Launched in 2009 on 2.7 acres leased from a City of Columbia-linked development corporation in Rosewood, City Roots set out to provide sustainably grown food and food education for the community.
Now, it supplies microgreens to all 30 Whole Foods stores in the Southeast, to food service distributors Sysco, US Foods and Freshpoint, to food hubs in two other states — and to Carnival Cruise ships out of Charleston via Senn Brothers, a Midlands-based wholesaler. City Roots grows 25,000 pounds of microgreens a year.
And that’s just one of its product lines — City Roots also farms mushrooms, cut flowers and organic vegetables, with five acres in Rosewood and another 30 acres out on Bluff Road at a site called Tupelo Farm. And it’s a bustling events venue to boot.
This Saturday’s Back to the Roots Festival celebrates the farm’s 10th growing season, highlighting its community origins with cooking demonstrations, learning activities, yoga classes, live music, craft beer, food vendors, and booths from the likes of Slow Food Columbia, Gardeners Outpost and a local purveyor of leggings brand LuLaRoe.
Farm co-owner Eric McClam says he’s proud of the farm’s evolution.
“All of a sudden our reach has gone from our little Rosewood community to the Eastern seaboard, practically,” he says. “I’m amazed and humbled by that. Our vegetables are going all over South Carolina. Today we sent a truck to Atlanta and one to Charleston.”
McClam’s father Robbie McClam founded City Roots in 2009, inspired by Will Allen, an urban Milwaukee farmer who’d won a MacArthur Fellowship (often called the “genius grant”).
The elder McClam told Free Times in 2010 that his goal was “to provide healthy, nutritious food grown locally to the community, to involve the community” and “to create a business model that can sustain itself and pay the people working on it a living wage.”
Eric McClam says the farm still doesn’t make much money — and what it does gets reinvested — but that it does succeed in paying that living wage. City Roots has 20 full-time staff now, up from one part-timer when they launched. The farm provides health benefits and IRAs for some of them.
As the farm has evolved, its focus has narrowed. The aquaponics system and tilapia pond are gone, as are the chickens — due partly to food safety guidelines that recommend keeping livestock away from produce operations.
Other changes have been aimed at efficiency and scale.
“Our focus has expanded from a small urban farm niche, which is small-scale, hand tools — and we’ve realized the economies of scale and also what the demand is,” McClam says. “We had too much equipment to be just farming five acres, and there was a demand for much more. Looking at the economics of it, it made sense to grow more acreage.”
The farm has also drawn national attention: In January, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited City Roots to talk to small and organic farmers about their priorities for this year’s Farm Bill, holding up the Rosewood farm as one that’s made good use of federal programs.
So with all this focus on production, how does City Roots maintain its educational mission?
“The simple answer is partnering with the right people,” like Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and Clemson University, McClam says. “We host workshops now, we don’t put them on ourselves. … We’ve had a number of interns over the years, but we’re getting away from that — we have no summer internship program this year because of production.”
He says they still have plenty of tours coming through — “everything from kindergarten kids to retirement homes.”
Six years ago City Roots began partnering with events guru Vanessa Bialobreski and chef/entrepreneur Kristian Niemi on Farm to Table Event Co. — now called F2T Productions, Management and Catering. The company hosts chef-driven dinners and private events at the farm and around town. New facilities at the farm, including a catering kitchen, have allowed those events to expand.
Asked whether it’s hard to operate a working farm when there’s a wine dinner going on, McClam says City Roots makes it work.
“That has brought in revenue that has allowed us to expand and retain and keep more staff,” he says. “Without that we would not have gotten to the point we are at today. It’s helped F2T grow and it’s helped City Roots grow as a business and we’re very thankful for that.
“It’s a little tempting when someone’s drinking a glass of wine and you’re out there working,” he adds. “It’s not without the occasional rubbing of the two entities and figuring out dates and times and work around each other. But we always stress and reiterate we’re a farm first.”
What: Back to the Roots Festival
When: Saturday, April 28, 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Where: City Roots, 1005 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $15; kids 12 and under free