Meet the Farmers of Kansas City’s Urban Core

Katherine Kelly founded Cultivate Kansas City in 2005. At the time, there was little urban agriculture in the region, and Cultivate KC’s primary goal was to promote urban agriculture as an important part of a healthy food system. The nonprofit was a major promoter—many would say the catalyst—of the local urban agricultural movement.

Cultivate KC has four programs, including the three-year Westport Commons Farmlocated on a former racetrack site located behind the old neighborhood high school.

“We have stalls in the market and we have an EBT machine,” says Daniel Robinson. “We share land with other producers here, including refugee graduates from our program.

One March afternoon, Robinson supervises a handful of volunteers as they shape the beds for cool-season crops (leafy greens, broccoli) in the new 80-foot-long greenhouse. One of the group is a regular volunteer and Midtown resident who seems to know his way around a backhoe. Robinson focuses his attention on the novices in the group. He points to a patch of land in the field that has been designated for an upcoming “compost party,” where a large composting system will be built by volunteers. Two graduates of the program cultivate a plot nearby, and the rest of the farm is managed by Robinson.

All produce grown at Westport Commons ends up in the community: the on-site farm stand is open once a week during the growing season, and produce is also sold through the CSA New Roots. What isn’t sold is donated to Midtown nonprofits, and in an effort to reduce waste, the farm partners with local chefs, including Johnny Leach (the City Co.), Rick Mullins (Cafe Sebastian) and Teddy Liberda (Buck Tui).

“Selling directly to chefs is a no-brainer,” says Robinson. “We can literally grow their recipe in a bed and they will accept it. There’s no need to package it up and take it to market and wonder if it will sell or not.

To the west, the Juniper Gardens Training Farm spans nine acres at KCK. This offshoot of Cultivate began in 2008 as a partnership with Catholic Charities, where families from refugee communities participate in a four-year program called New roots for refugees which allows them to start farming businesses by growing and selling produce.

“Catholic Charities leads recruiting and sales while Cultivate KC focuses on production, site management, education and improving infrastructure,” says Semra Fetahovic. “Once families graduate, we help them transition to their own farms.”

The Juniper Gardens training farm is in its fifteenth growing season this year, with ten families participating in the program. Of the forty families who have graduated so far, thirty-one are still growing up in Kansas City. While at Juniper Gardens, the families sell their produce at local farmers’ markets, through their CSA, and through bulk 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 the widespread use of pesticides, pollution and environmental degradation. It also highlights the income disparity between farmers and consumers.

“People go into a store and if a packet of cilantro costs more than fifty cents, they think, ‘Why should I pay for that?’ “, she says. “Along with the local food movement, we stand against this. We say, “The value of that cilantro is not fifty cents.” It’s worth two dollars.

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