Eric McClam, 28, enjoys the day-to-day challenges of running an expanding farm operation in the heart of Columbia.
Photo by Jonathan Sharpe/Free Times
Eric McClam left a budding career as an architect to help his father launch Columbia’s only urban farm in 2009, and while City Roots has a romantic appeal that has captured the community’s imagination, McClam admits that farming remains a challenging pursuit.
“You are working with a product that can spoil or go bad easily,” he says. “You are dealing with Mother Nature. You’re dealing with markets and sales, and you’re having to deal with a lot of moving parts. Nothing is static.”
Looking back at the mistakes he has made in the past five years, the 28-year-old has to laugh. “It’s a passion of love, not profitability,” he says.
Profit is not specifically referenced in City Roots’ vision statement, which instead emphasizes the production of clean, healthy and sustainable products as well as educating the community about the benefits of locally grown food and environmentally friendly farming. But City Roots’ success has required community buy-in.
McClam’s father, also an architect, initiated City Roots after being inspired by a segment about urban farming on NPR. One of the first steps Robbie McClam took was asking the City of Columbia to rezone land in the Rosewood neighborhood for the 2.75-acre farm so it could be used for agricultural purposes.
Eric McClam returned to South Carolina from New Orleans after earning his graduate degree in architecture. He expected to stay a few months to oversee construction for his dad yet wound up staying on as the farm’s manager and, as of January, became managing partner. He wears many hats for City Roots and draws on his past training to make things happen.
“The role of an architect is to facilitate projects, and that’s kind of the role of a farmer as well,” he says.
City Roots now grows 125 varieties of fruits and vegetables. The farm also keeps bees for honey and pollination, raises free-range chickens for eggs and natural fertilizer, and also produces tilapia in a 3,000-gallon tank. In the summer, City Roots received USDA organic certification, which is no small feat. An additional 20 acres of family land that the McClams are developing in Lake City also has been certified as organic.
McClam’s marketing skills have come in handy as he drums up business and support. City Roots has an extensive website with a blog by McClam that covers what’s in season, news, and social events such as on-site, farm-to-table dinners and “weed-and-meet” get-togethers. The farm benefits from volunteer help in the fields plus college-educated interns, and while there’s more to the bottom line than money, McClam admits that he has to “squeeze a dollar out of every part of the farm” to keep it going. That includes renting City Roots out for events such as fraternity and sorority socials and a new effort to host weddings, which McClam tested out in October as he and his bride, a speech therapist, got married and celebrated afterward at City Roots.
“The farm is somewhat an extension of me, and it was nice for my wife to become a part of that as well.”