When the Urban Grown Farms & Gardens Tour sprouted in 2005, growers greeted a public hungry to put a face on what had become a fairly anonymous commodity-based food system.
I toured many of the tiny “farms” that year, and you could feel the excitement that the promise of grass-roots change can bring. But it was the passionate partnerships that grew up between farmers and chefs that proved too important for me to ignore.
A decade later, the local food movement can tally successes and failures, but ultimately its roots continue to grow stronger. Led by the nonprofit Cultivate KC, our city is recognized as one of the country’s urban ag leaders.
The 2015 tour offers 30 fascinating stories, ranging from Pink Pony Farms, a dense food forest growing in a blighted neighborhood in need of hope and better nutrition, to the Broadmoor Urban Farm, an integrated farm-to-table learning experience for Shawnee Mission culinary students.
Join me as I moderate Wednesday night’s kickoff panel discussion with community leaders seeking your input to help them chart a path for the next decade.
Below, meet some of Kansas City’s urban farming pioneers.
Jeff Helkenberg and Jessica Logsdon of Pink Pony Farms
Ducks waddle and chickens strut through the backyard of the once-blighted home at 1009 Chestnut Ave. in Kansas City’s historic Northeast.
Artists Jeff Helkenberg and Jessica Logsdon bought the building in 2006 for its abundance of natural light and began raising chickens to get their hands on affordable fresh eggs, the ingredient necessary to make their own tempera paints.
The couple now farm 10 lots as their own yard grows into a dense urban forest featuring native plants, including peach, pecan and pawpaw trees alongside acai, mulberry, elderberry and chokecherry bushes. Herbs such as pepperwort and shiso and grains such as amaranth pop up in between.
“Kansas City has this tremendous opportunity to become a major leader in the high-density urban farm movement,” says Helkenberg of Pink Pony Farms, one of 30 farms that make up this weekend’s Urban Grown Farms & Gardens Tour. “It’s really like a swamp or a jungle. So many things grow here.”
The local food/urban farming movement has taken off in the last decade, initially as a solution for concerns over obesity, fair food access, environmental awareness and urban blight. The movement has continued to broaden its mission to include DIY homesteaders who want to learn the self-sufficiency of past generations and suburban supermarket shoppers worried about the purity of ingredients in their food.
In the process, “farm-to-table,” once a term used only by chefs, has become a marketing buzzword, and governmental officials have rewritten regulations to allow chickens to roost all the way out in the lawn-clad suburbs. “We had a sense of what the city could look like in terms of people’s relationships to growing,” says Katherine Kelly, executive director of the nonprofit Cultivate KC, which hosts the tour, “but what has surprised me is the sheer momentum (of the movement) and how quickly different sectors have taken it on.”
Government, corporations, nonprofit social service agencies, churches and schools have found common ground on the issue, but future momentum will rest on moving beyond helping people grow tomatoes and cucumbers to helping them grow new outlets of distribution.
“We, as farmers, have been focusing on the low-hanging fruit,” Kelly says, noting that the recent wet weather sent a dozen growers out trying to sell kale to the Farmhouse in the River Market, a restaurant whose chef, Michael Foust, has dedicated himself to farm-to-table eating. “We’ve been preaching to the choir, but we need a broader base.”
To ramp up production, growers who have been tending “nano” and “micro” plots of a half-acre to an acre will need to expand their skill sets. Beyond growing food, they will need to learn financing, budgeting, marketing and interpersonal skills that make farming a sustainable vocation. “I think it is really going to come down to: ‘Can we help farmers make a good and decent living?’” Kelly says.
Meanwhile, Helkenberg dreams of quitting his IT job to farm full time by focusing on providing food forests. He is toying with a model that would allow chefs to come and forage for whatever they fancy. But he also worries about the liability that comes with selling outside of the confines of the Northeast Farmers Market, eight growers that he and Logsdon helped organize earlier this summer.
“The regulations (on resale) can be gray,” Helkenberg says.
After several years of working on raised beds and winding up with little to show for their efforts, especially in drought years, Helkenberg and Logsdon have become proponents of permaculture, a philosophy of farming with nature instead of against it, weeding out only the grass and plants that are not beneficial to their nutrient-rich ecosystem.
