EarthDance Farms: Growing Crops—and Growing Farmers

07 Oct, 2012

St. Louis–area organic farmer Molly Rockamann has a vision that goes far into the future: she is not only growing crops, she is growing farmers. Her EarthDance Farms host an apprenticeship program that, since its inception in 2008, has graduated some 70 budding farmers.

Additionally, she hosts a summer day camp for middle-school youth that exposes them to real food grown the right way.

“I think I’m not cut out to be a full-time farmer,” Molly laughingly told Organic Connections. “I learned that when I was an apprentice at UC Santa Cruz’s organic farm. But I still really wanted to be immersed in it. I realized my passion is in education; as a kid I thought I was going to be a teacher when I grew up. So in this way I can be both a farmer and a teacher.”

Coming Home

It was Molly’s own exposure to organic farming in her youth that spurred her interest. At age 15, she visited a local farm owned by Al and Caroline Mueller, and the natural farming methods they employed left a lasting impression on the young girl. Her subsequent education took her far and wide. She completed a BA in environmental studies at Eckerd College in Florida, earned a certificate in ecological horticulture from the University of California at Santa Cruz, received a postgraduate diploma in development studies from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and then worked with farmers in both Ghana and Thailand. Upon returning to St. Louis, Molly discovered that Al Mueller had passed on, leaving the farm with no heirs, and she decided that this farm that had so inspired her would become her new home.

“I have always been interested in starting a nonprofit that was devoted to community renewal merged with agriculture,” Molly said. “When I found that the Muellers did not have any children and didn’t have anyone in the family to keep the farm going, I was really motivated to establish EarthDance there so that the farm could remain in production, and also could be used as a teaching mechanism for other beginning farmers.”

Of course, a farm must sustain itself. Hence, all of the activity around apprenticeships pushes forward the farm’s thriving food business through CSAs, farmers’ markets, sales to restaurants, and more. It has paid off, even in a down economy. Molly initially established EarthDance Farms on a single shared acre of the Mueller property. The operation expanded both in acreage and in yearly number of apprentices—and this year EarthDance was able to fully purchase the farm.

Positive Changes

Part of the joy that Molly derives from the farm and the apprentice program is watching the changes the apprentices go through. “Folks that are urban and suburban dwellers are not used to spending this much time outside on a regular basis and seeing the seasons change on a farm,” she said. “One of our graduates pointed out to me the amazing improvement in people’s mental health that she has witnessed. One guy that came into our program with pretty severe depression felt like he had his life back after spending a whole season on the farm. It’s exciting to see how it affected him on a very personal physical and mental level.

“In addition, a lot of the apprentices have gone on to start their own farms, which is really the intent of the program. So that’s been very rewarding—to see that people have taken what they’ve learned and it’s motivated them to actually be able to set up their own operations.”

Of course, with this level of involvement in whole foods, changes in diet can be expected to occur as well. “A big component of the community aspect of the apprenticeship program becomes centered on sharing recipes, dishes at pot luck meals and whatnot,” said Molly. “So there is definitely a big change in their taste buds—and for their families too. Many mothers are doing our program, and a lot of them take this home to their own kitchens.”

Camp EarthDance

Molly is excited to also be introducing children to sustainable farming, through Camp EarthDance. “Camp EarthDance is a farm-to-table summer camp that we’ve offered for middle-schoolers in the area for the last two summers,” she explained. “The program has students working and learning on the farm in the mornings, and helping harvest some of the veggies that they’ll then be preparing into a healthy meal for lunch. The afternoon entails art, along with music and fitness activities.

“It’s amazing to see how much even one week of being exposed to the farm can change a kid’s perception,” Molly related. “We’ve had the young people say that they weren’t too sure about getting dirty and being around bugs, but then by the end of it they’re picking up earthworms and talking about how wonderful they are.”

Interconnections

Since founding EarthDance, Molly has seen a shift in awareness as regards organic food. “I think that a lot of people who were initially interested in organic food for health reasons are now interested in the environmental implications, and are understanding more of the political aspect of food too,” she continued. “That’s one of the ways that I really love to get our apprentices engaged in the food movement. It’s not just learning how to grow healthy food, but also how to grow the movement.”

But it’s the sheer experience that keeps Molly inspired every year, and she shared one of her happiest memories. “One memory is of a really amazing harvest day,” Molly recalled. “The rain just started pouring down. It wasn’t thundering or lightning though, and we had a harvest to bring in; so we simply decided to bring it in, and in so doing we saved the field. It was one of the most fun days of fieldwork; in spite of the pouring rain, everybody just kept laughing and working through it. What else were we going to do? We needed to bring in the crops! The people that were there that day often say it was their favorite day on the farm in the whole year. And it was metaphoric in a way—farmers certainly don’t mind the rain. A lot of people have an attitude of ‘Oh man, it’s going to rain this weekend.’ We’re always like, ‘Yes! It’s going to rain this weekend!’”

For more information, please visit www.earthdancefarms.org.

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