Olivia Engel in front of the Maryville Freight Farm
Photos courtesy of Olivia Engel

Editor's note: Following the publication of this article, Engel has taken a position with Big Heart Tea Co. She is still consulting with St. Louis Indoor Produce and the Maryville Freight Farm.

Olivia Engel began advocating for the environment at an early age.

“My earliest memories are of delighting in and treasuring the outdoors, ecology and everything living in the environment around me,” Engel says.

She would sometimes even confront strangers, she says, giving “unsolicited lectures on the rainforest to adults who were being wasteful with paper” and yelling at boys on the playground who crushed bugs, pulled leaves off trees and threw rocks at birds.

Recently, Engel has combined her many passions into what she has found to be a fulfilling field of work: sustainably growing produce for her native city of St. Louis.

After about 15 years moving around the food industry, Engel now works on the production side to further improve individual St. Louis residents’, business’ and organizations’ relationships with food and the environment. As chief creative officer and chief operating officer of St. Louis Indoor Produce, an urban farm currently specializing in basil, she manages the farm, checking on the climate, seedlings and adult plants. She is also seeking partnerships to start a hunger project and growing heirloom lemon basil and lemon balm that SLIP may sell to a local tea company.

But her work doesn’t end there. “My farm tech [Jake Stanton] and I — we might do cleaning and maintenance in the farm, we might then do some harvesting and some packaging,” Engel says. “And then I personally deliver things myself. Then I might be staying up late doing the admin, the website, whatever it may be. So, there are a lot of different hats that I wear. I don’t know if there is a typical day.”

As varied as this all may sound, it’s part of a broader plan. Engel envisions a St. Louis where more food is locally and sustainably produced, and more affordable and accessible. She believes this is possible through controlled environment agriculture. This would require leaving more land alone to improve biodiversity, using less water, energy and pollutants, and producing less waste. (Her beliefs on various subjects do not necessarily reflect SLIP’s, she says.)

“Our region is really rich in resources,” Engel says. “St. Louis itself is a confluence city with all these rivers that meet here, starting up in the Dakotas and going all the way down to the gulf. And agriculture is a big part of what we do, but agriculture has become a lot narrower in the past couple of decades, and a lot of small farmers are being pushed out of their industries, pushed off their land.”

From left to right: Matt McWilliams, Olivia Engel and Venkat Papolu
Photos courtesy of Olivia Engel

Fuel for food

Starting when she was a teenager, Engel worked at restaurants — a total of eight — throughout the St. Louis area. She started at chain restaurants, then took up employment at some diverse local establishments: Ranoush is Syrian, Mojo Tapas, now closed, was inspired by New Orleans cuisine and Gelateria Del Leone is a local café that makes gelato. Engel worked the longest at Bar Italia, where she says she learned a lot about cooking and Mediterranean food.

Engel graduated from Knox College in 2009 with a degree in creative writing and a minor in anthropology/sociology. That year, she moved to Seattle, where she lived until 2010. She sold fruit at farmers markets there, including Pike Place Market, which opened in 1907 and is one of the oldest farmers markets in the country.

In 2013, Engel lived with Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India. “When it comes to halting climate change and healing from colonization, studying worldviews of interconnectedness is key to face the challenges and solutions ahead,” she says, adding that studying indigenous worldviews is especially paramount.

From 2013 until 2015, Engel led the Green Dining Alliance, which audits and consults the foodservice industry on sustainability. Launching the alliance out of its pilot phase, she created the first online listings to connect farmers and diners around the city with restaurants.

“I did that because I had seen all of the waste that happens in restaurant service, and I had also seen this desire for local food,” she says. “And in St. Louis, we just kind of had a lack of those options. So, that’s kind of what got me on the path of sustainable food, urban food, local food.”

In 2016 and 2017, Engel worked at Kitchen House Coffee in St. Louis, which has an urban farm, a chicken coop and beehives. Then, in 2017, she lived and worked at the Ithaca Zen Center near Ithaca, New York.

SLIP's basil
Photos courtesy of Olivia Engel

“We all supported each other and our little forested community in everything we did,” she says of her time at the Ithaca Zen Center. “I was sleeping in a tent, stocking wood, foraging mushrooms and nettles, planting and harvesting, and then crafting lush salads covered in flowers for guests, who came to the center to heal. Simply focusing on nature, stewardship, nurturing and compassion was immensely healing for me, too.”

Next, in 2017, Engel ran the Maryville University Freight Farm west of St. Louis in Town and Country, Missouri. This marked her move to CEA and hydroponics.

