Part of green movement, farm sprouts in city

jwilkinson@thestate.comOctober 13, 2009 

Tucked away in a three-acre former vacant lot in Rosewood between an empty warehouse and an industrial laundry is an odd sight: an organic farm and fish hatchery.

This is no backyard garden. It is a completely sustainable farm - within the city limits.

From worm dirt up, architect Robbie McClam is creating a closed-loop system to grow micro-greens, vegetables and, eventually, two-pound tilapia fish.

And it's all at 1005 Airport Blvd., within a stone's throw from the runway at Jim Hamilton L.B. Owens Airport, more commonly known as Owens Field.

It's not cliche to say this is a labor of love for McClam, 55, who is wrapping up his architectural career and returning to the earth.

"The goal is not to make money. I just hope to not lose money," he said, striding along rows of kale, carrots and a dozen other kinds of vegetables on the way to the compost heaps at the back of the lot.

"I'm doing it because I like it. Life is short. If you don't find things you like to do, you are missing opportunities."

The outdoor system works like this:

- McClam uses waste from Columbia's Blue Moon tree service to create compost, keeping it out of a landfill.

- The compost is used to control weeds, and to feed toughs of worms that produce "worm casings," the clinical name for poop.

- The worm dirt, which packs a load of nutrients and can sell for up to $3 a pound, is used to fertilize the vegetables and herbs.

- The produce then will be sold to local markets and restaurants.

- Any waste created at the farm goes back onto the compost heaps.

"And we can grow all year-round," McClam said.

But McClam, his son Eric, 23, and some helpful friends are also planning an innovative greenhouse hatchery.

One of Eric's friends, David "Pres" Garrett, 24, who has a degree in biology from Wofford College, explains:

In a 75-foot-long tank, McClam plans to grow 2,500 to 3,000 tilapia fingerlings into market-ready, 1 1/2- to 2-pound fish.

The fish (again with poop) will create nitrates in the water. The water then will be filtered through beds of micro-greens, with the nitrates serving as fertilizer.

The micro-greens will be grown in beds hanging above the fish tank.

"It's kind of like bunk beds," Garrett said, "Watercress. Tomatoes. You can grow anything in it."

The filtered water is returned to the fish tank. No waste.

For Eric McClam, one of four McClam children and a triplet, working on the urban farm is an odd career path.

In 2008, he earned a master's degree in architecture from Tulane University in New Orleans.

"I thought I would be in an office, doing my internship," he said. "But this is an amazing opportunity out of school. I'm getting my hands dirty working with my dad."

The McClams are also putting their architectural skills to use building a sustainable building that will serve as office, produce stand and classroom.

The building is passively heated and modeled after the tobacco barns the elder McClam used to work in as a kid in Lake City.

"That was the hardest work I ever did," he said. "Ironically, at the end of my career, I'm going back to that hardest job."

In addition to raising and selling vegetables and fish, they want to show kids, particularly city kids, how a farm works.

"Living in the city, you don't really see where your food comes from," Eric McClam said.

But while rows of radishes, mustard greens, turnips and scallions are now growing in industrial Rosewood, it wouldn't have been possible a year ago.

It took a special exception from City Council to allow McClam to build the farm, because zoning didn't allow it.

"It was zoned industrial and had been empty as long as I could remember," McClam said. "I could have put an asphalt emulsion plant there but not an organic garden."

In fact, there is an asphalt emulsion plant down the street.

But this month, the Columbia Planning Commission approved an ordinance that would allow such operations citywide. And it will likely pass the council.

"We should embrace it," Mayor Bob Coble said. "It's part of the green movement. It produces food locally. Saves energy. And is a good way of protecting the environment."

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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