Once there was a girl with a rebel heart who grew up in the Kansas suburbs, a land of fertilized lawns and McMansions and food that came in boxes. Disenchanted with the idea of marrying someone who would give her more of all of this, she looked around one day and thought, “Is this it?”
So she rescued herself from a certain future, dropped out of art school and, thanks to an organization that offered room and board in exchange for farm labor, she traveled the world. The first time she stuck her 19-year-old hands in the dirt, her life became infused with meaning.
One day she returned to the Midwest, where she met a man at a soil conference. He had grown up not far from her, a contemplative kid from midtown Kansas City, infuriated by the racial inequities he witnessed. A college grad with a degree in urban planning, this crusader wanted to fight systemic injustice from the inside out, fired up after a stint as an orchard farmhand working with migrants taught him other ways to look at immigration issues.
Now, a decade and two children later, farmers Brooke Salvaggio and Daniel Heryer, both 35, are on their knees weeding radishes on a sunny Wednesday morning. They discuss who will do what on the 13.5-acre plot of land they call Urbavore Farm, a nearly round-the-clock urban agricultural endeavor they have built from scratch in a quiet, working-class neighborhood 5 miles east of the Country Club Plaza.
There are few vacations, little time off, date-night scarcity.
“It all sounds epic and romantic at first, but the day-to-day is very hard. We’ve been hanging on by a thread for a long time,” Salvaggio says. They both laugh for a good 10 seconds, though the comment was not intended as a joke. “We laugh at the absurdity of it all. We live so differently than everyone else, we’re total freaks, we know that, but we believe what we’re doing is, in some ways, noble.”
She fluffs the radish sprouts with three fingers and a thumb and moves on to the next batch. “We’re always in these fields together, but mostly doing separate things.”
Heryer finishes his own square of radishes and inches forward through the garden.
They work quickly before they have to pick up Solomon, their 1-year-old, from morning day care. Five-year-old Percy spends the day in kindergarten.
“If we get to work out here together for any length of time, it’s usually a positive thing,” he says, then looks up at his wife. “Unless you start micromanaging me. Then I storm off.” More laughter.
They often talk over each other, maneuvering for space inside each sentence, a verbal dance or tug-of-war between two people simultaneously trying to shape exactly what they want their message to be, exchanging raucous laughter at especially dire moments.
“I call her Kim Jong Brooke because — ” he says.
“ — because I go on rants,” she interjects, and laughs loudly.
“Because she goes on rants and says everyone should have to go to work on a farm for a period of time …”
They are sweet and humble and fierce and tired. They are also adamant that theirs is not merely a fluffy story about two millennials who turned their backs on modern living to go back to the farm to raise chickens, so, of course, there’s more.
Built from scratch: Blood, sweat, no-debt
Not all mornings are the same. On a cloudier Wednesday, Heryer maneuvers his way through rain-soaked grasses, past the community compost dumpster where neighbors bring food scraps and lawn clippings, along the path that runs alongside the strawberry fields that will soon yield up to 400 pints a week. (At $9 a pop, that is a small fortune.) On his dad’s back, Solomon takes a nap like he has every day since he was 2 weeks old.
“This looks a lot like weeds,” Heryer says of their no-till farm system, “but it’s actually asparagus. We sell about 100 pounds a week.”
He smiles at the apple, pear and peach trees he hopes will one day make his and Salvaggio’s workload lighter and trudges past the honking goose who hates everything and the heirloom hens who lay eggs under his protection. Heryer points to the awnings that provide shade for washing vegetables but also have solar-powered panels that allow the couple to avoid utility bills, a group of metal shipping crates used for storage and, finally, a modern, architecturally attractive berm home that he built himself after construction estimates exceeded their budget.
“We work sun-up to sundown to save for what we build in the winter. We’ve literally built our life from scratch.”
He opens the door to the house, somehow spacious and compact at the same time. All of it is nontoxic and environmentally friendly, the drywall made from compressed trash, the salvaged barn board trim, soy-based stain. He pours himself a glass of recycled pond water, made possible by a hugely complicated water filtration system, and begins to feed Solomon a scrambled egg concoction made earlier that morning.
The parents look weary; the bright-eyed child bangs blocks on a small table with vibrant enthusiasm.
If their names sound familiar, it’s because Farmers Dan and Brooke became well-known in local circles for their farm and marketplace, Bad Seed. Initially, Salvaggio, then both, cultivated several acres in south Kansas City not too far from where she grew up. Nagging neighbors kicked off a battle the couple ultimately won involving city ordinances and chickens. Eventually the two found a piece of land that allowed them to expand, a piece of property with its own complicated, 60-year-old tangle of issues involving indecision, then scandal, money-laundering and intrigue. Ultimately, the land met its fate: to feed people.
In 2010, the land was finally theirs and they started preparing for production in 2011 with no running water or electricity. The first year there, they made $40,000. Since then, production has yielded $400,000, much of which the couple have funneled back into the infrastructure. They did it on their terms. No loans. No trust funds. No debt. Not a single credit card.
