Growing up in the 1980s in North Saint Louis—an area with high rates of crime and poverty—Antajuan A. never imagined he would one day farm this area and that it would become a tool in a fight for social justice.
Antajuan works part-time delivering plants to office spaces; this allows him to be at home in University City with his three children and help with virtual learning during the pandemic. His wife is a nurse.
A little over five years ago, Antajuan joined New Roots Urban Farm, “an anti-profit collective” of farmers with a shared vision for human sustainability in the St. Louis Place neighborhood where he grew up. He farms the nearly one-third acre of land on Hogan Street, near North Market Street along with the three other members of the collective. Along with crops, the farm includes a greenhouse with an outdoor kitchen, chickens, and a small bee farm. A luffa gourd vine on an old tree trunk towers near the entrance.
New Roots has a community supported agriculture program (CSA) where customers buy shares in the season’s yield. Once bills are paid, New Roots gives away the majority of what they grow to food pantries and partners like STL Mutual Aid, a network of individuals providing aid for the common good. “Last year, I donated probably 50 pounds of veggies,” he says. “This year, I probably donated 250 pounds.”
Antajuan supports creativity and entrepreneurship—especially among people of color—at New Roots. Currently, about 20 different vendors sell their products at the urban farm. The pandemic forced him to cancel plans to have black female artists teach their craft during group events. He gets excited talking about how easy and fun it is to grow fruits, vegetables and flowers, and create products with them.
COVID-19 has also made it more difficult to get help. Last summer, Antajuan hosted groups from local universities and high schools. “Sometimes 5 to 15 girls would come help me weed the place or plant stuff,” he says. This year, there have been a handful of volunteers who stay socially distanced by working in different areas of the farm.
Kiss My Buttons
Antajuan has a side business making buttons with political messaging. During the Ferguson unrest in 2014, he stayed home with his children but he was able to share his voice. Using a machine he bought for a project with his kids, he made buttons to send with friends to protests. The buttons were a hit and hundreds more were requested.
Since then, his buttons have been requested as far as Costa Rica and shared with the cast of The Walking Dead television series. His buttons can be purchased in coffee shops around the area, including MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse in St. Louis city.
His most popular buttons—both before COVID and now—are the anti-Trump ones. “I have a wide variety of people who love those. Little, cute old white ladies in the suburbs or guys in the city,” he says.
Involvement with New Roots inspired Antajuan to start a garden and raise animals for food, including chickens, rabbits, and ducks (as many as 25 ducks at one time!) in his own backyard. One benefit of having animals is the manure they provide as fertilizer for his garden. He takes comfort in knowing exactly what he puts inside his animals. “We don’t get that security with what we buy in the store,” he explains.
Antajuan thinks everyone should know where their food comes from, and he is focused on encouraging people of color, particularly young people. “I didn’t see black men gardening when I was a kid. That probably would’ve changed my life,” he says.
Preferring the term “food apartheid” to “food desert”, Antajuan explains that the lack of quality food is not a natural phenomenon, but instead a result of purposeful systemic racism. He believes better physical and mental care, including better nutrition and exercise, would reduce violence.
A lot of what Antajuan does is out of his affection for his mother, who instilled a sense of giving back to others. Twice as a child, his family was given a place to stay at a shelter founded by Sister Mary Ann McGivern. Recently, Antajuan created a small free pantry named in her honor at the community garden at 17th & Mullanphy Streets. A sign next to it says, “Take what you need, leave what you can.”
Antajuan hopes to complete a permaculture design course that was interrupted by the pandemic. Permaculture is a set of design principles to use, or simulate, natural ecosystems. The course instructor is offering land to people of color, including an acre to Antajuan, to help rejuvenate the soil on Confluence Farms in Florissant, near the Missouri River. Antajuan looks forward to talking to tour groups again about the benefits of urban farming for everyone—regardless of age, gender, or race. He laughs, “I love seeing my tough homeboys get excited about my ducks or a baby rabbit. It makes me all fuzzy inside.”