What is Cultivate Kansas City?
It’s just a plowed field of dirt for now.
But over the next two years, an empty 1.2-acre ball field outside of the old Westport Middle School and High School will be transformed into a working farm in the middle of Kansas City.
"The neighborhood should feel like it's their farm," said Katherine Kelly, executive director and co-founder of Cultivate Kansas City, which is creating the Westport Commons Farm.
"A healthy food system has all kinds of models for people producing and accessing food: Rural farms, urban farms, community gardens, school gardens, home gardens. What we want to highlight is that every one of those models is part of creating a resilient and adaptable food system."
The site is a key part of the revitalization of the old Westport Middle School and Westport High School, two of the nearly 30 schools closed in 2010 that are being re-purposed because of budget cuts and low enrollment in the Kansas City Public School District. Enrollment dropped from a peak of 77,000 students at one time to just over 15,000 students this year.
So far, 18 of those schools have been sold or leased, bringing in $7.9 million to the district. The Westport schools sat shuttered for years until the middle school and later the high school were purchased by developers to create Westport Commons/Plexpod.
It's becoming a juxtaposition of modern co-working spaces and agriculture. Former classrooms have become trendy open workspaces for start-ups and nonprofits, while historical elements of the century-old building — like old lockers and decorative plaster ceilings — remain.
Outside, raised garden beds along the property will grow produce like sweet potatoes to feed kids and families at Operation Breakthrough and herbs for the The Sundry, a restaurant at the site, until the farm becomes fully operational.
That juxtaposition was by design.
"As a society, we have separated ourselves from one another and from nature, and we have a tendency to have a we/they attitude," said architect Bob Berkebile, principal emeritus at architectural firm BNIM, who designed the site. "Nature is successful because of diversity and efficiency, which has a lot to do with collaboration and working together."
Over the next two years, Cultivate KC will plant cover crops in the field — deep-rooted legumes, grains and grasses that will improve the soil by pulling up minerals, adding carbon and nitrogen, and increasing microbial life.
They're in the process of raising $1.3 million for the farm, Kelly said, which will go toward a permanent greenhouse, moveable tunnels to extend the season for crops, staffing and programming.
Eventually, Kelly plans to have a farm stand at the site, "you pick" fruit trees and a food subscription program where residents can sign up for a bag of produce each week. They also plan to have educational signs around the farm, along with gardening and cooking classes.
"There are lots of possibilities. We're figuring out what people want and what people need," Kelly said.
The future farm will fit in with the eclectic neighborhood and fill a gap in the availability of fresh food, said Susie Weis, a representative with the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood grocery store, Nature’s Own at 43rd and Main streets, closed last year after a fire.
"We've been upset about that, but the prospect of Cultivate KC filling in that niche is what we need," Weis said. "I have two young children and think it will enhance their urban core experience and they'll be able to just casually learn and have access to more food than we would otherwise."
When you start an urban farm, Kelly said, neighborhoods often start off a little suspicious.
" 'What’s going on?' 'Is this going to look terrible?' And then over time what happens is that other people in the neighborhood start going to the farmer and saying, 'Hey, do you have an extra tomato plant? I was thinking about putting one on my porch,' " Kelly said.
"They start walking by and noticing it because the landscape is constantly changing. And so it tends to become a little hub. We want this to be a hub for growing, and we hope this will spawn other gardeners in the neighborhood."
Organizers hope the farm will also create new collaborative experiences for other nonprofits and businesses at Westport Commons.
Ryan Wing, founder of The Sundry, said he anticipates "partnerships will grow in directions none of us can anticipate," and those possibilities were a big reason he decided to move The Sundry from the Crossroads to Westport Commons.
One thing Wing envisions is helping harvest the cover crops from the field over the next two years and use them in recipes. He plans to use herbs grown in the raised beds on the site for flavoring their own sodas, like basil mint ginger ale.
Eventually, they'll use the vegetables grown on the farm when they're in season, and pickle and preserve some to use in the fall and winter as well.
"You'll be able to watch cooks use food grown on the field right there," Wing said.
"It's a really unique opportunity in this region, if not the country, to have food grown on-site, prepared on-site, and then have a potential opportunity to send compost back to the farm to grow more food."
The Westport site won't be the first urban farm for Cultivate KC. The organization started in 2005 and has a 9-acre farm in northeast Kansas City, Kan., in the middle of a public housing project. That's the site of a partner program with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas called New Roots for Refugees, which helps refugees create their own farming businesses. Cultivate KC also has a Food Forest on a quarter-acre lot at 55th and Mastin streets in Merriam with 39 varieties of fruit and nut trees and 12 different shrubs.
The group decided to close its Gibbs Road farm in southern Wyandotte County to start this one at Westport Commons so it could have a Kansas City location.
A few years ago, Cultivate KC worked with the city of Kansas City to create Urban Agriculture Zones within the city code, and now it is applying for that status at the Westport location.
"I've been doing this long enough that there are kids that have grown up on produce I've grown on farms that I've operated, and it's wonderful. I look at them now and they're tall and healthy and beautiful," Kelly said.
"So we want to do the same thing for the neighborhood here. We've got a 25-year lease, so we've got some time to grow food and feed people and for kids to grow up with it."