Urban Agriculture: Old-School Urban Farmers and Young, Beginning Gardeners Both Play a Part

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Photo by Katherine Kelly
Urban farmer Mr. Lavender shares how food was once grown in Wyandotte County to feed the metro area. Many older farmers form the backbone of the urban agriculture movement in their communities, showing the way for up-and-coming beginning gardeners.

Reposted with permission from Cultivate Kansas City

If you read about urban agriculture and local food in the media, the picture you sometimes get is that everything seems to be happening because of hip young people who are tattooed, dreadlocked, on fire about saving our cities, creating social change, and rocking the food revolution. I’m glad for growers like these because they are some of the leaders in our urban agriculture movement and they really do shake up the ways we think about our cities and what we eat and how we grow it. I’m also glad though, for the urban growers who maybe get less media attention but carry inside them the history of urban agriculture.

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in some of the older neighborhoods of Kansas City, Kan. We’re working on a water initiative and we are out promoting the H2O to Grow Fund. Along the way, there are a couple of people I’ve met for the first time and some I’ve reconnected with who reminded me of the history of urban agriculture and of the small urban agricultural renaissances happening in some of our city’s oldest neighborhoods.

I recently visited Frank Lavender, a person who had been described to me as an “old-school farmer.” Mr. Lavender, who is just in his late 60s, so not so very old, has some deep knowledge and experience of how food was grown in Wyandotte County to feed the metro area.

He grew up in Edwardsville, Kan., a community just outside U.S. Interstate I-435, a town that today has a semi-rural feeling to it but that is very much part of the metro area. His family, headed by his mother, had 5 acres of land where they grew and raised almost all of their food. They had vegetables, fruit, hogs and chickens that they cooked, canned, smoked, salted, sugar-cured and processed to feed themselves.

Because of his experience working on his family’s garden, he was often employed in his teens by the many vegetable and fruit farms that used to populate Wyandotte County. He harvested, loaded and helped get the produce to City Market, to the A & P warehouse, and to other buyers.

After the fields were picked, he and others could go through and take the leftovers. Sometimes he would sell that produce out of the back of the family’s 1954 Ford, taking the back seat out and selling in the neighborhood. They were “hucksters” in the language of the times, driving through communities and selling the fresh produce of the day (the original “Mobile Market”).

As an adult, he moved into town and got other work, but he found himself in his retirement wanting to grow food again. I visited his garden at 27th and Brown streets, right next to the Quindaro Community Center. There, working with some typically challenging urban soil, he is growing tomatoes, peppers, melons, and other vegetable crops for the third year in a row.

He’s the main gardener; sometimes children and adults from the neighborhood come and help out. He’s had some fraternity members join him, also some older ladies who, like him, grew up gardening. He doesn’t have a formal gardening program; he does the work, welcomes helpers and gives all the produce away-sometimes to people driving by, sometimes to the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, pretty much to anyone who asks.

Mr. Lavender says he is aggravated and feels bad about what children are eating today and how it is affecting their health.

“Parents have become relaxed about what kids should eat,” shared Mr. Lavender. “When I was growing up, you ate what was there to eat or you didn’t eat!”

He’s worried about the epidemic of juvenile diabetes and obesity, remembering how it used to be that the overweight kids were the exception, and now they are the norm.

“I’m seeing more urban gardens than I’ve seen before in my life,” he shared when I asked about the “new” urban agriculture movement. He named the reasons as the price of food, the worries about salmonella and other pathogens, and people starting to pay attention to the bad food we are feeding ourselves and our families.

He believes we need to start teaching gardening and agriculture and cooking in our schools; children need to know what it feels like to put yourself into something that grows, that becomes food, that you can share with others. He learned growing and cooking from his mother, but children today don’t have parents who know how to grow or cook, so he tries to be a mentor to others and knows that we need more people to mentor and teach in the same way.

We need to get to know people like Mr. Lavender; we need to talk to them to hear these stories and we need to listen because they remind us that how we live today, on McDonald’s Value Meals and frozen pizza and chicken bites, really is an oddity in human history. He grew up eating vegetables, fruit and meat that they raised and cooked from scratch; when parents today say “Kids just won’t eat vegetables!” they are both telling the truth and also forgetting the reality that kids have been eating healthy for many more generations than not.

He knows that growing food, cooking food and eating food is something we did in families, in our communities, at church picnics and even at school— all simple, direct ways of passing on knowledge and caring for each other. When Mr. Lavender talks about growing food and sharing it, he isn’t nostalgic, he isn’t romanticizing the old days. He’s talking about basic, real, honest human activities and relationships— ones we need more of in these modern days.

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