But the look of high-density farming is in stark contrast to agricultural fields or home gardens with neat rows. The couple say they went the route of permaculture because less labor is required than with traditional row crops and irrigation isn’t needed, a plus because most of their lots do not have a water source.
Half an acre of land can accommodate up to 4,000 fruit trees, which the couple are dwarfing to avoid having to use ladders to harvest them. The shade produced may keep the land 15 to 20 degrees cooler, a concern in urban environments paved with asphalt and concrete. Plus, the toxicity of the soil — many urban lots are high in lead — led them to focus on fruit trees because their roots do not take up heavy metals.
Asked what their backyard farm might look like in another decade, Helkenberg says: “I think it will look less chaotic. In permaculture, the plants have to be close together but still work for the collective good.”
Such wisdom could just as easily serve as a mantra for the future of a burgeoning local food movement.
John Kaiahua of JJ Farms
Hawaii may seem a million miles away, but John Kaiahua’s backyard in Raytown is sprouting a treasured island staple.
Taro, known as “kalo” in the Hawaiian language, is a potatolike tuber that is used to make the traditional starchy, viscous and purple-hued dish called poi. Poi is revered as “the bread of life,” and taro’s elephant-size leaves can be used to steam fish or cooked and eaten like spinach.
After retiring from the Marine Corps, Kaiahua studied horticulture at Central Missouri State University. He got his start as an urban farmer selling produce at Barstow School, one of the earliest organic farmers markets in Kansas City.
Kaiahua was also among the first local urban farmers to sell his produce to restaurant chefs, including the American Restaurant. “I couldn’t grow enough,” he recalls. “It got to a point I did more delivering than growing.”
These days Kaiahua hosts a Hawaiian civic club and encourages its members to come out to his garden to learn to grow their ancestral plants and preserve the culture’s foodways for future generations.
Pov Huns and Chaxamone Lor of Huns Garden
After settling into their first home, Hmong refugee Pov Huns set to work keeping up with the nearby councilman who kept a spotlessly manicured lawn while his wife, Chaxamone Lor, quietly started gardening along the back fence.
“At first I didn’t want her digging around because I wanted grass,” Huns says.
But Lor was good at growing, and today their 3.9-acre farm off of Metropolitan Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., is a tribute to the power and dignity of working the land. “We’re all-natural growers,” Huns says, pointing to an unruly but flourishing stand of chocolate, pineapple and spear mints. “Mostly, we don’t do anything. Just let it grow.”
Huns, a tinkerer by nature, has had success with techniques as simple as starting his seeds in hot water for more rapid growth. But ingenuity sometimes leads to frustration: “We have all kinds of help for big people, and they don’t do half the research a little guy like me does.”
If they could get a grant for a greenhouse, they could earn more than $15,000 a year from farming. In the meantime, the focus is on flowers, which yield a higher return than vegetables.
Bev Pender of Soul & Soil Rainbow Gardens
As we pass by a donut peach tree growing next to her house on Webster Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., Bev Pender moans. After the recent rains, mold has developed on some of the tree’s sweet velvety fruit.
“Oh my God, what is wrong?” she exclaims. “Now I’ve got to do research.”
Pender, who began farming after she retired from General Motors in 2000, likes to grow, cook and eat new foods: She plants heirloom black tomatoes, white cherries (“sweet as sugar”), tender greens (a cross between mustard and turnip greens). “I thought people would be innovative like me, but they want what they grew up with,” she says. “Each market you go to, you have to learn what your customer wants. There is always a different personality, different taste buds.”
At Merriam Farmers Market she sells lots of Swiss chard and okra; at the Kansas City, Kan., market it’s cabbage, greens, tomatoes and fruit, and North Kansas City customers buy “some of everything.”
During the first Urban Grown tour in 2005, Pender invited a chef to cook fresh foods with the neighborhood kids in a makeshift kitchen set up in her carport. “It was a magic moment,” she recalls. “I was always hoping one or two of the kids would carry on, but it hasn’t happened.”
Regina Baker of Troostwood Youth Garden & Market
Mary Wright looks out over the well-tended rows of the Troostwood gardens with white butterflies fluttering by and is reminded of her daughter’s dream. Even though she was born with muscular dystrophy, Ericka Wright never wanted to slow down. In high school, she got a scooter and she continued to go.
