Survey says: Some alumni predict that urban farming will become more common as people flock to cities. As one respondent put it: “While ‘eat local’ may never be 100% possible, I believe a “mixed use” approach has great potential to cut the transportation costs inherent in the cost of food and help ensure that ‘food deserts’ are less common.”
On the corner of East 36th Street and Woodland Avenue sits an ordinary two-story house. Passersby will notice a brick walkway, a white picket fence and an inviting front porch that seems built for a swing.
And one other thing: a half-acre farm that brings in $12,000 a year.
Neil Rudisill (B.S.N. ’16) and his partner, Lisa Hummel, represent a growing population in the agriculture community: urban farmers. With a bee sting on his nose — an occupational hazard — Rudisill explains his passion for growing; how reconnecting with the land also reconnects him to the community, to the environment and to himself.
“One of the most important things you could do for your own personal health, simultaneously for environmental health, simultaneously for neighborhood health, is to grow your own food,” he says.
If you’ve never met a boot-wearing, weed-picking urban farmer like Rudisill, give it a few years. In a sprawling urban center like Kansas City, the potential for growth is promising, but only if believers like Rudisill can take it mainstream.
Why urban farming?
Another benefit is much more human: It’s nice to know where your food comes from.
Jacob Wagner, Ph.D., is director of urban studies in the UMKC Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design. He is also board chair of Cultivate Kansas City, a local nonprofit working to create healthy food systems in communities across Kansas City.
Wagner recalls the moment he realized how disconnected people are from their food, while riding a bus in Eugene, Oregon.
“We were passing by a vegetable packing plant, and some little kid asked his mother, ‘What is that?’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s where carrots come from.’” Wagner says. “So the first benefit of growing food where people can see it is they understand the labor, the process, the beauty of a farm.”
For Dina Newman, director of the UMKC Center for Neighborhoods, one of the most compelling arguments is health, especially in underserved communities. Newman believes people are beginning to see why healthier, more sustainable living is worth their time and money.
“There’s a focus on a culture of health, which includes food and environment and exercise,” Newman says. “People are starting to realize there’s more to this food thing than just it tasting good.”
In addition, there’s a lot of money to be made — and saved — through urban farming.
According to a 2014 food hub feasibility study, the Kansas City area has $156 million in unmet demand for local produce. A modest grower, with the right training and resources, Rudisill says, can make several thousand dollars per year.
Newman points out that urban farming can also give people a more cost-effective alternative to expensive grocery store produce.
“On the horizon, I see it continuing, because food is expensive,” Newman says. “[Urban farming] can be as simple as just putting a tomato plant on your porch.”
So why isn’t everyone growing arugula in their backyards? Simply put, urban farming can be really, really hard, especially in urban, underserved neighborhoods.
“People might work two jobs. They don’t have transportation. You might not have childcare, and you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Rudisill. “So it’s a tougher project.”
In addition, not everyone wants to live next door to an urban farm. They can be targets for theft, vandalism and rodents; they can become eyesores if unmaintained; they require time, technical skills and start-up funding.
The practice also brings up issues of social justice and gentrification.
Rudisill, for instance, grows his food in the underserved Ivanhoe neighborhood, but sells to high-dollar clients like the Rieger Hotel in the Crossroads Arts District. He is able to make a profit because of the cheap land value in a neighborhood where not everyone can afford his product.
He is also mindful of the optics that surround a white, privileged man coming into the Ivanhoe neighborhood and making a profit off the cheap land there.
“There is a ton of privilege involved,” Rudisill says. “We are privileged that we can come into this neighborhood, try urban farming, make some money, build a house, and if we don’t like urban farming, we can always sell out and leave.”
Rudisill tries to address that inequality by selling at the neighborhood farmer’s market and accepting food stamps, but still admits there’s room to improve. Unless a more diverse group of people gets involved, he says, urban farming will be just a fad.
Newman agrees that to be successful, the urban agriculture movement needs to diversify.
“I don’t want underserved populations to be left out. I don’t want displacement for the sake of this new, cool, sexy movement,” she says. “I believe our lower-income people of color must have those same opportunities.”
Your kids and kale
Right now, the best hope for local growing may be sitting in your living room. Thanks to health and nutrition programs in schools across the country, children are becoming the teachers on lessons like sustainability, food quality and reconnecting with the earth.
As Newman tells her grandchildren, “This is a garden, and it’s okay to get dirty.”
“Kids are starting to go back to the old days of being in the dirt, of realizing where their food comes from, and they’re taking that home to mom and dad and grandpa and auntie,” Newman says. “Parents are starting to pay attention.”
As for the future of urban farming, our experts agree that it can thrive, but only if we continue to educate people.
“Is [urban farming] the future of agriculture? I think that remains to be seen,” Rudisill says. “I think we have to step everybody’s game up. Urban agriculture will not be successful if we keep it where it’s at, at least in this city.”
Wagner puts it well: “As long as you go to a Whole Foods in the Kansas City area and they have peppers from Mexico or carrots from California, there’s room to grow our local food economy.”