By LYNN HORSLEY
The Kansas City Star
As Ben Sharda, director of Kansas City Community Gardens, surveys this month’s bountiful harvest at the Swope Park headquarters garden, he can’t help but celebrate a different bumper crop.
He is witnessing the blossoming of community gardens themselves throughout the metro area. From schools to churches to neighborhood groups to high-powered corporations, everyone is getting into the act.
The organization’s community garden partnerships have jumped from 125 three years ago to 230 this year, and the schoolyard gardens from 88 to 140 over that same period. Most are in Kansas City, but dozens are in Wyandotte and Johnson counties and other suburbs.
“There’s been an explosion of interest,” he said.
The same is true for area urban farms, defined as growers who sell their produce or use farm production methods. Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate Kansas City, which assists urban farms throughout the area, has seen those numbers jump from about 74 farms in 2008 to 125 this year, about evenly split between Wyandotte and Jackson counties.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “There’s demand from consumers. There is land available. There are people aware that farming is an entrepreneurial activity or just is something that’s good for your family.”
It’s all being driven by several factors. An appetite for more local, fresh, healthy food. The push to fill weedy vacant lots and turn cheap land into productive use. And don’t discount Michelle Obama and the example of the White House kitchen garden.
“I’ve been asked once or twice if I knew Michelle Obama,” said MaryAnna Henggeler, who has been inundated with requests as manager of Kansas City Community Gardens’ schoolyard program. “It’s getting fit and going local.”
Many of the newest gardens fill a void and a craving:
• Fresh veggies. Dionne Powell-Green helps cook dinner every Monday for the youth group at Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, 4545 Benton Blvd. She wanted to supplement the small food budget, so she got help from KCCG to create a church garden. She and five kids were the gardeners, and now the congregation is savoring tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. Next year she plans more vegetables and some fruit.
“We were blessed with a great harvest,” she said. “It’s turned out to be a lot of fun.”
• Neighborhood oasis. Joy Snyder, longtime volunteer with Hope Faith Ministries, which assists homeless people, wanted to transform a crime-plagued vacant lot next to three transitional houses just east of Eighth Street and Troost Avenue. This spring, students from William Jewell College and other volunteers turned it into a beautiful garden, complete with a fountain donated by the Water Garden Society of Greater Kansas City.
The 24 raised beds have produced an abundant harvest of tomatoes, corn, peppers, all kinds of greens, strawberries, broccoli, radishes and other goodies. Neighborhood children and other residents have learned how to prepare the produce in on-site cooking classes.
It’s become a community gathering spot.
“I would call it an outreach of ministry,” Snyder said.
• Educational accomplishment. Mia Monarca, who works with about 100 Garcia Elementary School students in the before- and after-school program, started four raised beds with the students this spring, and they added more plantings a few weeks ago. She said the kids love the fresh salads they grow and the sky-high sunflowers. And they get something more.
“I think it’s nice for kids to be able to see hard work pay off,” she said.
Kansas City municipal officials and philanthropic organizations have taken note and are working closely with Sharda and Kelly on their endeavors. Kansas City’s funding for community gardens has more than doubled this year from $35,000 to $78,000 and the city is making urban agriculture a priority, said assistant city manager Kimiko Gilmore.
It’s a national trend, but one in which Kansas City is catching up to other cities. When Sharda attended a national 2012 community gardening conference in San Francisco, he felt Kansas City could hold its own against many West Coast cities.
“I’d say we are competitive right now with other top cities as far as the number of community gardens and the (large) size of community gardens we have,” he said.
One feature that distinguishes Kansas City’s program nationally, Sharda said, is that in addition to community gardens, it works with more than 1,000 low-income families on backyard or vacant lot gardens, teaching them how to supplement their budgets and pantries with homegrown food.
In addition to advising aspiring urban farmers and working on local government policies, the Cultivate Kansas City program has several working farms in Wyandotte County that train refugee families and others to operate their own farm businesses, Kelly said.
University of Wisconsin associate professor Alfonso Morales, who tracks urban agriculture nationally, said Kansas City is ahead of the game “in the sense that the community-based organizations are terrific and creating many opportunities across the spectrum of urban agricultural activities.”
But he said Kansas City could do more in terms of governments crafting regulations and incentive programs to promote urban agriculture.
Gilmore said that’s starting to happen and Kansas City’s next challenge is to move beyond a lot of “hobby gardens” to create more agricultural businesses with a bigger economic effect.
Advocates see more promising developments in the near future.
Sharda says six more gardens should soon be in place in Kansas City. A large community garden will be installed this fall in Northrup Park — marking the first time Wyandotte County has offered parkland for a community garden.
Another new KCCG initiative involves planting hundreds of fruit trees throughout the metro area.
Kelly and Gilmore are most excited about the commercial ventures coming on board to provide local produce year-round and reduce the reliance on food from California and Mexico.
“What’s happening now, I think, is we’re starting to see more ambitious growers,” Kelly said.
She cites the example of BrightFarms, a New York company that plans a $4 million hydroponic farm on 5 acres next to Berkley Riverfront Park, intended to grow 1 million pounds of fresh vegetables annually. BrightFarms had hoped to break ground this year, but that has been delayed.
Marketing manager Kate Siskel said the company still is negotiating to get its produce into local grocery stores and hopes to complete construction next year.
“The momentum, that’s what attracted us to Kansas City,” she said.
Other greenhouse and educational farming initiatives are in the works for Kansas City’s municipal farm property, a 400-acre site east and west of Interstate 435, southwest of the Truman Sports Complex.
And developer Adam Jones is close to opening a large West Bottoms greenhouse operation to supply restaurants, in collaboration with Goode Acres farm.
“It would be year-round produce,” he said. “We have more demand than supply.”
For gardeners who gathered recently at the Swope Park community garden, there’s no downside to this movement toward more homegrown food.
As 92-year-old George Batts said while he filled big bags to overflowing, nothing can compare with a tomato fresh off the vine. Community gardening creates lasting friendships and keeps him active and feeling young.
“This is the best thing in the world to be in,” he said.