Seed to Plate: Urban farms provide more than produce

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

At seventeen, I couldn’t wait to move to the city. At twenty-one I dreamed of wearing suits and working in a high rise. Over time I realized what a unique experience it was to grow up on a farm, even more so because the farm has been in our family for almost a hundred years now. I’ve become so comfortable talking about it I may even brag a little. My husband and I have hopes of eventually moving back to the country, but it’s not possible right now. Thankfully, I’ve discovered some places within the city limits that give me the feeling of home.

Last week I visited the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (KCCUA) for the first time. Just five minutes away from the Metcalf/I-35/I-635 interchange, I transplanted lettuce, folded row covers, and tried to resist climbing on the straw bales. A few days later, I sat down with Katherine Kelly, KCCUA’s executive director and farmer, to talk about how she created a land-based lifestyle within an opportunity-based metropolis.

HWG: Where did you grow up?

KK: Outside of Wichita. My parents weren’t farmers but I worked on our neighbor’s farm herding cattle, driving tractors, driving grain to market. Like you, I thought “Life is every place else but on this stupid farm.” I always took the toughest jobs though. When we were hauling hay, the farmer’s son drove the tractor and I’d be the one bucking bales. I actually loved it in a lot of ways, I just didn’t know it at the time.

HWG: What happened when you left?

KK: I went to Carleton College in Minnesota, and all of a sudden, herding cattle and riding horses was like a story I had made up. It had no context, no reality. I moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I started backyard gardening and worked in non-profits, in community arts, community organizing. In the late 80s I moved to Boston where I started hearing about the local food movement. I very deliberately took a job on a farm that was run by a woman because I remembered how much farming is a man’s domain and wanted a place where some of the gender limits I saw as a girl on a farm would be less likely. After that I worked on a couple of other farms and when I wanted my own place, I realized I couldn’t afford to buy land in Boston, so I moved back to the midwest.

HWG: To be in the country?

KK: I thought I wanted to be out in the country. I lived for a while with my sister near Tonganoxie thinking maybe I would farm there. Then I realized I hated being in the country. Every phone call was long distance, the grocery store was terrible, had terrible produce. I never learned to do all my shopping at once — I was used to being able to walk to the grocery store after the subway. I wanted to do both — to live and to farm in the city. That way I could have the art movies, I could have the community, I could be engaged in political ways. So I moved back into town and started looking for land in town. I found the land on Gibbs Road, owned by a non-profit, Associated Youth Services, and worked out a partnership where I farmed the field and rented space in the greenhouse in exchange for some labor and some cash.  As I farmed in town, I began to see some of what was different about farming in town from the farming I’d grown up with out in the country. I saw it was easy for people to get to my farm to volunteer. I could get crew members because there are people in the city who want to work on farms. It was easier, because of geographic proximity, to build relationships with people, to build a support network, to educate people and to be engaged in a much more normal, everyday kind of way.

HWG: What do urban farms mean for urban communities?

KK: They encourage people to engage with the outside world a little bit more. Now there’s an excuse to go out for a walk to see whether Sherry’s tomatoes have ripened up. When farmers grow, sell and give away vegetables and transplants, their garden is established as a place of generosity and abundance. Urban kids can make a connection with a farmer who looks like them, talks like them, grew up in their neighborhood. It’s easy for a school to bring a class over because they load them on the bus, they’re here in 15 minutes. After that, a trip out to the country becomes a little more familiar and possible. Here at our farm, we’re drawing together like-minded people, and people who come from a different perspective but somehow arrive here. When these people work side by side, sometimes they’ll be quiet, sometimes they’ll talk about all kinds of different things. Either way, that side-by-side labor is probably one of the most authentic ways to build relationships and community that I think there is.

HWG: How does the economic crisis look to an urban farmer?

KK: Sometimes you get pushed in the direction you’re supposed to go. I think in some ways it’s good that food has gotten more expensive. It means that people think about it, value it a little bit more. It’s pushing more people to become home gardeners. I think part of our problem is that the last few generations have been taught that food is supposed to be really cheap and we spend our important money on music systems and television systems and stuff like that. So the economy is pushing us to reexamine how we spend out money. We’ve also had a lot of conversations with people who’ve gotten laid off and say “I should go farm.” Most of them won’t, but some of them are taking it as, “Okay, I don’t have a full time job, I’m probably not going to have a full time job for a while, and I’ve always wanted to do this, so this is going to be my opportunity.” We’ve had more volunteers because they’re not finding work — at least it’s something positive to do during a difficult time.

HWG: What about the environment?

KK: Our farms are little ecosystems inside the city. There’s more wildlife at this farm than when I started and it’s because we’ve created little niches where creatures can live and eat and exist. We have more birds, we have more insects, which is good and bad, we have more rodents, good and bad. For an organic farmer, diversity is a plus. If you have a lot of life and different life forms, it’s going to create a healthier system. I think that’s true for urban communities — the more diversity and the more life forms, the healthier it’s going to be.

HWG: Michael Pollan writes about the need to rebuild our food culture. What does that mean to you?

KK: I think our food culture has become a consumer culture. Somebody else prepares it and packages it, then we buy it and we may add a little bit of tomato sauce to the pasta, and call it our own, but it’s not actually ours. Corporations figure out how to market it so it seems like it should be part of our culture, but it’s not at all. Regaining our food culture means learning how to cook, actually cook, with real ingredients that you did something to — not just opened up a can and poured it out and added some hamburger. It means taking the time, creating space in your life, as much as you can, to do it. It means having your kids help you either pick out food at the farmers market or grow it in your garden, and it means reestablishing the connection that food is about nurturing and caring and hard work. It’s not easy to come home and make a meal, but it’s part of life and all these life lessons are embedded in it. When you buy something from the grocery store that’s wrapped in plastic and you put it in the microwave, there’s no care in that, there’s no nurture, there’s no love attached to it.

HWG: What’s your dream for Kansas City?

KK: In the early days of KCCUA I said to someone, “You know what? There should be a farm in every neighborhood.” And I got really terrified but that’s exactly right. You should not be able to drive to work without passing at least one farm. Your kids should not be able to go to school without seeing vegetables growing. I would like to see fruit trees around the city so that kids get to climb into the neighbor’s fruit tree and steal fruit. Sitting up there and kicking their heels against the air — that should be part of every kid’s experience because it makes the apple a valuable thing. We would eat healthier, we would be outside more. I talked to this older lady once who said when she was a girl, every house on the block had a home garden. That was just normal, but we act like it’s not possible. It is possible. In fact it’s actually relatively doable because we have so much open land in Kansas City and people are ready for good fresh local food.

KCCUA promotes small-scale, community based, entrepreneurial farming in the Kansas City metropolitan area. www.kccua.org

The KC Urban Farms and Gardens Tour (June 18-27) is a celebration of the benefits of urban agriculture and the people who are making it happen. www.urbanfarmstourkc.com

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