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A look inside urban farming efforts in St. Louis and Kansas City

Kansas City

When small farm specialist Katie Nixon was consulted for the Urban Agriculture Report, she noticed two trends in the Kanas City area:

  • Low-income communities had a growing interest in urban farming.
  • Younger people wanted to become urban farmers.

She said urban farms or community gardens in low-income areas can reduce crime rates. In Kansas City, she experienced this for herself. In a community she oversees, a woman wanted to start a community garden. Nixon helped her find funding and develop the garden. Nixon said a police officer who patrolled the area noted a drop in crime. Community gardens therefore aren’t only healthy in terms of food, but also the health of an area.

“One lady came out when we were building the garden and said she hadn’t really been out during the day because she was a little bit afraid but she saw people outside and she felt safe. Often times, low income communities are correlated with high crime, so having a space that’s safe is really important for a healthy living,” Nixon said. “This woman’s been stuck in her house she’s not getting good exercise or fresh air. Having a public space that’s safe is really important especially when you have to walk to get your food or take the bus.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Minority Services donated funds to the community garden, which Nixon said can be a “financial headache.”

“For some people, having an urban farm, you could probably get a quarter acre or less and grow food on it,” Nixon said. “Most likely, unless you find a niche crop you could make a good profit on, you probably won’t be able to make a living from that quarter acre.”

Nixon said it’s best to smart small, build skills and grow on more land.  In addition to the Innovative Small Farmers Outreach Program, Kansas City has many other programs to support urban farmers such as Cultivate Kansas City, Get Growing Kansas City, internships and apprenticeships. Currently, Nixon said, about 50 urban farms are in Kansas City.

“There’s no reason why we can’t support small farmers to at least make a living, to cover their own healthcare and make a viable living because we have to have professions that people enjoy,” Nixon said. “I think a lot of young people because they’re healthy and strong are the ones to do it and if we can’t support them then we’re going to be in trouble.”

Nixon said the Urban Agriculture Act will help hunger issues “a little bit,” but many solutions (like government programs and hunger organizations) are needed to make an impact. In addition to her work as a small farm specialist, Nixon is also on the stirring committee for the Kansas City Food Coalition. Urban agriculture, she added, cannot completely solve “systemic issues” with racism and poverty that can play into hunger issues.

For state policy makers wanting to address hunger issues, Nixon’s message is to listen to constituents and their needs.

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St. Louis

Miranda Duschack, a small farm specialist in St. Louis, said for the three years she has worked in the city she noticed a movement toward urban farming. There’s growing interest in local goods grown naturally, she said. Through her job, she helps support about 30 urban farming projects from the Arch to Interstate 270 — a 15-mile radius, she said.

St. Louis urban farmers, Duschack said, have diverse racial and educational backgrounds. The younger urban farmers are in their mid-twenties to early thirties, she said, who are “dissatisfied and want a higher quality of life that urban farming can bring to them.” For the business savvy urban farmers, it’s a vocation.

“The people that are successful realize they need to look at it like a business and not a hobby,” she said.

Duschack described urban farms as “market gardens,” meaning growers are not targeting wholesalers, but local buyers like farmer’s markets or restaurants. These urban farms/market gardens grow “specialty crops,” or rather, anything that is not a commodity like soybeans or corn. Tomatoes and flowers are specialty crops, for example.

St. Louis urban farms, she said, tend to support the demographics of the community. In north St. Louis where an African American population is higher, Duschack said urban farmers grow okra, collard greens and have an interest in green tomatoes. The Burmese population living in south St. Louis grows long beans.

Duschack said she has “high hopes” for the Urban Agriculture Act. Her excitement is professional and personal, she added. Duschack supports her own urban farm where she grows cut flowers and specialty vegetables. She is also a bee keeper.

“More and more urban farmers are talking with neighbors and alder members and educating them about the benefit of [the Urban Agriculture Act] for us,” Duschack said. “The things people are excited about are the water rates and tax abatement. Anything to assist with the nuts and bolts of running an urban farm.”

Duschack said she’s observed that even with the growing interest in St. Louis urban farming, a stigma still remains within differing races and ethnicities.

“It’s a class issue. People who came off the farm no matter what race or ethnicity they are, if they’re one or two generations removed from the farm they remember how hard it is and how it’s diff to make a living,” Dushack said. “A lot of those people are propelling their children to more middle class life styles and careers. I think in the African American community there is still a stigma attached with slavery when there isn’t’ a choice.”

With the correct skill set, the act’s incentives could encourage people to vstart an urban farm and run it like a small scale business. She added a quarter acre of land skillfully farmed can provide a year’s worth of food for a four member household. The ability for people to provide food for themselves, Duschack said, is empowering.

“I think it could help with entrepreneurship in this direction,” Duschack said. “The more of these urban farms that we have then the greater the food security of the city and the region. Many small pockets of productive gardens, that work properly with proper herbicide and pesticide usage or being naturally grown, enhance food security for everyone in those neighborhoods.”

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Urban farming stock photo via ShutterStock.