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Published September 30, 2013, 11:22 AM

Urban farming

Shirley Booker didn’t sign up to live next to a farm. But these days, when she looks out the front door of the house where she’s lived for 37 years, a farm is exactly what she sees.

By: Tim Logan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Shirley Booker didn’t sign up to live next to a farm. But these days, when she looks out the front door of the house where she’s lived for 37 years, a farm is exactly what she sees.

It stretches across about 10 blocks in the city’s St. Louis Place neighborhood, some planted with corn, some with soybeans. The land was bought from the city last year by Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration LLC, then leased to a farming company founded by former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

It’s being billed as perhaps the largest urban agriculture experiment in the country, and a way to put long vacant land to productive use.

But to at least some of the people who still live among them, the rows of tall corn and green soy are an insulting nuisance.

Since the fields sprang up earlier this summer, Booker says, so have new pests — bugs and possums in and around her house. She’s seen cars drag racing through the alleys on weekend nights, hidden by 8-foot stalks. Several residents say they worry about getting mugged. Then there’s just the jarring shift — with no advance warning — from living in a depopulated urban neighborhood to living in something that looks like Iowa, if Iowa had the occasional crumbling brick vacant building sprinkled in.

“I’m all for progress,” says Booker’s neighbor Joyce Cooks. “But I don’t want to live on a farm. I’m a city girl.”

The whole episode highlights the challenge of wholesale reinvention of city neighborhoods and the persistent gap between the big visions of McKee and his partners in north St. Louis and the day-to-day experience of the people who live there now.

“No one asked us. No one told us this was coming,” Booker says. “And this isn’t happening next to where they live.”

The fields are the work of Family Roots International, an urban agriculture company founded by East St. Louis Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The company was looking for a place to try large-scale farming, says attorney Maurice Foxworth, and approached McKee about leasing some of the land he’s bought for NorthSide. It signed a deal for 62 acres, most of it long-vacant blocks north of the old site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, on a year-to-year basis.

“We’re a stopgap,” Foxworth says. “As soon as he wants to use it for development, we’ll move somewhere else. I don’t think there’s a shortage of vacant land.”

In the meantime, they are trying to find ways to grow good crops in ground that might contain lead or asphalt or old filled-in basements, with inconsistent irrigation and different types of weeds than you would find in a rural field.

It’s all part of a broader strategy, Foxworth says, to bring the burgeoning plant sciences industry to the inner city, to provide jobs and, yes, make a little money in the process.

“This is a for-profit business,” Foxworth says. “The whole point is to be sustainable and provide jobs and grow things.”

While Foxworth says he talked with area residents ahead of time, several say they only learned of the project when insecticide sprayers came through early this summer.

Exaggerated concerns

McKee spokesman Jim Gradl and Foxworth both say crime concerns have been overblown, and a police spokeswoman says there has been no noticeable uptick in criminal activity in the area this summer. But Foxworth says he understands neighbors’ worries about the tall stalks, and that his group isn’t married to corn. Next year, they may plant something shorter.

“They have concerns that are legitimate that we should and can address,” he says. “We don’t have to grow corn. We don’t have to have things high. We can find ways to get around that.”

And they’re starting to harvest the stuff. While there are still several blocks worth of feed corn, destined for farms to feed animals, Family Roots started picking sweet corn — for people — earlier this month. They hired city residents to pick it, Foxworth says, and gave the produce to food banks and churches and anyone from the neighborhood who asked. Foxworth took some home, too.

“It was delicious,” he says.