Meet Kansas City’s burgeoning community of urban farmers.
BY NATALIE TORRES GALLAGHER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHASE CASTOR
Get on the highway and head out of Kansas City in any direction and you’ll hit fields sooner or later—soybeans, corn, rice, cotton. These tracts of acreage are usually what come to mind when we picture a farm, and in our heads, there is little connection between what we pass on our way to Hy-Vee and what ends up in our fridge.
But farms are not one-size-fits-all, and they don’t have to be located miles out of town. In Kansas City’s Ivanhoe neighborhood, a fifteen-block residential corridor along Woodland Avenue between 24th and 41st streets is home to nine agriculture operations. Five of these businesses qualify as farms, though they don’t look that way at first blush—more like substantial and vibrant gardens that take up quarter- or half-acre yards. The produce grown on these plots doesn’t end up at the grocery store, but it still feeds the community. Two miles away, Cultivate KC is quietly fostering a community farm program on just over an acre of land that was once home to Westport High School’s track.
Kansas City has a bounty of urban farms—that is, farms operating in a city’s urban core—that even farmers market devotees don’t have on their radar. Business models vary, but the farmers all talk to each other, and most have ties to the KC Farm School or Cultivate KC.
“We use the word ‘coopetition,’” says Cultivate KC staffer Daniel Robinson with a laugh. “We cooperate and share, but we’re a little bit competitive with each other, in a good way. If we see Urbavore doing something that works, we try it. Ultimately, we just want to help each other grow and better serve our individual communities.”
Since 2018, Neil and Lisa Rudisill have managed a half-acre microfarm on their property in Kansas City’s Ivanhoe neighborhood. They grow a variety of greens (kale, arugula, Swiss chard, mustard greens) plus radishes and beets. They sell most of it directly from their home. But if you ask Neil about Woodland City, he’s quick to pivot to a related—and similarly named—project: Woodland Greenway, a fifteen-block corridor between 24th Street, 41st Street and Woodland Avenue that includes five urban farms and four community-led initiatives.
“We chose to start our farm in the Ivanhoe neighborhood because of the interest that the neighborhood had in encouraging small-scale agriculture,” Neil says. “Starting in 2012, the neighborhood council was taking vacant lots and turning them into green spaces. They wanted to start a small farmers market and wanted to teach the community how to grow food, and that’s what really attracted us.”
In 2006, Neil heard about a new sustainable agriculture program at Johnson County Community College.
“They taught you these small-scale agricultural practices,” Neil says.
Neil graduated from a nursing program in 2016 and took a job with the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council growing the local food system.
“They gave me the opportunity to build out a health program, and I chose food as the intervention strategy and farming as the mechanism,” Neil says. “A community farm with small neighborhood plots was an easy, approachable way to start a farm—all because the people in Ivanhoe said, ‘Hey, we want local food.’ This wasn’t about supplying local restaurants or filling market orders—this was a neighborhood that wanted to be more resilient.”
Before the pandemic, Neil sold his produce primarily to restaurants and the rest at the weekly Ivanhoe Farmer’s Market. When Covid hit, that model had to change.
“We started thinking about direct-to-consumer, on-farm sales,” he says. Each week, he’d send an email with offerings to a list of subscribers, who would make their selections and pick them up on a designated day. Woodland City—like many local urban farms—experienced its best sales year in 2020.
“The growers in our community are having so much more success selling off their farms that none of them wanted to come back to the market,” he says. “So we said, ‘Let’s make the farmers market more of an event.’ Now, consumers have seven different farms to pick from, all within walking distance.”
Katherine Kelly founded Cultivate Kansas City in 2005. Back then, there was little urban farming happening in the area, and Cultivate KC’s main goal was to promote urban agriculture as an important arm of a healthy food system. The nonprofit was a major proponent—many would say the catalyst—for the local urban farming movement.
Cultivate KC has four programs, including the three-year-old Westport Commons Farm, located on a former track field located behind the old neighborhood high school.
“We have market stands and we have an EBT machine,” Daniel Robinson says. “We’re sharing land with other growers here, including some refugees who have graduated from our program.”
