ve also taken responsibility for his Father’s 20-acre farm south of Columbia that is under irrigation and planted in cover crops in anticipation of expansion.
Extensive crop rotations and cover cropping for soil fertility and pest management are a valuable part of the farm. With a large scale composting operation that is used to amend the soil they have diverted hundreds of tons of material destined for the landfill into rich, fertile soil. They create worm casting and worm tea via vermicomposting to use as a fertilizer. One fascinating aspect of the farm is the production of micro greens year round using an aqua phonic system which is the combination of aquaculture, the production of commercial fish (tilapia), and hydroponics, the growing of plants in a water medium, that mimics a stream and pond ecosystem. The farm is operated n a holistic fashion with each part playing an integral role in the overall system.
A volunteer program in which people work 3 to 4 hours each day on a morning or afternoon shift allows the volunteer the chance to get their hands dirty while helping Robbie and Eric with the labor required to produce their crops. Both shifts are encouraged to join the lunch that is provided to further build on the community aspects of their mission.
Internships are available and typically last 3-4 months with the prime purpose of teaching others how to do what Robbie and Eric are doing. Today City Roots employs 12 people, most of who began as volunteers or interns. As Robbie put it, “We are trying to pay a living wage to as many people as possible”.
No venture is immune from the need to be economically viable and this one is no exception. Food produced is sold to local restaurants and supermarkets as well as via farmer’s markets and on site. Encouraging people to be a part of it all is the program that allows for the advance purchase of a share of the product produced. Depending on the level of your share customers are able to pick up one bag (two bags at the upper tier of membership) of whatever is seasonal each week.
Today City Roots is the largest producer of Micro greens in the Southeast with sales in 7 states mainly via Whole Foods and they work closely with Grow Food Carolina, a non-profit in the Charleston area, which delivers City Roots’ products to approximately 75 restaurants.
Once a month City Roots organizes an event for 100 people. Typically dinners or lunches they are always sold out affairs. In addition festivals are sponsored that attract thousands and on a daily basis thousands of visitors are attracted to the farm. As Robbie said, “All of this is a bit of a shock to me but people have a great desire for fresh, locally grown food, the sense of community that surrounds it and when added to the organic and non-GMO trends makes what we do terribly relevant and satisfying.”
“I’ve a 29 year old son with lots of energy and as long as we focus we will continue to grow. Our next step is to begin mushroom production and have recently applied to be a USDA value added producer.” He said.
“The amount of positive energy, attention and support from our community is the highlight of our efforts”.
Father and son, with common purpose, working to help people in the community to find roots for themselves provides inspiration for us all to grow our family and community roots ever deeper. Hopefully we will all be motivated to follow in their footsteps, if not in farming, then in other ways that give people the sense of belonging that is lost in our rush to make more money while living an urban life far from the soil that allows our roots to prosper. Food connects people, at the dinner table in the home, in the restaurant down the street and while growing it. Could there be a better way forward?