‘Health begins in the soil’ at EarthDance farm

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Tucked inside the suburbs of Ferguson, Missouri, lies the EarthDance Organic Farm School, the oldest organic farm west of the Mississippi River. These 14 acres have been passed down in the Mueller family since 1883.

A classmate in my Webster course, KEYS 4018 Encountering Art in Our Communities, shared her experiences working at EarthDance. Our class visited the farm to learn about the art of farming and volunteer in the fields. As I walked the property, I was welcomed with warm smiles and felt a sense of belonging.

They had built a farmstand near the front, made with wood from their historic mule barn. It is open seasonally and abides by a “pay what you can” policy. An orange farm cat named Tom patrolled the area, softly mewing and following our group. Signs and painted shipping containers with phrases like “health begins in the soil” and “grow through what you go through” demonstrated the farm’s caring nature.

After the last of the Muellers passed, EarthDance founder Molly Rockamann recognized the need to preserve the farm, which could be used as a platform for education and community development. Rockamann grew up in the community and purchased the land in 2008, hoping to maintain its history.

EarthDance’s mission is to offer agricultural education, resources for community workers and a model for sustainable food production. The farm prides itself on growing and harvesting crops without using pesticides or herbicides. Instead, the farm’s nutrient-rich soil is protected by netting and hand-pulled weeding. EarthDance owns a tilling tractor but only uses it in dire circumstances, preferring to tend to the crops by hand.

Photo by Katherine Laubacker.

“Tilling messes with the microbiome of the soil, the life that’s happening in those first few inches,” Josephine Phillips, an assistant farmhand at EarthDance and a Webster student, said. “It destroys all the worms, it messes up all the beneficial life, like the fungus that’s growing there. We’re trying to prevent reversing the time and effort we’ve spent building up that microbiome.”

​​Farming our own food can not only help our health but our bank accounts, as well. Giving a little daily effort to attend to plants can save us money on groceries, which is especially important in the economic climate of rising food costs. Even with the food aspect aside, the togetherness and community one can feel as you are working together as a team to accomplish something brings value to an area.

“Weeding with others tends to foster really wonderful, vulnerable conversations,” Phillips said. “There are incredible people in the community who are very like-minded, environmentally focused and community-oriented people who would do anything for you, even if they just met you. It’s just a really abundant community of staff, volunteers and visitors.”

I felt that sentiment as soon as I stepped foot on their land, as they showed care and compassion that is all too rare in this world. Although it was my first time volunteering there, it won’t be my last.

There are many opportunities to get involved at the farm, whether you live in the surrounding community or beyond. EarthDance offers 10-week summer apprenticeships for those eager to learn the daily routines of organic farming, as well as five-week spring training for beginner and seasoned gardeners. The farm is always looking for volunteers to get their hands dirty. Volunteers are also offered a share of the harvest as a thank-you.

“It is a really great way to learn about growing your own food,” Phillips said. “It’s an opportunity to get your hands dirty and engage in therapeutic meditative work.”

As I was weeding the cabbage beds, my worries and anxieties were released. Though I wasn’t there long, it wasn’t as grueling as I expected. I was conversing with strangers and acquaintances, deeply discussing life and our passions. I quickly grew an appreciation for tending to the crops, and it inspired me to cultivate my own plants at home.

“I really believe in the power of growing your own food, even just one little plant can make a difference,” Phillips said. “I think anything we can do to localize our food systems and start weaning ourselves off of our dependence on industrial agriculture is really important, and we should do it.”

You don’t need a farm or a backyard to grow plants like herbs, strawberries and tomatoes. You just need determination and an empty corner or windowsill. Phillips herself successfully grows her own herbs in her apartment and urges others to do the same.

“We are trying to reawaken and instill that knowledge about engaging with the land because everybody has to eat,” Phillips said. “I think it would be a lot easier on everybody and on the earth if we all participated just a little bit. Maybe you try growing a tomato plant this year and your neighbor tries to grow a cucumber plant. Then you can share your harvest and that can create a bond through nutrition.”

Curious experimentation is highly encouraged at the farm, which creates an environment of innovation to further change organic agriculture. I urge everyone to become more curious about the food we consume and how we can take pride in providing nutrition for ourselves. Maybe “farm-to-table” can become a universally owned phrase, no matter where one lives.

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