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Urban farmers working vacant Kinloch property get surprise when land's rightful owner shows up

Urban farmers working vacant Kinloch property get surprise when land's rightful owner shows up

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KINLOCH • Joe Spears was ready to give up the farm.

He had no legal claim to the plot of land in Kinloch, after all. Spears was just one of several dozen people who, without any official clearance, had been planting and harvesting greens, okra, melons, beans, tomatoes and peppers for the past 35 years on about nine vacant acres abutting North Hanley Road.

When an executive from one of the largest construction firms in the Midwest approached the amateur farmers in the fields last fall, it looked like a good thing was coming to an end.

“We were never trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes,” Spears, 70, of Rock Hill, said last week. “It wasn’t our property. And it wouldn’t be right for us to make a scene when the rightful owners told us to move on.”

The rightful owner, Clayco Inc., explained that the minifarms lay in the path of the planned expansion of NorthPark Business Park, the company’s massive development that counts Express Scripts and Vatterott College as tenants.

Then came a proposal that caught the farmers, including Armstead Ford, by surprise.

“Clayco offered to give us another place to farm,” Ford, 75, of Northwoods, said. “I was hopeful but skeptical.”

On Thursday, Clayco president Bob Clark allayed those concerns when he announced that the company was relocating the farmers to 8 acres in Berkeley that they had asked him for, just across North Hanley Road from the old farm.

And the farmers won’t have to capture rain in barrels or haul in water to the new site: Clark, 56, was throwing in an irrigation system, along with a building on the property that has running water, electricity and restrooms.

“What can I say? We expected nothing and got better than we had before,” Spears said Thursday with a husky laugh.

Clark said that, well before his 2006 purchase of the 550 acres on which he would build NorthPark, he had been fascinated with the men and women working the fields, visible from cars speeding by on North Hanley and Interstate 170.

“I’ve always been appreciative of how they’ve operated,” Clark said. “Most of them are retired folks — some construction workers, some factory workers. People who had productive careers but weren’t ready to sit around the house for the rest of their lives.

“So, from the very beginning, it was one of our tenets that we didn’t want to displace these guys without finding another place for them to continue farming.”

Spears and Ford retired from the old McDonnell Douglas plant in Berkeley after working there for decades. They first heard about the little slice of rural life in the middle of the poor municipality of Kinloch from fellow workers.

Word of mouth continued to spread the news about the rich farmland available to anyone willing to put in the time and effort to fertilize, weed and, in dry spells, haul water for thirsty crops.

Before Clark bought the property, it was owned by the St. Louis Airport Authority, which took it over in the 1970s after buying out and removing a subdivision there.

Spears said the farmers struck an unofficial deal with airport officials.

“They estimated that it would cost them about $60,000 a year to mow the grass. They told us that, as long as we kept the grass and weeds down, we could farm it.”

What started for some as a healthy hobby became for others a vital source of nutrition.

The vegetables that Thomas “Foots” Spann, of Normandy, has grown there over the past 20 years have helped to feed his family.

“We couldn’t afford the prices grocery stores charge for fresh vegetables,” Spann, 58, said. “If I were to lose this, it would be heartbreaking.”

Rustic conditions aside, the minifarms have yielded bountiful crops.

One longtime farmer, Will Ballard, 70, of an unincorporated area of north St. Louis County, said six, 70-foot rows planted with sweet potatoes produce about 22 bushels at harvest time.

Other farmers said that, depending on the crop planted, a single row could be expected to yield five bushels of tomatoes, two of green beans and five of collard greens.

Clark, with Clayco, said he is drawing up documents that will deed the land to the two dozen or so farmers who have been most faithfully involved in the property over the years.

“We intend for this to operate as farmland in perpetuity, to be handed down as these guys see fit to family members, friends, whoever will continue to work the land,” he said. “No one will ever take it back and say, ‘We changed our minds. We’re building here.’ That will never be allowed to happen.”

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Paul Hampel is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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