ST. LOUIS — A 10-block stretch of land in north St. Louis is an unusual place for a farm, and not everyone living nearby welcomes the mesh of agriculture with urban life.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the land was purchased last year from the city by Paul McKee's NorthSide Regeneration LLC, then leased to a farming company founded by Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who grew up in East St. Louis, Ill.
It is perhaps the nation's largest urban agriculture experiment, billed as a way to put vacant urban land to good use.
Some nearby residents see the rows of corn and soybeans as a nuisance. They cite an increase in pests, such as bugs and possums, and say cars drag race at night, hidden by tall stalks of corn.
There is also the jarring shift from living in a depopulated urban neighborhood to living next to a farm.
"I'm all for progress," said Joyce Cooks. "But I don't want to live on a farm. I'm a city girl."
Joyner-Kersee founded Family Roots International, which farms on the 62-acre urban lot, mostly long-vacant blocks near the site of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. Attorney Maurice Foxworth said that as soon as McKee wants to use the land for something else, the farm will relocate.
"I don't think there's a shortage of vacant land," Foxworth said.
The company is seeking to grow crops in ground that might contain lead or asphalt or old basements, with inconsistent irrigation and weeds not found in a rural field.
Foxworth said it is part of a strategy to bring the plant sciences industry to the inner city, provide jobs and make money.
Crops are beginning to be harvested, with Family Roots hiring city residents to pick sweet corn. Produce was given to food banks, churches and anyone from the neighborhood who asked.
St. Louis isn't alone in its urban farming experiment. Across the country, groups are planting vegetable gardens in vacant lots and selling the produce at farmers markets.
Mara Higdon of Gateway Greening, a nonprofit agency that supports urban agriculture in the St. Louis area, called the cornfields an interesting example of what urban farming can look like on a larger scale.
"It demonstrates the possibilities," she said. "It can open people's minds to what can be done with a vacant lot."
Foxworth said he talked with area residents ahead of time, but some said they only learned of the project when insecticide sprayers came through early this summer.
Karen Hancock's small red brick home where she has lived for nearly 50 years is surrounded by corn.
"I call myself the 'children of the cornfield lady,'" Hancock said.
It gets a little scary, she said.
Hancock said there have been strange new animals around: foxes, deer, fat rats, even a peacock. And she said a man who was running from the police fled through the corn to hide in her yard, until she chased him off.
McKee spokesman Jim Gradl and Foxworth downplayed crime concerns. A police spokeswoman said there has been no noticeable uptick in criminal activity in the area this summer.
Still, Foxworth said that next year his group may plant something that doesn't grow as tall as corn.
"They have concerns that are legitimate that we should and can address," he said of area residents. "We don't have to grow corn. We don't have to have things high. We can find ways to get around that."