Molly Rockamann, First Recipient of the Young Food Leader Award, on Organic Farming and Sustainable Urban Agriculture
Molly Rockamann grew up in the suburbs of Creve Coeur, where vegetable farms consisted of small tomato gardens in backyards or a few pole beans creeping up the sides of fences. But it was there where Molly developed a real passion for vegetables at an early age. As co-founder and head of EarthDance Farms, a nonprofit educational organic farm that began in 2009, Molly is able to share her love for all things organic with the many apprentices who come to the farm each season to learn the art of farming. Molly was briefly whisked away from the small farm in Ferguson to San Francisco where she received a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council. But amid the gala dinners and networking, she was able to stop and talk with Gut Check about her beginnings as an organic farmer and how the organic food movement in St. Louis has grown.
As a girl growing up in the suburbs how did find your way into organic farming?
My dad took me to visit the Mueller Organic Farm when I was 15. The farm's been around since 1883. It's the oldest organic farm in Missouri. I must have been a freshman in high school, not able to drive yet. I remember asking my dad if he'd drive me out to the farm in the morning. I grew up in Creve Coeur, so it was a 25-minute drive in the morning before school so I could work on the farm and pick berries before school. He didn't want me to do that because it was a little unreasonable as a high schooler to get up at 5 in the morning, drive to North County to go pick berries then drive back to school.
Gut Check: What was your reaction to visiting the farm?
Molly Rockamann: I was really adamant that I wanted a vegetable garden at home. Our family had grown tomatoes in our back yard. And my grandparents -- I remember going to their garden and seeing these whopping cantaloupes and cauliflowers and thinking they were so cool. I planted probably like 50 plants in a 6x10 area, and it became a jungle. I maybe got three things from it. That was my introduction to trying to grow food -- a major failure. I realized I didn't know anything about it.
When you were in college did you have any idea you wanted to be a farmer?
I'm not flat out a farmer. I do some farming, but I'm not a full-time farmer. We're an educational program first. Going into college, I really wanted to do environmental and outdoor education. I loved working with kids, and I guess there were just so many different things I was interested in. I don't think it was until I went to Ghana and Fiji and came back and took this class called "Hunger, Plenty and Justice" that I realized that everything I was really interested in was connected to agriculture.
What did you do in Ghana?
Initially, I was just doing a semester abroad, but I went back five years later to train rural folks, mostly women farmers, on how to use record keeping to improve their farm operations.
How did you decide to start EarthDance?
When I decided to start EarthDance I was probably 24, and I had the name before anything else. I knew I wanted to start an organization that combined my two loves: the environment and dancing. I did an organic farming apprenticeship program in 2005 in Santa Cruz, California, and I was pretty determined to go back to Fiji. I wanted to start a nonprofit there working with farmers to grow organically. I didn't really know anything about farming other than how you should do it, and I didn't have a hands-on perspective.
How did you decide which dream to follow?
While in Santa Cruz I remember talking to folks about the dream of EarthDance and then also what I felt compelled to do in Fiji. I remember a lot of friends saying, "well, it sounds like you're a lot more excited about EarthDance than Fiji."
Did you have a plan in mind for what you wanted EarthDance to become?
I didn't exactly start it with the mind of running a training program on the farm. I just wanted to preserve the farm, initially. But then I realized the way to do it was to get more folks involved on the farm. And I thought, well I just paid a bunch of money to go learn farming. Maybe some people would be willing to pay a little money to learn farming in St. Louis. That was really how the program was born.
How have you seen the food movement grow here in St. Louis?
I think so many more people are becoming aware of why it's important to know where your food comes from and how to choose your food. A lot of people are really interested in urban agriculture. I'd love to see more folks interested in scaling up with their growing. Not just doing it in their back yard or school garden, but how can we really grow enough food for the region.