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KANSAS CITY

In Kansas City, Urbavore Urban Farm is Growing Off the Grid

Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heryer have built an agricultural oasis – mere miles from the city’s urban center

  • 8 min to read

Brooke Salvaggio sits on a folding chair in her living room, her hands rewrapping the patterned scarf around her hair as her 1-year-old toddler, Solomon, squirms in her lap, trying to grab the fabric. Rain pelts against the windowpanes, giving a soft, rhythmic soundtrack to Solomon’s giggles. Two pairs of muddy shoes – one belonging to Salvaggio, the other to her husband, Dan Heryer – sit just inside the doorway.

This is what most evenings at Urbavore farm look like, Salvaggio says, plus or minus the weather – and usually with the couple’s eldest son, Percy, who is nearing 6 (tonight he’s visiting his grandmother). Beyond the house, vegetable plots, berry patches and orchards are sprawled over 13.5 acres. On the outer edge of the self-sustaining farm sits a quarter-acre pond.

“It seems romantic,” Salvaggio says. She’s right – Urbavore and the home she and Heryer have made for themselves exude a sort of centralized purpose and peace. But Salvaggio shakes her head. “There’s nothing romantic about our lives,” she says.

That’s because, despite the picturesque living-room scene, most days at Urbavore are long and a little chaotic. Salvaggio and Heryer are up several hours before the sun, dressing the children, checking emails, feeding the chickens. Several mornings a week, at 8am, depending on the season, a handful of volunteers arrive to mulch, weed, hoe, prepare beds and plant.

“The grind is constant,” Salvaggio says. “We’re managing people, we’re managing children, we’re planting countless seeds, nurturing thousands of plants, and maintaining large orchard blocks. We have these massive priority lists, and we have to keep moving through them, because falling behind has real consequences for us. And you’re thrown curveballs from weather and things you can’t control, and you have to prepare for that. It’s a wild experience.”

Two Bad Seeds

This hasn’t always been the life for Salvaggio and Heryer. Before Urbavore, Salvaggio ran the beloved Badseed Market, an urban farmers' market she started independently in 2007 in Kansas City's Crossroads Arts District. (The couple closed Badseed Market in February 2016 in anticipation of the birth of their second child.) The funky space was filled with colorful artwork and Salvaggio’s home-grown herbs and vegetables. Back then, her plot of land was significantly smaller: just the 2.5 acres surrounding her grandfather’s home in south Kansas City. She called it Badseed Farm.

“I was an art-school dropout,” Salvaggio says with a grin. “I had a bit of a rebel streak. I was a bad seed.”

That was Salvaggio’s first dive into urban agriculture. She met Heryer at a soil-science workshop the same year, and the two immediately hit it off.

Heryer began volunteering at Salvaggio’s farm, and their life together grew there until 2010, when Salvaggio’s neighbors, concerned about diminishing property values in the neighborhood, raised concerns about the burgeoning farm and its chickens and goats. The couple began searching for an opportunity to grow their production area and found the land that would eventually become Urbavore about 5 miles east of Country Club Plaza.

“The land had been slotted for some major development project or another for decades,” Salvaggio says, adding that the property had changed hands three times when she and Heryer first became interested in it. "It was eventually transferred to HEDFC [the Housing and Economic Development Financial Corp.] in the ’90s, and they owned it for about 20 years. In that time, HEDFC was paying around $20,000 a year just to keep the property mowed.”

Getting HEDFC to relinquish the deed, Salvaggio says, was no small feat. Heryer’s background in public policy and urban planning helped the couple navigate the labyrinthine legal process that finally allowed them to purchase the land. In 2011, the first year they farmed the property, Urbavore produced more than $40,000 worth of food; to date, the farm has produced in excess of $400,000.

“We always joke that Urbavore escaped these huge development projects and finally met its fate – to feed people,” Salvaggio says. “It’s a powerful example of how urban agriculture can be so viable. Although in retrospect, I can’t believe we managed to get this land.”

For Salvaggio and Heryer, Urbavore’s location was crucial. They could have relocated to a rural area, escaped the political quagmire that is now part of Urbavore’s history and found land with relative ease. But for them, it was important to farm unused space and grow food a stone’s throw from Kansas City’s urban core.

“We wanted to grow things and feed people where people actually live,” Salvaggio says.

Beyond Organic

There is nothing particularly easy about the way Salvaggio and Heryer go about farming at Urbavore. Their farm goes beyond organic standards; it’s a holistic ecosystem designed to not only optimize the growth of their produce but also foster the health of the soil and the surrounding community. Not using chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers is just one way they practice sustainable farming.

In the seven years Salvaggio and Heryer have been farming at Urbavore, they haven’t once tilled the soil – a practice which has historically been widespread in large-scale vegetable production, where the soil might be tilled after every harvest in order to loosen the dirt and prepare it for new seeds. Tilling also helps control weed growth.

“Tilling uses machinery to loosen the soil, manage weeds and create an easy palette for planting,” Heryer says. “While tilling reduces labor, it also creates an environment completely opposed to plant health. Tilling soil kills beneficial earthworms, fungi and bacteria, and destroys soil’s natural capacity for water retention and drainage.”

The benefits of no-till farming are extensive. The technique keeps the soil structure intact, and the constant application of straw, mulch and compost to undisturbed soil enhances organic matter, activates soil organisms and creates the ideal conditions for plant roots. Bacteria and fungi (both the good and bad kinds) create a natural and holistic system, resulting in incredibly flavorful, nutrient-dense crops. Compared to a farm where the land is tilled, Urbavore’s system uses far less energy and water, requires no machinery and benefits the environment by sequestering carbon in the soil.

