Urban Farms Open Doors

Growing trend brings beauty, bounty and hope to city dwellers.


Visitors check out the green of Lew Edmister’s Herb’n Gardener plot.

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Photographs by Diane Guthrie

Sherri Harvel holds court in her garden, a once abandoned block near downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Visitors tiptoe down rows of squash, lettuce and ripening tomatoes, seeking tips on urban farming.

“Start small,” Sherri says. Take soil samples, visit with neighbors, learn the history of your lot, and make sure you have a reliable water source.

Spots like her Root Deep Urban Farm are sprouting up on rooftops, in vacant lots, backyards and church lots worldwide– and, with an estimated 35 urban farms, Kansas City ranks among the leaders in this growing trend. On this hot summer day, some 600 people have ventured out for the second biennial Kansas City Urban Farms Tour to discover what the movement’s all about.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30 percent of farm production in this country originates in metropolitan areas, up to 15 percent globally. In a recent report, the agency notes that urban agriculture promotes food security and improves health and quality of life while creating “dynamic, aesthetically pleasing cityscapes.”

Sherri’s venture in farming began with a knock on her door, an invitation to join a community garden. A few years later, she struck out on her own, sinking roots deep into the heart of one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. As she works this garden, people stop to chat, even offer a bit of advice. “The neighbors watch out for my place,” Sherri says. “They like that it’s here.”

For farmers on this tour, urban agriculture is about the joy of growing nutritious, delicious food – and earning a little money to boot. It’s about beautifying neighborhoods, improving the environment, nurturing children and giving others a helping hand.

A growing movement

Katherine Kelly, co-founder and executive director of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, says feedback from the self-directed tour has been tremendous. “People enjoyed the education and the charismatic farmers,” she says. “Two church groups are even thinking of starting gardening projects of their own.”

Folks loved the live music, the cooking demonstrations, tasting opportunities and children’s activities. The only negative comments Katherine heard concerned weeds. “That comes with the organic territory,” she says. “We aren’t the herbicidal people you see on TV.”

This year, 11 farmers opened their plots to public inspection, up from six in 2005 – a reflection of a growing interest in urban farming both here and elsewhere. Katherine calculates 35 farms are within a 20-minute drive of the heart of downtown Kansas City. The definition isn’t set in stone, she adds. “If you can look out and see lots of neighbors, you’ve got an urban farm.”

Most are organic, and all sell the freshest local produce money can buy. Most are individual or family farms, while others are community projects that provide learning and earning opportunities for a wide range of people. At Troostwood Youth Garden, for example, young people do everything, from composting and planting to weeding and picking. Cross-Lines’ “Ready to Work” garden helps teach life skills to its clients.

Each farm has its own story.

Small farms, big hearts

One of those belongs to Lew Edmister, who turned a construction dump site across the street from his apartment into a garden/sculpture park. “I told the owner: I’ll clear the site and make a garden out of it, but you can’t sell it as long as I’m living here,” he says. A deal was struck, and Herb’n Gardener was born.

Soil at the site amounted to rock and brick, but Lew persisted, hauling in mounds of topsoil to construct two major beds. As he expanded his operation, he began to add art: Orange metal “people,” a decorative stone fence, an old toilet planted in lettuce. “The whole neighborhood loves it,” the gardener says. “It makes this a more interesting place.”

Across state lines, Refugee Women’s Market and Community Garden claims top honor as the most colorful stop on the tour. Gardeners from Somalia, Burundi, Sudan and Burma wear bright flowing dresses and headscarves. Some cradle babies as they douse fresh collards and mustard greens with rhythmic baths of water. “Hello, nice to see you,” they say with a smile.

These 17 gardeners coax a bounty of produce on land outside the Catholic Charities office in Kansas City, Kansas. “This is the best project we have,” says Sharisa McDaniel, refugee service coordinator for the agency. The women use the food to feed their families and to earn additional income. They learn production, marketing and small business management skills; they practice English and become better acquainted with the community. Today, Sharisa says, “They’re learning a lot just by being here.”

Although most farmed in their homeland, these refugees confront a totally different climate and totally different language. The first year, for instance, the women wanted to grow “spinach.” When the spinach sprouted, they let it go to seed; it wasn’t what they wanted. “They didn’t mean spinach, they meant collards,” Sharisa says.

