Melissa Young-Millsap cultivates a lot more than produce. Young-Millsap owns Urban Roots Farm in Springfield, Missouri, with her husband, Adam. Over the past decade, the farm has become a symbol of Springfield’s growing farm-to-table movement – but more importantly, it’s become a beacon for the city’s neglected west side.
Raised by a father with a green thumb, Young-Millsap resolved to pursue agriculture as a teen. She spent summers at her grandparents’ farm while flitting between jobs at peach orchards and greenhouses. “I wasn’t ever oblivious to the hard work that farming takes,” she says. Fast forward to 2009, when she was raising her young family while running the greenhouse for her brother-in-law, Curtis Millsap, who owns Millsap Farms in north Springfield. Young-Millsap lived with her husband, Adam, in Springfield’s West Central neighborhood, a historic and predominantly low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown Springfield. The two had spent several years eyeing a patch of blighted property next to their home as a potential microfarm when Adam was laid off from his job at a steel processing plant. At that point, they knew it was time to take the plunge.
The couple purchased the land and the blighted apartments it housed, spending about eight months working with Springfield’s City Council to gain permission to cultivate the land as an urban farm. “The property was beyond blighted,” Young-Millsap says. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff we pulled out of the field. The apartments hadn’t been taken care of, and there was so much trash for us to deal with. We also had to spend a lot of time mending the soil.”
Despite its challenges, the Millsaps knew that the West Central neighborhood needed an urban farm. “West Central is one of Springfield’s lowest income neighborhoods,” Young-Millsap says. “There’s a lot of crime, a lot of families that are having to do without. The farm allows us to create a safe place for kids to come hang out and play, and it also presents quite a few opportunities for outreach.” Urban Roots outreach efforts include gardening classes, summer job openings and food donations for produce that would otherwise go uneaten “We don’t ever have to look for places to donate food, because the people who need the donations are our neighbors,” Young-Millsap says.
Young-Millsap explains that the farm also serves as an attraction for those who may not otherwise visit the bustling downtown area. Urban Roots hosts regular events including plant sales and the wildly popular Cocktails on the Farm series. “I grew up on the south side of Springfield, and we just never went downtown growing up,” Young-Millsap says. “So when I went to college and started working downtown, I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing,” – but I was completely oblivious to the struggles of addiction and homelessness that the area faced.” Now, Young-Millsap uses the farm both as an attraction and a way to open the community’s eyes to the neighborhood’s needs. “Urban Roots brings people into the neighborhood and shows them something beautiful,” she says. “But the most important thing is spreading awareness that there’s life outside of your own world.”
What's your perfect day of eating in Springfield? I’d definitely start the morning at The Coffee Ethic. That’s my go-to for coffee in Springfield. I’m not a big breakfast eater – I usually just like my coffee and a little baked good – so I’d probably head straight to Cherry Picker for lunch. I love their sandwiches with a light salad, and they’re always buying our greens, so I’m a little partial [laughs]. I also love the Baby Burger at Lindberg’s. I think it's the best burger in town. Then, I’d definitely go to Hotel Vandivort for cocktails. They’re my favorite for cocktails, hands down. Of course, dinner there is also amazing.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? I can’t even keep up, and I’m smack dab in the middle of it. I think that one of the most exciting things about the local scene – especially as a farmer selling to restaurants – is to see how many people working at a restaurant evolve into owning their own. That has been so fun to witness. From a farmer’s perspective, it’s great, because you’ll build relationships with industry folks and they’ll take you with them when they open their own place. The relationship between a farmer and a chef – that’s one romantic story. An example that comes to mind is [Dylan Fox] with The Hepcat. They’re hopefully opening soon, and he’s been a blast to work with, all the way back from when he was working at Hotel Vandivort and helping us launch Cocktails on the Farm.
Who are Springfield chefs you admire at the moment? The team over at Hotel Vandivort has been awesome from the very beginning. They’ve had a few chefs, but every single time they are so supportive. They’re also great at working with the seasons, which is one of the things chefs often have a hard time getting used to. Typically, the supply truck has anything they want anytime they want it, so getting chefs to really work with local flavors can be a challenge. Ryan Dock at Lindberg’s is another one who has been on board from the very beginning. If I have something crazy or need to push something, he’s always willing to do a special. The team at Progress has been fun to work with as well, and so has Cherry Picker.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Springfield? I’ve been dreaming of a simple local breakfast diner. I feel like breakfast is one of those meals that allows you to source locally year-round, and it doesn’t need to be fancy. Most of us just want a simple, delicious breakfast.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Cheesy potatoes. My good friend Karen McQueary [of Hotel Vandivort] makes the best cheesy potatoes. Anytime life has been hard, I’ll call her up like, “Hey, Karen – when can we get together and have some cheesy potatoes?”
What is your first farming memory? My dad always gardened. That was his happy place. He also grew up on a farm, and my grandfather still had that farm while I was growing up, so my parents would ship me there from time to time [laughs]. I definitely gained my romantic view of farming through my grandparents and my father. From the time I was in diapers, I remember him sitting me in the dirt with him and talking with me about life.
What are your future plans? Adam and I have actually relocated to Bentonville, although we still spend a lot of weekends in Springfield. Our farm manager, Alyssa Hughes, has been working on Urban Roots for five years now, so she’s moved into our house and is taking over day-to-day management. Although I’m still coming home and helping with events, I’m mostly managing from afar. Before we came down here to start the farm in Bentonville, we started working with a team out of Denver helping design Finley Farms [a new project in Ozark, Missouri, currently being launched by the family of Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops]. I’m so excited to see that project come to life. Right now, our hopes are to create Bentonville’s first urban farm as part of Arkansas’ first agrihood, Red Barn. After this project is complete, our goal is to help seed as many small farms as we can. Traditionally, farms have been a large part of people’s lives here in the Ozarks; although we’re seeing a lot of those farms closing down, we feel like we can really make a difference by adding microfarms. That’s our dream.
Urban Roots Farm, 831 West State St., Springfield, Missouri, 417.597.4858, urbanrootsfarm.com