“No-till is about looking at your soil as a living organism, and celebrating and enhancing the biology of soil,” Salvaggio says. “When you love the land, and it provides everything in your life like it does for us, it only makes sense to steward the land and preserve it and give back more than you’re taking.”

Salvaggio and Heryer recycle their household water, which gets used in aspects of their vegetable production, as well as for livestock and "holistic" orchard sprays, Salvaggio says.

“All the potable water for the farm is filtered from our pond through a chemical-free system,” Heryer says. “The system uses a slow sand filter and ultraviolet filtration to make sure the water is safe for drinking and washing vegetables. All the water that comes out of the house gets recycled through a similar engineered system so that we can reuse it for our plants and animals. Not a drop of water falls on the farm that doesn’t get used two or three times.”

Another contributor to the farm’s sustainable mission: At Urbavore, compost and manure replace traditional chemical fertilizers. A sizable compost receptacle sits at the farm’s entrance, and Urbavore’s neighbors are encouraged to leave their waste there rather than throwing it out. “We’ve been composting here since 2011,” Heryer says. “We’re passionate about taking from the urban waste stream and actually recycling it so that we can grow food for the community.”

The farm’s citywide composting program is available to people throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area. “Hundreds of area residents regularly leave food scraps and yard waste in the receptacle," Salvaggio says. The waste is composted in a long row at the back of the property, and is turned as often as Heryer can manage with the loader on his tractor. The compost is then applied to the orchards and vegetable fields. To date, Urbavore has diverted roughly 1,000 tons of waste from landfills.

Even the chickens get put to work with Urbavore’s pastured poultry program. Salvaggio and Heryer have two mobile chicken trailers, each holding about 100 chickens. The houses move around the farm every few weeks to provide the birds with fresh pasture or fallow fields to be fertilized. Once crops have been harvested, the chickens are let loose to eat pests and grubs and devour weeds and, in so doing, help prep the fields for the next planting.

Salvaggio and Heryer have wholly embraced living off the land at Urbavore. Heryer single-handedly built the majority of their house, which sits in the earth with concrete retaining walls. A foot of soil sits above the wood-framed roof, and the east and west walls are almost completely glass (allowing the family to watch the sun rise and set). There’s also a wood-burning cook-stove, and the farm’s water recycling system features again in the home’s composting toilet. Most of the building materials were sourced from recycled or sustainable sources: 100-year-old barn siding used for paneling; recycled lumber for the roof; ReWall, a product that presses together recycled and shredded Tetra Paks to form wallboard, in place of traditional drywall; 200-year-old bricks on the hearth reclaimed from the cobbled streets of Chicago and yellow bricks on the bathroom wall from old Milwaukee factory buildings. The couple used plant-based paints and stains for finishes, creating a nontoxic environment. All the electrical needs in the house and on the farm at large are powered by solar panels, which produce four times the energy they use.

A Good Growth

It can be a little hard to tell where one crop ends and another begins at Urbavore. Salvaggio and Heryer have designed the farm that way. Strawberries and spinach are planted between rows of apple trees, and a blackberry patch is tucked behind a plot of asparagus. There are orchards of pear, peach, plum and cherry trees on the north side of the property. A hundred blueberry bushes have recently found a home in a wet field that once grew annual vegetables.

Urbavore’s three main vegetable fields are located in the rear of the farm; this spring, they contain garlic, onions, leeks, lettuce, potatoes, beets, carrots and kale. As the season progresses, summer crops will make their way into the rotation. Spring is also the height of egg season, when Urbavore’s chickens lay about 70 dozen eggs a week (as opposed to around 40 dozen a week the rest of the year).

“We try to have the most diversity that we can,” Salvaggio says. “We started out as vegetable farmers with annual crops. It was a long-term dream to move into perennial crops – fruit trees, berries, asparagus. But perennials take multiple years to start producing, so we live off the income of our annual veggies while our orchards come into themselves.”

Growing fruit in the region, Salvaggio says, is no small feat due to threats from pests and diseases in a humid climate, and because they don't use chemical pesticides and herbicides. The berries are easier to manage, but the couple has had to carefully plan for the 200 fruit trees they’re growing.

“We have mostly heirloom apple varieties – Haralson, Golden Russet, Winesap, Albemarle Pippin – and many more that we selected first for [flavor] and second for disease resistance,” Salvaggio says. “It’s insanely challenging to grow organic tree fruit here, so we’re learning as we go.”

Seed to Plate

Perhaps one of Urbavore’s greatest triumphs is that the income it’s garnered has come primarily from transactions between Salvaggio and Heryer and the people who buy their produce. Urbavore is committed to, and prioritizes, selling directly to consumers. Ninety percent of the farm’s products are sold at the Brookside Farmers’ Market. Any excess is sold to local restaurants and grocery stores including Eden Alley Café, Heirloom Bakery, Café Sebastienne and Terra Health & Wellness Market.

“There’s a personal element to growing food for people,” Heryer says. “I grew up going to farmers’ markets with my mother, and it was all about seeing different people and experiencing fresh food. It’s not even necessarily the same people every week, or that it’s this deep interaction – there’s a lot of meaning in those small, basic exchanges for me.”

Salvaggio also treasures the reactions that Urbavore’s produce receives. People are “freaking out” for the farm’s strawberries, she says happily, and she loves to hear about the recipes Urbavore’s vegetables will star in.

“Farming sort of saved me, as cheesy as it sounds,” Salvaggio says. “After I dropped out of art school, I was extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with consumer culture; I was trying to find my path.

"I started working on organic farms as a way to fund my shoestring travel budget, and there was something that made sense when I was getting my hands in the dirt. I felt like my existence had meaning, and that was a big moment for me. It means everything to me, to grow food and feed other people.”

Urbavore, 5500 Bennington Ave., Kansas City, Missouri, urbavorefarm.com