COLUMBIA — In 2009, when Robbie McClam and his son, Eric, started City Roots Farm, they usually had to follow an introduction by explaining that the urban property was out by the Columbia Municipal Airport. These days, there is rarely any follow-up reference needed.
City Roots has expanded into a hub of the local food movement in the capital city, providing not only fresh veggies to the chefs and farmers market shoppers in the region, but microgreens to the Southeast, a CSA for local residents, an event venue, and even a children’s day camp this summer. And they are not stopping there.
“Columbia is a completely different place from when I left in 2004 to when I returned in 2009,” says Eric McClam, who heads the operation that employs 20 staff members and five interns. “The arts scene and the food scene were really beginning to be intertwined, and there was a general awareness of sustainability that made us excited.”
So when McClam knocked on the kitchen door of Kristian Niemi, who was then cooking at Rosso Trattoria, to gauge the chef's interest in purchasing local products, Niemi responded with an enthusiastic yes, especially if the consistency and quality was up to high-end restaurant standards.
Thus, the McClam family had their assignment and went to work, creating a diverse farm on 3 acres that in 2018 will reach an expanded 40 acres (including land leased elsewhere in Richland County). Approximately 30 restaurants in the Columbia area use City Roots produce, including Niemi’s current flagship, Bourbon. That’s not counting the chefs outside the immediate region who have access to the products through distributors. Although City Roots produces a wide range of fruits and vegetables, from blueberries to oyster mushrooms to tomatoes and even cut flowers, its main crop is microgreens.
“We grow 20 varieties of microgreens that are in 32 Whole Foods Markets in the Southeast, Growfood Carolina food hub in Charleston, various farmers markets we participate in, and even on Carnival Cruise Ships,” McClam explains. The greens are grown primarily in five high tunnels on the farm, and the fast-growing specialty crop provides a stable base for the farm, which allows for creativity and experimentation.
For example, in 2015, the farm installed a tilapia pond system to begin aquaponic farming on site, and after working with that for a year or so, is now transforming that pond into more of a demonstration pond for schoolchildren. They didn’t bank all their efforts on the tilapia venture being successful, so as a agribusiness, they were able to redirect efforts elsewhere. It's a nimbleness that is often lacking for single-crop farms.
It also allows them to take chances and have vision for the space as a unique entity beyond just crops and harvest.
“I just walked up to Eric at the farmers market one day and said, ‘I want to have a dinner on your farm,’” says Vanessa Driscoll Bialobreski, a Columbia native, event planner and public relations professional who had recently moved back to the city and was looking to get involved in the local community.
City Roots said yes, and from there, things "just blew up,” Bialobreski says. Over the past six years, at least 13,000 tickets have been sold to more than 200 events at the farm.
Bialobreski is now the managing partner for the Farm to Table Event Company, which runs those events and counts Robbie McClam and Niemi as partners as well. It has created a symbiotic relationship that continues to help all parties while at the same time creating events for the city, including a recent sold-out James Beard Foundation dinner and a Mardi Gras Festival. “It’s great for us to get involved in the community as a team and bridge that farm-to-table gap,” Bialobreski says.
“City Roots is such an important part of the overall food culture that is helping to put Columbia on the map as a destination,” says Kelly Barbrey, vice president of sales and marketing at Experience Columbia SC. “Many of our local restaurants are using their produce, microgreens and flowers, all of which are grown right here in the heart of the city, and local residents and out-of-towners love coming to unique events held at City Roots, like the Rosé Festival and Tasty Tomato Festival, to feel connected to the energy and vitality of our community.”
Beyond the festive events, the up to 4,000 schoolchildren who visit each year, the first annual summer day camp, and the locals who shop in the farm store, City Roots is now working to bring even more people to the farm through canning and pickling. At the moment, staff is working on building out a kitchen that will meet DHEC approval. Not only will it help the farm preserve produce that can be another specialty product, but the kitchen can be a space where people can come to learn the skills of pickling and preserving.
It seems there’s always something “cooking” at City Roots, from the Midlands farms database they are building and sharing for area chefs to the consideration of produce being included in Blue Apron. Eric McClam and his staff are not only willing to consider new ways of bringing local produce to consumers, but are creating a more stable and sustainable regional culture through that produce.
“When we started, we were the only show in town so to speak when it came to buying local produce,” McClam says. “Now local produce, or at least the consideration, is part of people’s vocabulary. We are happy to be right at the time when Columbia caught the local food craze.”