As tour customers buy greens by the handful, a conversation begins that could lead to bulk sales in the future. Rebecca Miller, marketing director for the local Whole Foods Market, corners Sharisa to discuss the possibility of this farm becoming a local supplier. She looks at the well-tended garden, at the cheery smiles. “I like this mission,” Rebecca says. She hands Sharisa her business card, promising to stay in touch.

Farming weeds and farmers

Elsewhere, a more settled immigrant family is developing its own urban niche. Pov Huns, Chaxamone Lor and their four children welcome visitors to Huns’ Family Garden where they grow bitter melon to improve circulation, lemon grass to fight colds, plus a wide range of Asian and Midwestern herbs and vegetables for plain good eating.

Pov points out bok choy, Egyptian spinach, Thai basil and cucumbers. “It’s hard to tell from my garden what’s weed and what’s vegetable,” the native of Laos says. “Arugula is hiding in here somewhere.”

With no irrigation or fertilizer, weeds provide mulch, shade and nitrogen for this garden – and often serve as crops themselves. “We harvest weeds along with our vegetables,” Pov says to a bunch of raised eyebrows. He counts epezote, pursulane and amaranth among weedy best sellers. They can be good for eating, or for what ails you, he says.

Indeed, Pov sees most all plants in a unique light. Take the pumpkin, for instance. Its leaves are more nutritious than its fruit, he says. “At $3 to $4 a pound, it’s more profitable than the fruit, and I don’t have to wait four months for the crop.”

As Pov escorts visitors around the farm and other family members do cooking demonstrations, Daniel Heryer takes admission. A graduate student in urban studies, Daniel believes in sustainable farming and, for him, this is one way to show it. “I want to be a farmer,” the city kid says. “The education’s a distraction.”

Daniel and other volunteers help make this day.

Under a carport at Soul and Soil Rainbow Gardens, three student chefs from Johnson County Community College stir Bev Pender’s colorful veggies into pasta primavera, earning extra credit and enjoying the day. John Spangler talks about the trend toward locally grown produce in the restaurant industry as he swirls squash and onions over the grill. “It’s so much tastier,” he says.

Bev keeps a watchful eye. “Don’t cook it too much,” she jokes. “That’s supposed to be my produce. I got to taste what those chefs cooked up.”

This gardener, if truth be told, prefers her produce raw. Her one-time backyard garden has grown to encompass seven city lots. One by one, as neighbors offered land, she couldn’t resist. Bev sells from a farm stand and at a green market – but also shares a good deal of bounty with neighbors and a nearby homeless kitchen. She hires the homeless to help tend her land, too. “I pay $5 an hour and give them produce,” she says. “It seems to really help them out.”

Bev pulls youngsters into the gardening fold as well and has allocated one of her lots just for them. Many arrive not knowing the first thing about food, she says. “Some wondered where they could dig up french fries!”

Neighbor Earnestine Collins loves Pender’s produce, particularly the watermelons, and she likes the way those gardens spruce up the neighborhood. Still, she thinks her friend works too hard. “Lots of times, she’ll be out here to after midnight.”

All in it together

Katherine Kelly, with the Center for Urban Agriculture, works long hours, too, helping grow growers and promote this up-and-coming trend. With a focus on research and education, the center runs a two-acre organic farm of its own and helps all city farmers join hands.

Katherine counts many benefits to urban farmers working together, not the least of which is mutual education. “When we introduce farmers to each other; they start asking each other questions, they start swapping supply sources; they learn where to buy at wholesale rather than at retail prices.”

Most haven’t been raised to be farmers, she says. “They’ve mostly seen gardening hobbies get out of control.” As they get into the business end of farming, they need to stretch their skills, particularly in the field of marketing.

Farmers can be their own worst enemies, down-valuing what they do, Katherine says. “They need to think about the good they do, the benefits they provide the community.” And that’s one place the center can help. “Basically, we do some consciousness-raising,” Katherine says. “We help them articulate who they are and what they do.” That, in part, is what this tour is all about.

Freelancer Carol Crupper, a former newspaper reporter and editor, has covered rural communities and their city neighbors for more than 30 years.