Photography by Whitney Curtis
As a teenager, Molly Rockamann visited the Mueller family farm, a 14-acre plot in the heart of Ferguson, and just knew she wanted to work there someday. She took a circuitous route, learning about sustainable agriculture in Florida, California, Fiji, and Ghana, but eventually, she moved back and founded EarthDance Farms on the property she’d fallen in love with years before. Its apprenticeship and youth programs build community by reconnecting people to the land. We asked her about vegetables, weed dating, and how produce relates to social justice.
How did you decide to become a farmer? I realized that organic farming is really at the intersection of all of my passions: nutrition, political science, women and gender studies, anthropology, and human rights. And all of these things are really tied up in how we feed ourselves and how we distribute that food.
How would you summarize all of the things that EarthDance does? Our mission is that EarthDance sustainably grows food, farmers, and community one small farm at a time through hands-on education and delicious experiences.
At the risk of opening a can of worms, why organic? I like that you said opening a can of worms because we are big fans of worms here. Worms are like magic creatures that make soil healthy. It is our belief that health begins in the soil. The health of our food depends on how it’s grown. If we’re growing things with substances that are used to be lethal to insects or to kill disease, especially when they are not in nature already, then certainly one can deduce that it could be giving us toxins as well.
So it’s about health? Health, but not just for humans. Because the health of the soil is also very tied to even our climate change situation, which could be vastly helped by adding more carbon to the soil, because then we could be sequestering a lot of the emissions that we’re putting out. When you’re adding organic matter to the soil, you’re literally holding more carbon there.
Tell us about the farm. The farm itself is 14 acres. We are currently farming about three of those 14 acres. While that sounds maybe like a small percentage, you would be amazed to see how productive those three acres can be. We have one hoop house, and we’re going to be adding two more this year. Then we also just put up a greenhouse to start our own seedlings.
What are you growing? We are growing more than 161 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. That ranges from asparagus to zucchini. It’s almost easier to tell you what crops we’re not growing than it is to list all the ones that we are. Heirloom tomatoes are huge for us, a huge variety of greens… We’ve already planted about 60 pear and apple trees, and we’re going to be planting over 100 more fruit trees.
Where does it all end up? The biggest chunk of our produce goes to our CSA program, where people become members of the farm and get a share of the harvest each week. Then we sell every single Saturday from May through October at the Ferguson Farmers’ Market. We also do a lot of farm tours for all different age groups from garden clubs to school groups.
Have you considered adding livestock? Yeah, we actually are permitted to have goats. They are sneaky little creatures, so it’s something we have to be very cautious of to not have the goats escape and start eating all of our crops. We plan to get chickens this year, a good-size flock, maybe 60 or so laying hens for eggs and also for pest control. Also, they’re adding a lot of fertility. Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen. The farm has a history of actually running with mules as draft power, even into the 1980s. So I would love to get that up and going.
And you want to add buildings, too. We have a lot of big plans to put some more infrastructure up on the farm to run programming rain or shine. We want to have some sort of pavilion area. Then we would like to build an education center that would have a kitchen in it, so that we could teach healthy cooking classes and process some of our own produce into salsas and pestos and things like that. And then we want to have an event barn, so we can host larger events, whether it be our own Farmers Formal or a wedding reception or a barn dance or a film screening.
Tell us about your apprenticeship program. We’re entering our seventh year. We’ve had over 170 graduates from the program. It starts in April and goes through September. Those apprentices commit to about 10 hours a week. What that entails is a class every Tuesday night. Some of those classes are field trips to other local farms, and some of them are on preserving the harvest or organic pest and disease management. The other eight hours are spent doing everything from harvesting, weeding, planting… Also at least twice during the season, each apprentice will work at our Ferguson Farmers Market booth with us. Then they’ll also get to take home a share of the harvest.
How much is the tuition for the program? The apprenticeship is $750 for the whole 5 ½ months. That also includes the CSA share that they get to take home. Now we have the program accredited through the University of Missouri–St. Louis, so people can actually get course credit or get continuing education credit.
What types of people does your program attract? We have a woman who’s a retired lawyer and minister in the program this year. We have a full-time yoga instructor and business consultant. We have recent college grads. We have home-schooling parents. We’ve had in the past librarians and welders and teachers. They either want to learn how to grow food for their own families, or they want to start a project, whether it be a community garden or a school garden. We have seven who own their own farms now, who have their own commercial operations.
Any big success stories? We have seven who own their own farms now, who have their own commercial operations. One was a woman and her husband who restarted their family farm. That’s I think a few hundred acres. It’s in Fayette, Missouri. It’s called Blue Bell Farm.
You also work with youth. A new program that we launched last year, which we’re excited about, is called YEAH. That stands for Youth Exploring Agriculture and Health. The idea is to employ local teenagers on the farm in the summer months on a part-time basis. It offers them not only the job skills of showing up to work on time, putting in your best effort, working as a team, but it also teaches them about growing food organically and healthy eating. They take home some of the vegetables as well. We have cooking classes with them each week.
Your annual fundraiser is called the Farmers Formal. We call it “farm festive, overalls optional.” People will come wearing a bow tie and overalls or, like, a gown but then they will wear their mud boots. We have an amazing feast featuring our produce and some locally procured meats and cheeses and breads. This year, we had some of our Junior Farm Crew members speak, and I think that was highlight for most attendees.
And you host weed dating? It’s speed dating, only it starts out in bed. Well, not in the beds, on the sides, because we don’t want people standing in the garden bed and compacting the soil. We have two rows of people. They are literally weeding a bed across from each other. Every five minutes, we ding a bell, and one side shifts, and you get to meet a new person. It’s a great way to introduce new people to the farm.
Why is it important to connect the farm to the community? A lot of people wouldn’t necessarily think of food production and healthy eating and farming education as related to the movement for social justice. But to me, they are inextricably linked. If we are talking about everyone having human rights, I think of food as being of primary importance in that. I think one of the misconceptions about eating healthy is that it always costs more money, whereas if we look at the big picture, it’s costing everyone a lot more money when people don’t eat healthfully, because we’re looking at higher insurance rates and higher ER bills.
The farm is also a sort of safe space. Amidst all of the hard feelings that were so present in Ferguson from August onward, I feel very comforted coming to a place like this to work every day. It’s literally a peaceful place. We’ve been wanting to share that with the community more, so we’ve offered free yoga classes on Sunday mornings. Then we have conversations with the people in our programs about things that are happening. It’s nice to be in a place where everyone feels very respected and treated as an individual.
What solutions do you see to the tension in Ferguson? The very first Saturday after Mike Brown’s death, I think a lot of people didn’t know what they could do to support the community. We had the most incredible turnout of the year at that Saturday’s farmers’ market. But ever since then, we saw a decline. It’s been really, really trying to see so much divisiveness come out of this. I just want us all to breathe a little bit and actually, like, lean into it. Just show up for Ferguson.