One March afternoon, Robinson oversees a handful of volunteers as they shape beds for cool-season crops (leafy greens, broccoli) in the new eighty-foot-long hoop house. One in the group is a regular volunteer and a Midtown neighborhood resident who seems to know his way around a backhoe. Robinson focuses his attention on the novices in the group. He points out a patch of dirt in the field that has been designated for an upcoming “compost fest,” where a large composting system will be built by volunteers. Two graduates from the program farm a nearby plot, and the rest of the farm is managed by Robinson.
All produce grown at Westport Commons ends up back in the community: The on-site farm stand is open once a week during the growing season, and produce is also sold via the New Roots CSA. What isn’t sold is donated to Midtown nonprofits and, in an effort to cut down on waste, the farm partners with local chefs, including Johnny Leach (the Town Co.), Rick Mullins (Café Sebastienne) and Teddy Liberda (Buck Tui).
“Selling directly to chefs is a no-brainer,” Robinson says. “We can literally grow their recipe in a bed and they’ll take it. There’s no packing it up and taking it to market and worrying about if it will sell or not.”
To the west, the Juniper Gardens Training Farm sprawls over nine acres in KCK. This offshoot of Cultivate started in 2008 as a partnership with Catholic Charities, where families from refugee communities enter a four-year program called New Roots for Refugees that empowers them to start farm businesses by growing and selling produce.
“Catholic Charities leads on recruitment and sales while Cultivate KC is focused on the production side, managing the site and teaching and working in infrastructure improvement,” says staffer Semra Fetahovic. “Once the families graduate, we help them transition onto their own farms.”
The Juniper Gardens Training Farm is in its fifteenth growing season this year, with ten families in the program. Of the forty families that have graduated so far, thirty-one are still growing in Kansas City. During their time at Juniper Gardens, families sell their produce at local farmer’s markets, through their CSA and through wholesale orders for local restaurants.
“Farming has been pushed to be able to sell things at the lowest possible price, and that has so many negative implications for agriculture and community health,” Fetahovic says, referring to widespread pesticide use, pollution and environmental degradation. She also highlights the income disparity between farmers and consumers.
“People go to a store and if a bundle of cilantro is more than fifty cents, they think, ‘Why would I pay for that?’” she says. “With the local food movement, we’re pushing back against that. We’re saying, ‘The value of this cilantro is not fifty cents. It’s worth two dollars.’”
Alan and Yolanda Young have been rooted in the Ivanhoe neighborhood since they purchased a two-story shirtwaist house there in 1986. At that time, the neighborhood had the highest volume of crime in the city. In 1997, after a decade of neighborhood organizing efforts, Alan restarted the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, the community group that had been defunct. That wasn’t about urban farming—that was about restoring and beautifying the neighborhood. The farming came later, almost by chance, when the Youngs purchased an acre plot near their home.
“Initially, we wanted to use it as a space where our kids could play, but that didn’t last very long,” Yolanda says. “We ended up digging ground for a small garden and it expanded over time. In the late 00s, we became serious about gardening.”
Alan says, “We would be out working [in the garden] and more and more people would stop and inquire about buying produce, so we started to look at ways to maximize the amount of food we could produce on the small amount of land that we had.”
The Young Family Farm uses a small-plot intensive technique, an organic production system with a high crop yield. They helped launch the Ivanhoe Farmers Market in 2010 in the parking lot of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Association, and as the market’s footprint grew, so did the Young’s farm: What started as a three-bed plot has expanded to twenty-seven beds dedicated to growing a variety of vegetables and herbs. There’s even a beehive for honey production. The Youngs’ extended family all help with the farm in some capacity. Since Covid, the Young Family Farm has switched to selling from a farm stand on Wayne Avenue instead of the market.
The Young Family Farm sounds like a well-oiled machine, but for Alan and Yolanda, it’s an accidental business that grew out of their dedication to the local community—one more thing they do to help the Ivanhoe neighborhood flourish. With the farm operating in the middle of the neighborhood, it’s become a conversation-starter and impromptu open-air classroom for many residents.
“People who come to our site have never seen vegetables out in the wild,” Alan says. “They’re used to seeing produce that’s ready for consumption. People see where their food is coming from—we’ll often cut it while they’re waiting—and I’ve discovered that a lot of social capital is built around working on the land. People want to hang out and talk about the vegetables. It’s just really helped to change for the better overall.”
