How to Start a Farm From a Soccer Field

By Carrie Hargrove

In the summer of 2015 my boss (and husband), Billy Polansky, asked me if the name Clary Shy meant anything to me. “Who is she?” I asked. He was not referring to a person, but to the grassy field that lies just west of the ARC, near the Columbia Farmer’s Market. That grassy field is a city park: Clary Shy Park, named by Ron and Vicki (Clary) Shy, who generously donated the land to the city. Until then, I hadn’t even realized that it was a formalized city park, I guess I really never thought of it at all.

Fast forward to early 2018, and I think about Clary Shy multiple times a day. Clary Shy is the site which will be the home of the future agriculture park, and CCUA’s base of operations. There is a lot of excitement in starting a new farm; you can build on the lessons learned from setting up other systems, and through this sort of trial and error you can create a better system than the one that preceded it.  While this site has a history that is very different than that of the area that we currently grow on, we are making sure to put the hard won lessons of the past 9 years at our Urban Farm into consideration when designing this new agriculture park.

In some form or fashion, I have been associated with CCUA’s current Urban Farm since its inception in the winter of 2009. We designed the Urban Farm to mirror a small scale vegetable farm in Arkansas called Foundation Farm. The foundation (if you will) of this vegetable production system is establishing permanent beds that are not tilled, and that are separated by permanent grassy walkways.  Anyone who has ever been to the Urban Farm has seen this layout. This is a very labor intensive production model that relies heavily on regular and timely hand weeding, to keep the walkways from totally taking over the vegetable beds. Because of the massive amount of human labor involved in a system such as this, it is a rather unconventional farm layout. The permanent, no till beds have done splendidly at the Urban Farm, they have yielded many tons of produce in the past growing season alone, but this boon in harvest yields has not come without difficult lessons: most notably perennial weed control.

Something that we didn’t know when designing the Urban Farm is that certain perennial weeds flourish in a no till vegetable production system such as the one that we laid out. Bermuda grass and field bindweed have been two troublesome weeds that seem to spread every year no matter our diligence in weeding. The goal is to learn from this lesson and create a system at the new agriculture park that keeps weeds like these in check. Field bindweed and Bermuda grass already enjoy strongholds in the area of the park where we will be establishing a vegetable farm, and in order to quickly get them under control, we need to come out of the gate swinging.

For the past quarter century, Clary Shy park has been a grassy lot that serves as a practice sports field. The high amount of foot traffic has caused a considerable amount of compaction to the soil- something that will take years of diligence on our part to correct.  This is one of the reasons why these troublesome perennial weeds are present: they are hardy plants that can thrive in challenging environments such as compacted soils, hot, dry weather, and trampling from soccer practices. They also do well in clayey soil- which is the major type of soil present at this site.

In dreaming about the future agriculture park, we have identified 3 issues that we want our production system to address: perennial weed pressure, compacted soil, and clay soils with low organic matter.   Unfortunately, the current production system that we utilize at Urban Farm with the permanent, no till beds does not adequately address these issues, so we need to tweak our practices and come up with a new game plan.  Luckily, I do believe that we have crafted a production plan for the new agriculture park that addresses all of the known issues simultaneously.

Our goal is to move to the agriculture park fully in the spring of 2019. That gives us one growing season to do some important prep work on the soil in hopes of making the early years at the agriculture park that much smoother. This spring we will be doing some tractor work in order to prepare our first acre for planting. In 2018, we will be growing plants out at the agriculture park, just not food producing plants. This year, we are going to focus exclusively on intensely managed cover crops.

Cover crops are plants that will provide some sort of benefit to the soil and the food crops that are planted after it. In our case, we are choosing to plant a grass called sudangrass. We chose this cover crop because it has an extensive root system that will help break up soil compaction. Sudangrass is also a very large plant, it can grow several feet tall, and being a grass, it can also be planted very close together. This should provide deep shade for the perennial weeds that are shorter than the cover crop. Because the two perennial weeds that we want to get under control don’t tolerate shade, we are hoping that a year of growing sudangrass will weaken the stand of bindweed and bermudagrass present out there. We plan on featuring extensive cover cropping at the agriculture park at all times as a way to out-compete weeds, break up soil compaction, and add organic matter back into the soil. In 2019 and on, we plan on devoting half of all available vegetable production space to cover crops; as a way to improve the soil sustainably. Cover cropping will be key to our success in establishing a productive and lovely urban vegetable farm.

In addition to extensive use of cover crops, we plan on adding tons-actual tons- of compost over the area to kick start soil health. Way back in 2008, CCUA was created in a steamy pile of compost (with help from a grant that diverted food scraps to compost piles in community gardens around Columbia), and we have no intentions to stray from these roots. This spring, we will be looking for a group of excited volunteers to spread the first semi-truck load of compost over the field. We will repeat this process a couple of times during the summer and fall as well. In addition to volunteer workdays spreading compost over our new site, we will be doing many other capital improvements like installing fence, setting up an underground irrigation system, and putting up a greenhouse!

If there is something that I believe with all of my heart, it is that it takes a village to raise up an urban farm. So, just as we did when we created the first Urban Farm- we will be looking to our neighbors, family, and friends in Columbia to help us on this wild rollercoaster of urban farming. In 2017, we did a lot of planning about what the agriculture park will look like, and in 2018 we will start to put all of those plans in place- and we are looking to you to help us turn this soccer field into a glorious edible park.

Billy Polansky