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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Kansas City Urban Ag Org. Supports City Farmers While Growing Healthy Communities

January 22, 2013 |

Since 2005, Cultivate Kansas City (Kansas City, Kan.), formally known as the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, has helped farmers manage urban farms. The organization started small and has steadily grown over the past eight years. Cultivate KC now manages two farms, and helps support multiple urban farmers and gardeners.

I recently spoke with Ami Freeberg, community outreach coordinator at Cultivate Kansas City, about the organization. Freeberg discussed how Cultivate KC has evolved and how the organization continues to help urban farmers thrive.

Can you tell me about the origin of the organization?

The organization was co-founded by urban farmers Katherine Kelly and Daniel Dermitzel. They realized if they wanted to grow urban agriculture, they would need to provide the networking and resources to help other farmers get started growing in the city. It started small, and focused on supporting farmers and has grown. If you want to have successful urban farmers, you need to have policies that support urban farmers. And you need to have customers that understand the value of locally grown, so, we got more into public education and awareness.

How is Cultivate KC funded?

A combination of government grants through the USDA and local foundation grants like the Health Care Foundation – the Foundation has been a huge supporter of our work — company sponsorships at different events, local companies, and individual donations.

Cultivate KC manages two farms. How do they differ?

The Gibbs Road Community Farm is a two-acre demonstration farm. We grow 25,000 pounds of produce every year. Production is decided by market demand. We have a farm manager who makes all the decisions, but it’s through observation, what people are asking for at market, what restaurants are asking us to provide, and we adjust our production plans to meet those needs.

Juniper Gardens Training Farm is the home of our New Roots for Refugees program. It is nine acres. It’s divided into quarter-acre plots. On each quarter acre there’s a farmer who is a participant in the program. Each farmer makes decisions about what to grow. We have people from all over the world bringing their background and food culture. Some people brought seeds with them and plant some of their native crops. We also encourage them to grow things American customers want to buy. It’s an interesting mix. We provide the supplies and resources for first-year farmers in the program. During the second year: Farmers have to save money from the first season to buy seeds for the second season. The third year: Farmers have to pay for seeds and water. At the end of three to five years we help farmers move off the training farm, find land and start their own businesses.

The Gibbs Road Community Farm, which Cultivate KC manages, produces 25,000 lbs of produce each year. Photo Credit: Cultivate KC.

How many people have successfully moved off the training farm and how many other farms does the organization support?

2011 was the first year we graduated farmers. We had four who graduated. All four farmed in the 2012 season on their own farms. This year at the end of the season we had five farmers graduate. I know that one has found land and started working already. We also provide other kinds of technical assistance and support, so, the number of farms that we’ve helping in some way is about 50.

How does the organization define its success and the economic viability of farmer participants?

There’s just so much variety about what success is. Nobody is living a middle-class lifestyle on urban farming. But for a refuge family making $15,000 a year — that’s a huge help to their family that has multiple income streams. And even for someone to have a small plot that’s helping offset their food costs as well as making a bit of money — it makes it economically viable for them to run it.

What’s the organization’s opinion on the state of urban agriculture? What challenges does urban agriculture face?

Urban agriculture is growing, diversifying and still in a movement stage. We talk about the economy, environment, health, and community – the connectiveness of people – with the food and their local farmers. These are the four things we talk about when showing how urban agriculture can improve the community. We want to continue to diversify. Even though our focus is on people running farm businesses, anybody growing tomatoes in their backyard is contributing to the urban agriculture movement.

One of the biggest challenges is varied enthusiasm in different neighborhoods. Some are excited and others aren’t willing to take on those challenges. Another challenge is the willingness of people to pay and be able to pay. Small to mid-sized farms have to compete with industrial agriculture. The economic viability of smaller farms is always going to be a challenge.

Farmer Khadijo of Cultivate KC's 'New Roots for Refugees' program. Photo Credit: Cultivate KC.

What are the challenges the organization faces when setting up farms?

Most of the lots available for food production are in residential neighborhoods. Kansas City, Mo., in 2010, did a big revision of its building and zoning codes to make it easier for people to grow and sell foods. However, there are 100-plus other municipalities in the Kansas City metro where the codes haven’t changed. There are hurdles that some people face, also access to water and land.

What are your thoughts on the future of Cultivate KC?

There’s a growing appreciation for what we are doing and a desire to be involved. As for long-term viability and how we continue to grow: It’s getting others involved. We are not out there managing these farms. We get other people to manage the farms and start gardens, and start farmers’ market stands. That will be what determines the success of this movement. Having farmers who have the vision to take it on, to experiment and try new things, and to work together for a common good is what will make this successful.

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