On a chilly mid-March afternoon, Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heryer lead a trek around their farm near Swope Park, less than ten minutes from the Country Club Plaza. It’s mostly shades of brown this time of year—dry leaves, bare branches, dark mud that splashes up pant legs—but the couple has no problem distinguishing the various plots they have in progress across the thirteen or so acres they call Urbavore.
A soon-to-be patch of strawberries is kept safe beneath scattered straw. Salvaggio gestures as she walks: There’s garlic in that field, asparagus in this one, lots of greens and root vegetables in these. She throws a hand to some scarecrow trees, what remains of an apple and pear orchard.
“We grow organically, and we had this idea that we’d have this large organic orchard,” she says with a laugh. “Missouri weather is awful for fruit in general, and everyone told us that was stupid and impossible, and they were right.”
It’s one of the countless lessons Salvaggio and Heryer have learned since founding Urbavore in 2011. The fruit trees are not a total loss: Those orchards are now pastures for their hogs. It’s all part of Urbavore’s self-sustaining ecosystem—like the quarter-acre pond on the edge of their property that supports their off-grid water supply. The pork, vegetables (particularly the strawberries, which Urbavore has become locally famous for) and chicken eggs are the farm’s bread and butter. And until Covid, the bulk of their sales came from farmers markets.
“Before Covid, markets were all we’d ever done,” Heryer says. In 2020, Urbavore began offering online sales: During the growing season, they update their website with that week’s offerings and designate time for people to pick up their purchases. “Once we realized people would come to us, it was a game-changer.”
The couple went from working around the clock during market season to having something that resembled a weekend.
“Covid gave us Saturdays off for the first time in twelve years, and that’s as much of a weekend as a farmer gets,” Heryer chuckles.
Moving away from the market model has allowed Salvaggio and Heryer to take a lead role in the city’s only curbside composting service. Nearly ten thousand pounds of waste (vegetable scraps, stale bread, animal bones, yard trimmings) from around two thousand households end up on the pile at Urbavore, which previously had to buy truckloads of compost.
Even for an urban farm, 2 Birds Farm is unusual. The parcel is a whopping twenty acres. And though it is technically located in an urban core—less than four miles from downtown Shawnee—the farm near Lake Quivira feels positively rural compared to its peers.
2 Birds was officially founded in 2019 by Laura Christensen and Katherine Kelly, less than a year before Kelly retired from Cultivate KC. They plant over fifty varieties of vegetables, specializing in broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leafy greens and tomatoes, and they harvest chicken eggs. This year, if the weather cooperates, they’ll offer pick-your-own-strawberries. And someday soon, their herd of goats—currently employed as pasture-keepers—will become meat breeds.
The bulk of the produce from 2 Birds Farm is sold weekly at the Brookside Farmers Market and via a CSA that offers home and office delivery. There are a handful of chefs and restaurants that purchase directly from the farm, but Christensen has never really aimed for that business.
“Connecting with those chefs has been totally accidental,” she admits. “Johnny [Leach of Town Company] came to Brookside Market and was asking what I was excited about. There was this tiny green early cabbage—usually you think of cabbage as this bland commodity crop—but I thought it was extraordinary, and I said that I would love to have someone who cooks for a living be able to do something great with this. And he did, and he bought it consistently from me for that whole season.”
Still, Christensen has found that
she prefers selling at the market and catering to the specialized needs of a handful of chefs to the logistics of providing for many restaurants. Part of that is the price point: The produce from 2 Birds Farm costs more than what most wholesale accounts or restaurants can afford. Christensen acknowledges the conundrum.
“There’s a constant tension between wanting to feed people and having accessible, local, healthy, fresh food that you’re producing, and trying to have a functional business,” she says. “I can’t afford to eat at most fine dining restaurants, but they’re helping me stay in business and they appreciate what I’m doing. And because most of my business is at the farmers market, I can say, ‘Oh, I have a chef that loves this,’ and it’s a little bit of a boost in marketing my product.”
Christensen is a vocal advocate for variety—in crops, in consumers, and particularly in farm models. There is no one-size-fits-all way to farm, and learning from her peers and their practices is still exciting.
“You can’t draw a line around what an urban farm is,” she says. “It can be me on twenty acres in a city with a bit of sprawl or someone on a quarter-acre lot growing a few special crops or someone doing hydroponic growing. It’s worth considering all of those because having a complicated food system makes us resilient when stuff goes wrong.”