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Thinking Out Loud: Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

This week on Thinking Out Loud, KBIA's Trevor Harris visited with staff and clients of the Columbia Center for  Urban Agriculture. The non-profit celebrates the 2014 growing season with their harvest Hootenanny this Saturday.

The origin story of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture starts in 2008. A handful of students –active in a University of Missouri student group – started carrying food waste from MU dormitories by bicycles to growing North Central Columbia compost pile. The next year, the group formed as the not-for-profit Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, or CCUA. In 2010, the group was given access to land where they could expand an existing urban vegetable growing operation. That land serves to this day as the group’s Urban Farm. The group dispenses advice to novice and veteran farmers on schedules for planting and garden siting. CCUA General Manager Billy Polansky suggested that

“for somebody who wants to garden at home, it comes down to what does that person want? Do they want to grow a huge garden? What do they like to eat? That’s usually where it starts. We like to start small. A small success is better than a big failure. If you have a little garden that does awesome the first year then you are encouraged and maybe want to expand little by little each year.”

With grant funding, CCUA began in 2011 building vegetable beds and plantings for income-eligible Boone Countians. The group’s Opportunity Garden program provides seeds and education on how to grow fresh local food. Aimed at income-eligible Columbia residents, the program had almost 100 active gardens in the 2014 growing season.

On a recent warm autumn afternoon, Opportunity Garden coordinator Trish Woolbright worked with RV Pride to weed a garden bed located in the Columbia Housing Authority’s Blind Boone Apartments. While Pride weeded among young mustard greens, Woolbright spread cacao hulls to make a path through the garden. Woolbright pointed out multiple beds throughout the housing complex. With each garden bed she had a story about that resident.

“That bed has been a payphone center, there have been perennial plants. It has benches around it and a poster thing for announcing events. It is kind of just a center area that got a bit neglected and the CHA gave it to us to grow food in the past two years. Our best crop? I’d say that these sweet potatoes may take over Columbia!”

Asked why he participated in the Opportunity Gardens program, Pride, a Mississippi native with a long gardening history, said

More people understand it is cheaper and more productive to do it yourself. We aided and assisted more than 60 people over in this area alone this year.... Right here, I got about eight plots here and with these plots I’m fixin’ to take everything out and start over for next year. Put in news soil and next year we’re going to have new crops. I’m going to put in cantaloupe, maybe some watermelons, some strawberries… We’ll try to make it decorative yet edible.

Across downtown from the Opportunity Garden off Park Avenue, CCUA’s Urban Farm functions as a food production plot and outdoor education center. A handful of student groups use the Children’s Garden to plant, weed and harvest vegetables. Last Friday, a group of students worked in the shade of a pavilion. Columbia’s City Garden School visits the Urban Farm monthly and today they were using dyes from Osage orange and indigo to color wool. Nearby, some students played in the Children’s Garden among late-season bean and squash plants.

Interest in local and organic food is on the rise. The Nutrition Business Journal reports that U.S. sales of organic food were an estimated $28.4 billion in 2012 and will reach an estimated $35 billion in 2014. The USDA estimates that farmers markets are increasing in number, too. There were under 2,000 farmers markets in the US in 1994. In 2014 the USDA estimates over 8,000 operations.

Tapping into that interest, CCUA employs an edible landscaper. Liberty Hunter works with clients at their homes and businesses to install and maintain gardens and fruit trees. Clients consult with her on fruit types and tree sizes. Asked about what kind of preparation she suggests for a fruit tree planting, Hunter suggested

You’ll need to pick your growing site in full sun and adequate drainage… If you are working on a bigger scale, I would recommend cover cropping your site that you are going to plant trees in with anything from hairy vetch to rye, oats to peas to prepare that soil and increase the organic matter. If you are working in a small site like a back yard or front yard you’re going to want to prep the site as early as possible. Dig your hole. Maybe add some soil amendments. A little bit of compost. Maybe a little sand depending on how heavy clay you have then adding some rock phosphate and azomite for root development and trace minerals at the planting time.

To celebrate the 2014 summer outdoor gardening season, CCUA hosts an annual fundraiser this Saturday. The Harvest Hootenanny runs from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m. Saturday at the Urban Farm located at 1209 Smith Street in Columbia’s North Central neighborhood. More information is available at their website.

Listen to new episodes of Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday at 6:30 p.m .on KBIA.

Trevor serves as KBIA’s weekday morning host for classical music. He has been involved with local radio since 1990, when he began volunteering as a music and news programmer at KOPN, Columbia's community radio station. Before joining KBIA, Trevor studied social work at Mizzou and earned a masters degree in geography at the University of Alabama. He has worked in community development and in urban and bicycle/pedestrian planning, and recently served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia with his wife, Lisa Groshong. An avid bicycle commuter and jazz fan, Trevor has cycled as far as Colorado and pawed through record bins in three continents.