SO (NOT) SUMMER SCHOOL

Columbia’s City Roots schools interns in urban farming

sellis@thestate.comJuly 4, 2014 

  • So (not) summer school

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Work is hard but satisfying for Misty Shealy, who begins her days at Columbia’s City Roots farm around 7 or 7:30 a.m. – typically.

In the greenhouses, there are seeds to be planted, plant beds to be watered, microgreens – young, leafy plants including broccoli, kale, mustard, radishes, sunflowers and snowpeas – to be harvested, soil and roots to be composted and then some. There’s always work to be done for the intern at Columbia’s 5-year-old urban, organic farm.

Her roots first began to grow in her family’s gardens in rural Irmo, where Shealy’s parents and grandparents cultivated her love for plants and working outdoors.

“I want to be that person who knows about plants and plants them and shows you the right way to do it,” Shealy said. “I cannot not have plants. I’ve always had plants everywhere I’ve gone.”

Now, 34-year-old Shealy is blossoming as a horticulture student at Clemson University and an intern at City Roots, where she’s seeing the practical applications of many of the lessons she’s learned over the past three years of study.

Founded five years ago on the outskirts of downtown, the City Roots farm grows more than 100 crop varieties year-round using certified organic farming methods. Shealy is about halfway through earning 400 hours of experience this summer at the farm, working in the fields, greenhouses and retail area.

From planting and harvesting techniques to microclimate and soil quality monitoring, the lessons are continually sprouting.

One day, Shealy hopes to harvest the fruits of her studies by opening a botanical garden and bed and breakfast with her mother, where they would host events and serve produce they grow themselves.

“I think it’s just like second nature for me,” she said. “I mean, if you can choose a job, something you want to do for the rest of your life, wouldn’t it be something that’s part of who you are?”

Like Shealy, many people have personal connections to farming, said Robbie McClam. He had some experience as a youth working in tobacco fields. But when he and his son, Eric, founded City Roots five years ago, he was “not an experienced farmer, by any means.”

“We’ve been learning all along as we’ve moved through the years,” McClam said. “We like to think we’ve gotten better at it. We’ve certainly learned a lot.”

A learning experience from the beginning, City Roots has been on a mission to educate the community about the benefits of sustainable farming, McClam said, and an important aspect of that mission is through teaching the “hundreds and hundreds” of interns and volunteers who have come through the farm.

The farm offers up to seven internships each season, though Shealy is the only intern this summer. They become immersed in the full farming experience, from the fields to the greenhouses to the business side of operations.

Stacie Gantz started as a City Roots intern in March 2012 while studying environmental science at the University of South Carolina. And she’s been working at the farm ever since.

“It’s just one of those things you fall in love with,” Gantz said. “It’s hard and taxing work. But it’s beautiful in the end when you get to look at it and say, ‘I grew that. I did that. Look how pretty that is.’”

Now an assistant greenhouse manager, Gantz is passing on to Shealy everything she’s learned over the past two years.

“I take the time to explain the steps and why we do them that way,” Gantz said. “Through trial and error, we bring out over time that that technique works best, and we share that with our interns. We do as well with the volunteers, but not to the same extent.

“The interns are really brought into the inner fold.”

Shealy said the City Roots crew have been gracious educators, willing to teach about and give access to any part of the farm and business.

“They’re always teaching as much as they can,” she said.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

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