Farmer Q&A: City Roots
From the Farmer's Tractor
December 30, 2013
Eric McClam, 27, farms just under 4 acres of organic fruits, vegetables and grain in Columbia, South Carolina. McClam manages the farm for his father, who founded City Roots Farm in 2009 after becoming inspired by other urban agricultural projects to produce sustainably grown products while enhancing and educating the community about the benefits of locally grown food. McClam has been farming for four and a half years.
How did you get into farming? How long have you been a farmer?
I first pursued a career in the architectural field only to find my hands back in the soil in my native South Carolina. A graduate of Tulane University School of Architecture, I returned from New Orleans to initiate the construction and implementation of City Roots.
As a child, I spent time at my grandfather’s farm in Lake City, South Carolina. Later, while studying architecture, I had the good fortune to work, study, and travel through Europe, Central and South America learning about architecture and culture. The most interesting aspect I observed was a more efficient use of land and how that affected the buildings they lived in and the food they ate. The creation of City Roots has given me the opportunity to work towards a sustainable and equitable model of land use for the production of locally grown food and the dissemination of information to share with the community.
Much of what I have done with farming parallels my work in the architectural profession. It’s the attention to detail and the intimacy of the process – from the moment you break ground, sow seeds, and hold a hammer or put pen to paper until you see the fruits of your labor, whether that be literal fruit or physical structure – that has made City Roots a true labor of love.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
We have been farming organically since day one. We received our USDA Organic Certification after 3.5 yrs. Although we have been practicing organic farming we realized that some of our farming methods could be changed to further soil conservation and potentially increase our yield. We received a national competitive grant from the USDA called a Conservation Innovation Grant to convert our farm to No-Till production. Farmers have been No-Till farming for commodity crops but not for vegetable production. We designed a system that incorporates the use of multi-species cover crops that are rolled down and terminated via a roller crimp and vegetables are planted directly into the remaining crop residue. The cover crops and crop residue add fertility to the soil and organic matter as they break down. They also serve as a weed suppressant, maintain a more even soil temperature, conserve moisture, decrease diesel use and compaction, and decrease the amount of time a farmer spends cultivating. We are seeing increased yields as well.
How will farming evolve in the next five years?
I hope that farming will continue to evolve and increase its productivity and efficiency while retaining a focus on conservation practices and sustainability – economic, social and environmental.
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?
Our greatest challenge will always be how to respond to Mother Nature but that is something we will never be able to control. More realistically, our challenge is educating the consumer on the benefits of local, sustainably grown products and how it can benefit one’s personal health, the local economy and the environment.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
The best way to know is through open dialogue and communication between ourselves and the retailer. We have a diversified operation that sells direct to the consumer via a CSA and also sells wholesale to grocery retailers and to local restaurants. We actively question our consumers on what they would like us to grow for them. Typically chefs are quite excited. We also look back out our previous year’s sales and can determine what the trends are.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
Conservation is one of our priorities on our farm. Organically Certified by USDA, we grow over a hundred varieties of fruits and vegetables, keep bees not only for honey but also for pollination, and raise chickens not only for eggs but also for the fertility they add to our soil. We do extensive crop rotations and cover cropping for soil fertility and pest management. We have a large scale composting operation which we use to amend our soil and by doing so have diverted hundreds of tons of material destined for the landfill into rich, fertile soil. We create worm casting and worm tea via vermicomposting to use as a fertilizer. We produce microgreens year round and operate an aquaponic system which is the combination of aquaculture, the production of commercial fish (tilapia), and hydroponics. This growing of plants in a water medium mimics a stream and pond ecosystem. We operate our farm in a holistic fashion with each part playing an integral role in the overall system. We are also taking further steps towards conservation through our No-Till farming methods.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
We sell our products on site, through our year round CSA (community supported agriculture), at farmers markets, at several local and national health food retail grocery stores, and at numerous restaurants around South Carolina.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
We typically always receive very positive reactions from our consumers when we meet them, and most of them are repeat customers.