CCUA was officially formed in the spring of 2009 as a 501(c)3 non-profit. However, there was significant groundwork in the years leading up this. In years prior, co-founder Adam Saunders organized sustainable agriculture projects with student group Sustain Mizzou. And co-founders Dan Soetaert and Bobby Johnson were innovating with home-scale composting, gardening, and seasonal eating. When the three started meeting in the spring of 2008 a flurry of visioning and planning ensued.
The trio’s first project, organized under Sustain Mizzou, capitalized on a small University of Missouri Information Technology Innovations grant and a Service Learning Class with 12 students. The project aimed to establish a composting system that used bikes to haul waste food scraps from a MU dining hall to area community gardens. Compost was collected daily for 4 semesters and over 50,000 pounds of food scraps were composted in the 2 years. A few years later, the MU Campus institutionalized a campus-wide composting program with Bradford Farm.
CCUA’s first food production project, the CCUA Demonstration Garden, was launched during the fall of 2008. This site was designed to demonstrate the diversity of crops that can be grown in Columbia, and to connect with people interested in gardening. The site is located on the corner of Ash and St. Joseph streets in downtown Columbia, MO, and is owned by Mark Stevenson. Mark owns land that supports 6 community gardens in Columbia.
During this same time period, Billy Polansky and Carrie Hargrove were honing their agriculture and education skills at the Heifer International demonstration farm in Arkansas. The pair joined Adam, Bobby, Dan, and others including Edwina King, Mitch Tucker, Billy Froeschner, Eric McDavid, Shelly Hubbard, Maria Kritikos, and others in the fall 2008. Within one short year, a solid community of people had rallied around a vision of improved urban agriculture and hands-on education in Columbia, MO. The historic 1903 Harrell House on St. Joseph Street became the headquarters for the growing crew. During this time, many of the early growing pains of the group were worked out. The business model of CCUA was crafted and began to take functional form.
In the fall of 2009, CCUA approached Mark Stevenson about establishing a second production site on a much larger, 1.3 acre tract on the corner of Smith and Fay, just a few blocks north of the Demo Garden. Based on the early results of the Demo Garden, Mark agreed to let CCUA begin production at the new site in 2010. Over the coming months and years, the production space was built at the Urban Farm. Time input from volunteers and interns, as well as donations from businesses and the city composting site were critical to the establishment of the garden beds, the sheds, the irrigation system, the orchard fruit trees, the fencing and other improvements. We’re grateful to everyone who helped us build the farm!
The 2011 season was the first year with full time employees for CCUA. Careful cash flow analysis of vegetable sales, donations, landscaping jobs and small grants led to successful bootstrapping that enabled the business to grow. CCUA had three full-time employees, each making $10,000 per year. CCUA’s Opportunity Gardens project was established during the 2011 season with help from community partner PedNet and a grant from the Center for Disease Control to address childhood obesity. This project lead to a partnership with the Columbia Housing Authority to install raised bed gardens for residents and edible landscaping plantings of fruit trees and berry bushes. Coordinator Dan Soetaert was critical to getting this partnership and project established.
Production at the Urban Farm increased significantly in 2011 when Production Coordinator Carrie Hargrove took the helm of production logistics and planning. Market Coordinator Billy Polansky connected the production to sales at farmers markets and restaurants. In 2011 CCUA was successful in getting part of the Urban Farm rezoned to C-1 zoning to enable sales at an on-site market.
In the fall of 2011 two key grants (USDA Farmers Market Promotion and AmeriCorps VISTA) were secured with partner Missouri River Communities Network. These enabled CCUA to add another half time position to staff, raise full time salaries to $15,000, and hire three full-time VISTA volunteers in 2012. The increased capacity of the staff led to major growth in 2012. CCUA’s Education VISTA, Heather Gillich improved the Urban Farm’s educational outreach to recruit more tour groups from schools, clubs, and organizations. Outreach VISTA, Sam Pounders added energy to the Opportunity Gardens program with mentoring and garden installation. Public Relations VISTA Natalie Suntrup helped found the on-site honesty market and promote CCUA events.
The 2013 season saw the inception and execution of the philanthropic campaign, Planting for the Pantry. The campaign was launched in May with the goal of sponsoring 10 rows on the Urban Farm ($1,200 per row), and reached its goal at its inaugural season’s close in September. The Opportunity Gardens program introduced two new faces to the staff: Trish Woolbright, and Outreach VISTA, Christine Baker. Christine created standards and systems for recording and reporting information, provided great mentorship, and garden installation, and paved the way for volunteers to get involved in mentoring. Erin King also joined the team helping with marketing, design and fundraising.
The year 2014 was full of firsts and exciting milestones. Both the Urban Farm and the Kilgore’s Community Garden celebrated the 5th year in production. The Opportunity Gardens Program surpassed 100 families served over time, and served 94 families for the year. 2014 was also CCUA’s third and final year of hosting AmeriCorps VISTAs, bringing Kelsey Grant to the staff to build the organization’s capacity in training, hosting and tracking volunteers. In August, CCUA entered a strategic partnership with Slow Food Katy Trail and its Harvest of the Month Program, adding AmeriCorps Members Lori McCurdy and Steve Riesenberg and the CCUA Outdoor Classroom Program. The 5th Annual Harvest Hootenanny introduced exciting community collaborations in putting on a great event. For a complete review of our amazing year, check out the 2014 Annual Report.
In the 2015 season, CCUA gained traction with even more new partners. With Lucky’s Market, a garden made up of 480 milk crates was established outside their store, and we began working with The Gates, a new sub-division neighborhood to tend edible landscaping planted in their common areas. Planting for the Pantry surpassed a goal of 25 row sponsorships. The team welcomed three new AmeriCorps members: Tony DeMarco, Kyle Holland and Raleigh Taylor, to help with Opportunity Gardens, Urban Farm Experiences and Outdoor Classroom programs, respectively.
In 2016, CCUA’s impact continued to grow. The Urban Farm harvested 14,651 pounds of fresh food. 2,929 people participated in 29 educational community activities. 5,497 square feet of new garden space was created through CCUA’s Opportunity Gardens Program and GardenPro Service. 137 families, businesses and agencies got help fomm CCUA’s staff and volunteers in their backyards. 6,976 students got their hands dirty at the Urban Farm or in a school garden. 681 volunteers worked a total of 4,442 hours. New projects included: building a veteran’s community garden at Patriot Place, partnering with the Columbia Area Career Center to provide cooking demonstrations at the Columbia Farmers Market and the Central Pantry, and launching a capital campaign with the Columbia Farmers Market, Columbia Parks and Rec, and Sustainable Farms & Communities to build a new Agriculture Park!
Please contact us if you want to learn more about CCUA’s history and the critical lessons learned over the years. We love to share our story to teach and learn from others!