Photography by John Wrightenberry
The Rosewood Drive area of Columbia is in the midst of a renaissance, anchored by the Rosewood Hills community on its southern end, Publix in the middle, and The Preserve, a gated community of luxury homes, to the north. The latest, and brightest, jewel in the district’s crown is City Roots situated just across the street from Hamilton-Owens Airport.
City Roots is an urban farm, differing from a community garden in that it is a commercial venture that sells its produce—and fish since it is also a tilapia hatchery—to local restaurants, grocery stores, and the public. “It’s based on Will Allen’s Growing Power organization in Milwaukee,” said owner Robbie McClam, Jr.
McClam is a licensed architect holding a master’s degree from Clemson University. His son, Eric, also an architect with a master’s from Tulane, is the farm manager. Eric designed the structure, combination office space and farmers market, that stands on the three-acre property. But the guiding hand is the wizened elder Robert McClam, Sr. who brought years of experience from his family farm in the Pee Dee.
Robbie was semi-retired when he came across information on Growing Power. He researched it, and having fully bought into Allen’s motto that access to land and clean water is transformative on every level in a community, and that we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system, “The next thing I know, I was on a plane headed to Milwaukee for a workshop,” Robbie said with an ear-to-ear grin. He is clearly excited about his venture.
When he returned to Columbia, he found this parcel of land tucked away in a three-acre former vacant lot in Rosewood between an empty warehouse and an industrial laundry. Having been in the development business, he was well versed in zoning requirements. “It was zoned commercial; so I discovered I could have an asphalt emulsion plant here, but not an urban farm.” Once he presented his concept, he said the city was helpful in changing the zoning requirements and in getting him the needed permits. In June of 2009, he began bringing in loads of dirt and compostable materials.
Eric McClam said that upon earning his master’s degree from Tulane, there wasn’t much of a market for architects. So he left New Orleans in the rearview mirror and came home to become farm manager at City Roots. “I have a family background in farming, but I literally never grew vegetables from the ground up,” he said. On-the-job training, reading, practice, and a few helpful lessons from the farm’s many volunteers have made it a not-so-daunting task to move, in a literal sense, away from the drawing board. “At this point, I’m pretty confident in my abilities.”
Commercial farmland is on a steep decline in South Carolina, with some traditional farmers converting their land to pine timber production. Robbie said one reason for that transition is, “the soil is tired from the old farming practices. That’s why our motto here is, ‘Feed the soil.’ ”
City Roots is a fully sustainable operation. It partnered with Blue Sky Tree Service to bring in wood chips and also with Rosewood Market for food waste. “We get at least two full roll carts per week there,” Eric said. They mix the two with other trimmings or overripe produce at the farm. They add in little red squiggly earthworms and keep several piles of compost on hand as a planting mixture.
Beside the market building stands a greenhouse, itself recycled, disassembled, and rebuilt in Columbia from a farm in Lake City. Inside sits a large open tank filled with farm-raised tilapia. A pump sends water from the tank through a pipe about 20 feet long. The pipe circles under a raised platform holding tray after tray of nasturtium, watercress, radish greens, and various other plants. The plant roots and the soil they’re in act as a natural filter, removing all the impurities from the water, which drains back into the tilapia tank in one endless cycle. Customers can come into the green house and pick their own herbs or you can buy them at the market bagged into a delicious salad.
Add a few organically grown tomatoes and cucumbers and you can have a nutritious meal that has gone straight from the garden to the plate. But why stop there? City Roots offers rainbow carrots, Over-the-Rainbow pole beans, purple potatoes, and okra, too. With the passing of Columbia’s new ordinance allowing people to keep chickens, the farm keeps a few on hand for fresh eggs and weeding. “We move the coops around,” Eric said, “because the chickens are great at weeding our rows, and the more they do, the less I have to bend over to pull them!”
Eric refers to the farms sustainability as “duality.” “We keep bees, not only for honey production, but also for pollinating our plants. The chickens weed
and produce eggs, but they also control insects and the nitrogen in their manure adds to our compost.
The earthworms break down the compost and we use their castings for propagation. It’s all a part of the cycle,” Eric said.
Robbie said community support, not only from the restaurants and markets he serves, but also the immediate neighborhoods of Rosewood and Shandon, have been incredibly supportive, but none more so than his contingent of volunteers. “From the retired Brazilian banker who is 65 years old to the 14-year-old who comes up here nearly every day for a couple of hours, to our very own mushroom man, they really keep it going.”
One of their volunteers, Jana Fredericks, said she donates all day on Fridays, but would come more often if she could. “The way I feel about it is similar to the way all my friends talk about having kids. Their biological clocks are ticking, so I guess it’s my ‘agricultural’ clock ticking! To me it’s really fulfilling. It’s something that’s not about me. I used to work retail and no matter how hard I worked, it didn’t make a difference. The kind of work I’m doing here has a direct effect on tomorrow, next week, next season, really for a lifetime.”
To learn more about City Roots, the produce on hand, or the stores and restaurants to whom they sell, log onto cityroots.org.