Homegrown: Urban agriculture takes roots in Kansas City

Issue: 
July 2012

Once-vacant lots in the metro area are transforming into community gardens, with rows upon rows of produce harvested by local farmers and volunteers. The number of farmers markets has nearly quadrupled in the last seven years, from 15 in 2005 to 51 this year.
 
Ami Freeberg is a program assistant with Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit organization supporting the production and consumption of locally grown food. The surging popularity of urban agriculture here and nationwide, Freeberg says, is the result of several factors — including the economy, suburban sprawl and the national conversation that brought “pink slime” into our lives. 
 
“It’s a conversation people weren’t having 10 years ago,” she says. “People are recognizing there’s all of this unused space in the city, people are getting sick of lots filling with trash. People are saying, ‘I’m out of work, maybe I’ll start a garden and make money that way.’ Or they want to eat organic, but it’s too expensive at the grocery store.”
 
Cultivate Kansas City’s purpose goes beyond supporting local urban farms. Its Roots for Refugees program in collaboration with Catholic Charities helps give resettled refugees a new start, with enrollment in a four- to five-year program at Juniper Gardens Training Farm, where students learn to turn their green thumbs into small businesses. A Community Supported Agriculture program helps residents invest in its Gibbs Road Farm in exchange for a bag of produce weekly throughout the summer. 
 
This community aspect, Freeberg says, is one of several benefits of urban agriculture. 
 
“When you go to farmers markets, you get to talk to so many people and connect with the farmers growing your food,” she says. “It’s a great place for people to connect and share their knowledge and passion for good, healthy food.” 
 
For local farmers Julie Coon and Natasha Karsk, a shared passion and a conversation about the future of their lives and what they could contribute to their community spawned the idea for Peas on Earth Urban Farm, which now encompasses a quarter acre on the Westside. The farm was once nothing but three city blocks, empty save for grass. 
 
Now in its third growing season, Peas on Earth has supplied produce to four local restaurants in addition to hosting a weekly market. This year, the women exclusively sell to Füd, a Westside restaurant specializing in vegetarian cuisine, and have adopted a mantra of “feed the farmers first” — meaning they’ve learned to supply their own families and volunteers with their farm’s harvests. 
 
“Last year when we had the market, we were selling everything we pulled out of the ground,” Coon says. “We noticed we weren’t eating from the farm as much as we could be, nor were the volunteers. There’s more demand for locally grown produce than Peas on Earth can physically grow… if every single empty lot in Kansas City was farmed, the restaurants would buy it all.”
 
The women also work with a program called Growing Growers, which connects apprentices wanting to learn how to grow with local farmers in need of help during the busy spring and summer seasons. 
 
“I think the trend is more than just about food,” says Coon. “I think people want to get close to their roots, and understanding where your food comes from and what’s in the products we consume is a huge part of that.”
 
From supporting the local economy to the environmental benefits resulting from decreased transportation of produce when locally grown and consumed, the advantages of urban agriculture are far-reaching — and it’s easy to see why the local scene continues to evolve and expand. 
 
“Tasha and I joke all the time how urban farming is so popular it’s almost become romanticized,” Coon says. “But it’s hard, sweaty, dirty work. You have to be committed because when it comes down to it, you’re out there in 100-degree days, sweating and working hard. It’s a labor of love for us, for sure.”

 
Photo by Tiffany Matson
 

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