Building a Fruitful Legacy at Urbavore Farm in Kansas City

Taking up 13.5 acres on the eastern outskirts of Kansas City, Urbavore is one of the largest urban farms in the United States. Bringing you a shot of the entire farm would have required hiring a helicopter. Instead I will begin with this picture of the back right-hand corner of the farm.

A peach tree on the edge of the cucurbits bed. White row covers protect some of the squash plants from insects.

A peach tree on the edge of the cucurbits bed. White row covers protect some of the squash plants from insects.

 

Just beyond the peach tree, a thick layer of straw runs the length of the bed, demonstrating the no-till method used by owners Brooke Salvaggio and Daniel Heryer to turn bluegrass into fertile fields. No Roundup, black plastic, or landscape fabric for them. Instead, they mow the grass and then station the chickens on the future vegetable bed, letting them clean up pests, peck down the weeds and grass even more, and fertilize.

Then they cover the grass with 1.5 feet of straw, and the heat from all that decomposition breaks down the plants and helps the soil come alive. Their farm has never been plowed. Instead, worms carve tunnels through the soil of the new bed, aerating it, from August until spring when it will be ready for planting.

The cucurbit field from the other side, looking at hay bales and a shed. Compost piles are off to the left.

The cucurbit field from the other side. You can barely see the straw in front of the hay bales and shed.

 

The no-till system “makes healthy, tasty vegetables,” Brooke told me when I toured the farm on a Sunday morning. Usually, Sunday is their day off, but it was the only time we could schedule a tour. They sell several hundred thousand dollars worth of produce a year.

Urbavore zucchini July 2015 IMG_1490

But veggies are not their only focus. Orchards take up 5 acres at Urbavore, and they expect the apples to begin producing fruit for sale in a couple of years. Brooke said no one in Kansas City is selling local organic peaches, pears, and apples, and she and Daniel want to be the first.

Apple trees near the entrance to Urbavore Farm. You can see a red chicken coop trailer at the back.

Apple trees near the entrance to Urbavore Farm, with a lot of room to grow. You can see a red chicken coop trailer at the back.

 

They also want to leave a legacy on this land, for their son and for the community. To that end, they planted full-stock fruit trees and left a lot of space between them. Most orchards use dwarf-stock trees that must be replaced frequently. But Urbavore apple trees will grow about 40 feet tall and produce fruit for 100 years; the pear trees will produce for 300 years.

That is, if Brooke and Daniel can manage some of the challenges inherent in this site. When they started the farm in 2011, there was a drought, so they didn’t notice the soil’s tendency to retain water. But spring 2015 was very wet. Now the trees are waterlogged, and they lost a bed planted with eggplant and purple potatoes, which are high-value crops. Their tomatoes are valiantly trying to catch up after the cool spring.

Staked tomato plants in a heavily mulched field.

Staked tomato plants in a heavily mulched field.

 

The cucurbits (zucchini, cucumbers) aren’t as far along as they would normally be in July, but I saw plenty of zucchini and other squash at their Friday farmers market, as well as ropes of garlic hanging up to dry. Luckily, Kansas City, unlike Denver, is blessed with a long growing season.

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One crop perfectly suited to the site is blueberries, which are thirsty plants. Making the soil more acidic was labor-intensive, but in the process they raised beds between the rows of blueberry bushes where they grow cut flowers and basil.

Urbavore blueberries basil flowers looking toward house July 2015 IMG_1526

Blueberry bushes run on either side of the basil in the middle of this photo, and zinnia and other flowers grow to their left. At the top is the green roof of the off-grid house they are building.

 

“Doing this organically was a huge learning curve,” Brooke said. They have occasionally lost crops to pests, but they figured out how to attract more beneficial insects like wasps and ladybugs, and the chickens eat a lot of bugs. Now the wasps balance out the aphids, so to speak.

A few of the 200 chickens at Urbavore Farm, and a noisy goose. The solar panel at bottom right powers the electric fence.

A few of the 200 chickens at Urbavore Farm, and a noisy goose. The solar panel at bottom right powers the electric fence. When they want the chickens to weed another part of the farm, they get them into the trailers, drive them to the new area, and set up the fence again. No-till farming wouldn’t work without the chickens, Brooke told me. The eggs they produce are a nice bonus.

 

In this wet year, the problems are disease and fungus. The peach trees have produced fruit, but Brooke says this years’ crop isn’t edible. She wants to use herbal sprays and compost teas to strengthen the trees, but she would need to spray regularly and simply doesn’t have the time.

There was a late frost this spring, and then the season turned wet, making it difficult for the peach trees.

There was a late frost this spring, and then the season turned wet, making it difficult for the peach trees.

 

At the end of the tour, she took me through their off-grid, passive solar house, which she calls a “modern hobbit house.” The north wall is built into the hill and soil comes up the south wall to the high windows. The east and west walls are glass to let in light. Daniel has done most of the work on the house, and Brooke has helped when she can.

“Non-toxic material permitting is hard in Kansas City,” she commented wryly, referring to the year it took to get permits for a composting toilet in the house, the GluLam beams that hold up all the soil on the roof, and the water system that will purify water from the pond for drinking, cooking, and bathing. She believes they are over the major humps, but the process of building an off-grid house on raw land required them to be “relentless.” Most people would have given up.

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Ironically, an earlier fight over their first farm, Bad Seed, gained them some friends in city government that helped with permitting at their second farm. In the mid-2000s, Brooke and Daniel started a 2.5-acre mini-farm in south Kansas City that ran afoul of the local preference for wide green lawns. In 2009 the neighbors tried to use KC’s zoning ordinances to evict Bad Seed and failed. In the end, the city council passed an ordinance protecting urban farms, but Brooke and Daniel knew it was time to move and found the site for Urbavore by looking for big green areas on Google Maps.

It had sat vacant for decades, waiting to be a community college campus, a middle school, and then subsidized housing. The city acquired the land in the 1990s and spent $20,000 per year mowing it.

As Brooke pointed out, urban agriculture can save money for taxpayers as well as providing healthful food.

After I finished the tour and took some pictures, I stood in the apple orchard, sweating (I’m not used to this humid heat after living in the dry Mountain West for 30 years) and looking around at the chickens weeding the asparagus inside their electric fence, the apple trees marching up the hill, and the neighbors’ houses with their green lawns.

Urbavore 2 chickens in the asparagus July 2015 IMG_1564

Then I walked out past the trailer where Kansas Citians can bring their food scraps and grass clippings, and drove south, wondering where exactly Bad Seed Farm had been located and whether it was close to my parents’ house.

The sign reads, "Resurrect your dead food."

The sign reads, “Resurrect your dead food.”

 

I always feel a little sad after meeting people like the Bad Seeds. I admire what they’re doing and want to emulate them, but I’m not sure I have it in me. “I love being physically connected to my land,” Brooke said, but the amount of work, even with two apprentices to help, does take a toll on them.

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But maybe I could manage a large garden. In between my travels, that is.

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Tours of Urbavore Urban Farm cost $30 for 10 people and $3 per head for larger groups.

Bad Seed Farmers Market takes place each Friday from 4 to 9 pm at 1909 McGee.