“She used to say it was ‘just in my hips, not in my brain,’” Wright says. “She was a go-getter. She had no fear.”
Ericka grew up in a duplex at 51st and the Paseo, where her mother continues to live and run a day care. Always at the hub of neighborhood activity, Ericka started a community garden in the vacant lot next door, then added a lot on the other side thanks to a donation by Rockhurst University.
Ericka wrote grants and recruited volunteers from Lincoln and North Kansas City high schools. When she died in 2011 at age 45, Wright and the family, including Ericka’s niece, Regina Baker (pictured), and aunt Diane Walker decided to carry on in her honor, teaching day-care kids through high school students the value of community.
Wright’s advice on becoming an accidental urban farmer? “Just do it. If you think about it, you won’t. But once you get going, you’ll love it.”
Joe Jennings of J-14 Agricultural Enterprises
Joe Jennings knows teaching urban youth to love to dig in the dirt can be a tough row to hoe.
Jennings, who served in the Air Force and taught building trades for 35 years, treats the young people who come to his 8.5-acre farm off of Sortor Road in Kansas City, Kan., as his farm hands. As soon as three preteen boys tumble out of a car dropping them off, he tells them to take the hoes and head back for Day 2 of removing weeds from under the peach trees.
“If you can’t follow directions, I’m going to have to fire you …” says the 86-year-old Jennings. “Most come out here to play. But if you learn how to work and find your niche, you will never need to look for a job. It will find you.”
Jennings no longer bothers to trek to the farmers markets or run a Community Supported Agriculture subscription program, instead donating his produce to charitable organizations feeding the hungry and homeless: “I decided I’d be better to give it away, and I get more benefit from the good Lord.”
A spry Jennings leads a visitor through rows of beans, collards and okra before stopping by the peach trees only to discover two abandoned hoes. “They tell me all the time this is slavery. I say, ‘How do you plan to eat?’”
Katherine Kelly of Cultivate Kansas City
Katherine Kelly is the executive director of Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit she co-founded in 2005 that manages two urban farms, Gibbs Road Community Farm and Juniper Garden Training Farm, and networks with local urban farmers on policy and planning issues.
As the urban farming movement matures, Kelly is interested in reaching more people at the plate.
Not everyone can grow food, but everybody eats.
“I think it is really going to come down to: ‘Can we help farmers make a good and decent living?’” Kelly says. “‘Can we help them be responsible to their family needs, their farming needs and their complex role as members of a community?’ If we can plug away at that, we can connect with more people.”
Urban Grown Farm & Garden Tour: 10th Anniversary Celebration
▪ Kickoff: Chow Town’s Jill Wendholt Silva will moderate a panel as civic leaders honor the work of the last decade and look forward to the future of urban agriculture in Kansas City. The panel includes Cultivate Kansas City co-founder and executive director Katherine Kelly; assistant city manager Kimiko Gilmore; Missouri councilman Scott Wagner; organic farmer, food activist and Bad Seed proprietor Brooke Salvaggio; and Dina Newman, Ivanhoe Neighborhood Health Initiatives manager.
Renee Kelly’s Harvest, the Farmhouse, the Sundry and Boulevard Brewing Co. will provide appetizers and beer.
Kansas City Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday; RSVP KCLibrary.org.
▪ Eat Out Local: Dine at participating restaurants featuring local producers and 10 percent of sales will be donated to Cultivate Kansas City. Restaurants include Blue Bird Bistro, Eden Alley, Lidia’s Kansas City, Renee Kelly’s Harvest, Story, the Farmhouse, the Rieger, the Sundry and Webster House.
Saturday and Sunday
▪ UrbanGrown Tour: A self-guided tour allows you to visit any of 30 urban farms and gardens across the city from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Advance tickets are $8 per individual or $20 per family. Tour day tickets: $12 per individual and $25 per family. Go to CultivateKC.org/UrbanGrownTour.
Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m
▪ Urban Grown Birthday Bash: Celebrate 10 years of urban agriculture. Pre-purchase a picnic. Bring a blanket to Westport Middle School, 300 E. 39th St., and enjoy free birthday cake, music and activities. Go to CultivateKC.org/UrbanGrownTour.
For information about Urban Grown events, go to CultivateKC.org/UrbanGrownTour.