“We’re doing this the old-fashioned way: killing ourselves. Working an absurd amount of hours, spending no money, eating gruel three times a day. No condiments,” Salvaggio says with a laugh. “That would cost money. Blood, sweat, sacrifice and a huge dose of anti-consumerism: That’s what built our farm.”
Salvaggio picks Solomon off the table he has crawled onto and sits him down on the floor. The conversation turns to social commentary, a topic on which both have much to contribute in outspoken but humble ways.
“Most Americans live in ways that are absolutely unsustainable, and the planet cannot support those choices, bottom line. So we don’t make those choices. We’re not crazy Y2K conspiracy theorists —” Salvaggio starts.
“But it’s fair to say there have been failures —” Heryer adds.
Back to Salvaggio. “And recently, too —”
“— Like the water in Flint, Michigan. Can people, especially poor people in marginalized areas, really trust what the system is providing them?” Heryer asks.
It’s the very system they believe has challenged them every step of the way as they built this unconventional life.
“How can you expect individuals to do the right thing when the government makes it so hard to rise up?” Salvaggio asks. “It’s sad it’s nearly impossible to live a green life, to put solar panels in their front yard, to do the right thing, that society forces you to go through such absurd troubles to do what’s right.”
But fight long enough and hard enough, they agree, and things happen.
“It’s a system that was stacked against us,” Salvaggio says and slides her work boots back on. Time is running away, and the chores are calling. “We are proof that you can still build a dream on sweat and blood. It does happen.”
Saturday morning at the Brookside Farmers Market is a bustling scene of tents and dogs of various sizes, slow-walking sightseers, a hand-pressed juice stand. Not far from the grass-fed beef vendor, a shopper coos over a bundle of fat, purple asparagus, the main offering at the stand on the corner where Heryer displays Urbavore’s offerings every week.
“Look at this,” she says and examines it closer. “This asparagus is just gorgeous.”
A line forms behind her, and Heryer thanks her with a gracious smile and greets other shoppers with warm hellos and questions about their families.
His face is already tan, his tattered clothes look as if they work as hard as he does, and in the coming months, he will grow a righteous beard that will have people mistaking him for a homeless man.
“Brooke and I are constantly mistaken for homeless. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes blatant. A few months into the season I have wild hair and a big beard, no time to shave, it’s out of control,” Heryer says. He laughs at this idea, too, like it’s the funniest joke he has heard in a while and not a commentary, perhaps, on society’s perception of appearance as it relates to financial success.
Salvaggio does not join him this morning, staying home with the boys to keep production moving forward. Customers like Justin Dorsey, a former Urbavore apprentice and weekly regular, ask about her. He pushes a stroller up to Heryer’s stand and makes his purchase, one of very few people who knows how hard it is to produce the food he is about to buy.
“I try to buy as much as I can from local places like this, to keep money in Kansas City and to give farmers a living wage. And the food tastes better, that’s obvious right?”
For now, Dorsey and other Urbavore regulars will continue this ritual of farmer/consumer exchange that encourages Heryer and Salvaggio through what Salvaggio calls the “absurd marathon of daily doing” required to continue creative collaborations between human hands and Mother Nature.
But in the quiet moments of tedious tasks that require constant care and attention, the art school dropout-turned-Earth Mama and the baby-wearing, urban-planning change agent will be tending to questions of sustainability as it relates not just to their farmstead but to their family. Future plans involve orchards and building barns, and maybe, one day, more world travel, this time with little ones in tow.
“We have the art of farming down, but we need to perfect the art of living,” Salvaggio muses. “We are absolutely successful in that we built our farm with our own blood and our own sweat in a really awesome honest way, but we continue to sacrifice ourselves every day to do it. Maybe you could argue that in some ways, this isn’t sustainable.”
The best stories require constant revision, and as this pair of unconventional millennial farmers decide what’s the next chapter in theirs, the people who know them and love their food can surely expect an adventure.
Food blogger (For Love of the Table) and local chef Paige Vandegrift makes it her business to find the tastiest locally grown produce and hand-crafted foods in the Kansas City area. Knowing the sacrifice and dedication of the people behind the food, like Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heryer, is something she often considers as she prepares meals.
“Every time I sit down to eat, particularly when I know the grower, I think about how hard they work,” Vandegrift says. “When I’m tired, I think, ‘I have beautiful food in the fridge and I will cook it because someone worked really hard to produce this.’ ”
Some of her favorite growers and artisans include:
▪ Ibis Bakery in Lenexa: Owners Chris and Kate Matsch “are making the best bread in the region,” Vandegrift says.
▪ Nature’s Choice Biodynamic Farm at City Market, run by third generation farmers Fred and Helen Messner: Look for heirloom tomatoes, blackberries, greens and, in the fall, chestnuts.
▪ Thane Palmberg at the City Market: “He has amazing summer squash! His onions and eggplant are very fine too.”
▪ Wood Mood Gardens, run by Curtis Wood: Vandegrift says his potatoes are worth tracking down through the Kansas City Food Circle.