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.
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