“Running the Freight Farm was one of the major challenges of my professional life, and I’m really glad I took it on and very grateful for the opportunity,” she says.

Farm tech Jake Stanton, a Maryville graduate, interned under Engel at the Freight Farm. There, he conducted a research project focused on unharmful microorganisms in the system’s water. The project was well-received by organizations such as St. Louis Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation and the Botanical Society of America.

“Before I met Olivia, I had zero idea surrounding what even the basic concept of ‘hydroponics’ entailed, but now through her guidance and teachings, working with a hydroponic system seems like second nature to me,” Stanton says.

Photos courtesy of Olivia Engel

The rise of SLIP

This spring, Engel responded to an offer from entrepreneur Venkat Papolu to join SLIP, which the Saint Louis University business graduate founded with electrician Matt McWilliams.

In June, two years after Papolu, CEO, and McWilliams, CTO, created SLIP, they received funding from nonprofit Justine Petersen. Near St. Louis’ riverfront, Justine PETERSEN set up the GreenCubator, an incubator for food. There, SLIP rents 1,000 feet of commercial growing space. Neighbors are Good Life Growing — another grower — and Freddie Lee’s Gourmet Sauces.

Recently, SLIP installed new reservoirs, gutters and other materials to make its second-floor space watertight. (“We don’t want to flood Freddie and Deborah’s space,” Engel says of the sauce business below them, run by Freddie James Jr. and his wife, Deborah.)

The waterproofing may serve as an example of a learning opportunity for when SLIP graduates from the incubator into an additional space, Engel says. “Once we have our own space where we can really flex, we’re going to know exactly what to do and what not to do, and I think it’ll come fast, having gone through all of this,” she says. But that won’t be for at least a couple years.

Another area of invention for SLIP is its liquid-cooled LED lights, which McWilliams developed. They have 50% electric efficiency, Engel says, and a radiator with a fan and vent that can capture heat and vent it throughout or out of the operation. The prototype lights are responsible for 100% of SLIP’s lighting, and the final model will fill its expansion. There is also a plan in the works to sell the lights to other growers.

SLIP's basil
Photos courtesy of Olivia Engel

In conserving water, Engel says SLIP doesn’t have final numbers as it continues to build the farm but anticipates using at least 90% less water than field farmers.

The operation also prioritizes limiting waste. “A lot of folks are using a rockwool plug that has a one-time turnaround,” Engel says. “But we harvest our basil several times, we use larger blocks that are hardier so that we can keep them longer, so we’re hoping to have a reduced waste footprint as well as a reduced energy and water footprint. I think waste is something a lot of people don’t pay attention to when you think about indoor farming.”

SLIP is using HDPE pipes, which Engel says are recyclable. She notes that PVC is toxic to manufacture and damages the environment. “We’re trying to avoid PVC as much as possible,” she says. “That’s something that I’ve been pushing for because it’s a huge passion of mine.”

Missouri’s first congressional district, which includes all of St. Louis and some of St. Louis County, is in the bottom 6% of U.S. congressional districts in food security, according to feedingamerica.org. But Engel is proud of the strides her city is making in food. The City Greens Market co-op has high-quality, affordable food, for example, and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and its Known & Grown STL project advocate for the environment and support local food producers.

SLIP sells its basil to local grocers such as City Greens Market, Fields Foods and Local Harvest. Its product can also be found in Local Harvest’s CSA and at a few local restaurants.

In addition to basil — all SLIP is growing right now is the Genovese cultivar — and heirloom lemon balm, SLIP grows some kale. “Basil is a ‘superfood,’” Engel says. “It’s a very nutritious plant, but it’s not a meal.” Because SLIP is in part focused on helping feed people in need, the team chose to grow kale, which has a substantial amount of protein.

Photos courtesy of Olivia Engel

SLIP is currently seeking a partner to get this product into the hands of St. Louis’ unhoused population, Engel says.

Stanton, who has worked at SLIP for about a month, says Engel has been responsible for much of SLIP’s success so far. “This is a woman who has started an entire Green Dining Alliance program, run completely by herself an entire freight farm, advocates for social justice and now is a leader at a startup looking to localize food and bring food justice to all who are around the company,” he says.

Engel says she equates economic growth with ecological stewardship. When people, groups and small businesses participate in sustainable food production, she says, that can build up a city.

“I want to see a future of St. Louis where all of these abandoned buildings and spaces that the Rust Belt left behind are revitalized again and they come back to life,” she says. “But this time, they’re filled with food.”