Farmer Interview – Brien Darby, Cultivate KC

Posted on December 7, 2023 by Alicia Alferman

Cultivate KC established Westport Commons Farm on the site of an old ball field at the former Westport Middle School, now known as Plexpod Westport Commons. As a hub for farmer resources and food education, this demonstration farm hosts over 600 visitors each year for volunteer opportunities and tours. It includes a large high tunnel and washstand, an outdoor classroom, composting area, an urban agriculture tool lending library, and a small flock of chickens. During the growing season, we sell the food we grow at a weekly farmstand, and the remainder of the produce is donated to nearby food pantries. We donated almost 800 lbs. of produce last year alone.

In 2023, the property owners began plans to develop the site into an apartment complex, and Cultivate KC was asked to relocate the farm. We are making plans to relocate the farm to a suitable location nearby, however this development highlights one of the challenges urban farmers most often experience: land stability is proving more difficult than ever to come by.

Recently Courtney Hattaway, Community Engagement Specialist, interviewed our Executive Director, Brien Darby, about Cultivate KC’s farms and land access challenges.

How many acres do you farm?  
Our non-profit organization farms 1.25 acres in Midtown KCMO, which is the site of our Westport Commons Farm, and about 9 acres in NEKCK, which is the site of our Juniper Gardens Training Farm. However, at both sites, we lease a sizable portion of the land to farmers who are growing for profit and are either just starting out or sustaining their small farm businesses. 

Does Cultivate own the farmland or lease it from someone else?
Our Westport Commons Farm is on land under a lease agreement that will end early; we will pursue a different lease agreement with longer terms as we look to relocate the farm. The Juniper Gardens Training Farm is about 8 acres of land leased from the KCK Housing Authority and 1 acre of land that we purchased from the KCK Land Bank several years ago. 

Tell us about the advantages and/or challenges involved with farming on separate properties. 
We use each of our sites for a different programmatic purpose, so one of the biggest challenges is that having multiple sites increases the number of program staff we need. We also try to share tools, when possible, but sometimes it’s more practical to own two sets of tools that stay at each site. The clear advantage, however, is that we get to engage different communities across two cities and a state line. 

Is Midtown a particularly challenging area when it comes to accessing land for urban farms and gardens? 
It is! Vacant land that is privately owned is priced for anticipated development, and there is no guarantee that publicly owned land, like the parcels that are held in the KCMO Land Bank, will actually be available for green infrastructure projects like urban farming. 

Why was it important to grow the Westport Commons demonstration farm in the heart of the city?   
We have found that locating our Midtown farm site in a part of town with heavy foot/car/bus/bike traffic has been a great way to spark interest in a range of topics including urban farming, climate change, regenerative ag, food insecurity and even composting and organic waste diversion. Sometimes these conversations happen organically as people pass by the site, but we are also intentional about offering programing on our site and being open to hosting school groups, corporate volunteers, tours, etc. 

What made Cultivate KC choose the Westport Commons Farm location?     
Westport Commons is located at the intersection of four neighborhoods with varying demographic characteristics, we are close to major transportation routes, and perhaps most importantly, we are near the Ivanhoe neighborhood, which has a high concentration of urban farms that could benefit from the resources we make available at the farm. Our location is also near half a dozen schools that enjoy visiting our farm for field trips and service-learning opportunities. 

How long has Cultivate KC been at the Westport Commons Farm location?  
Six years, although we were in conversations about locating here with the site developer for about four years prior to that. 

How do you decide which crops to grow at Westport Commons Farm? 
The food that is grown on our farm is harvested for our weekly farm stand and for donations to local pantries like the one operated by Metro Lutheran Ministries. We try to choose crops that will fill out the offering for both audiences. As a demonstration farm for the public, we want to grow a large diversity of crops – we want folks visiting the farm to see vegetables that they recognize as well as vegetables that they’ve never heard of or seen.

Farm tours usually include taste testing, so we also like to mix in crops that can be consumed in the field, things like cherry tomatoes, peas, carrots, and sweet bell peppers. Lastly, as a demonstration farm for other urban farmers, we are often planting cover crops, which we don’t intend to harvest, but will increase soil health and carbon sequestration. We experiment with different cover crop mixes and ways of incorporating the cover crop back into the soil and prepping beds for planting. 

What are the most popular veggies sold at your farm stand? 
Definitely watermelons, but since those are only available for about one month, we also get a lot of requests for carrots, tomatoes, long beans, and a variety of peppers. Our farmer also grew ground cherries this season and that was a surprise hit with our audience, if only they were easier to harvest! 

What difficulties have you faced when it comes to urban farmland access recently? How are you working to overcome these obstacles?  
Both of Cultivate KC’s sites are under threat because our leases are ending. In the case of Westport Commons, we know that our lease will be ending (20 years earlier than expected) around the end of 2023/beginning of 2024, but we have been working diligently to find our relocation site. We are committed to keeping and growing the infrastructure and resources that are part of this program.

Our Housing Authority site in KCK was listed for sale earlier this year as part of the larger sale of the housing site. We are hopeful that we will be able to negotiate a new lease or other land use agreement with the new owners of the site. We are excited, however, that we will be able to purchase a piece of land next year that will not be subject to a lease and the changing land use patterns. 

Other than land access, what significant challenges do you face as a farm?   
Much like other farms in our region, we are learning quickly how to adapt to growing in a changing climate. Hotter, much drier summers see us irrigating more than ever and employing clever ways of keeping direct sun and hot temperatures off our more delicate crops. The warmer winters are a bonus for extending the harvest period of cool season crops, but it also means that insect pests are less likely to die off in the winter and we have seen increased pest pressure on the rise. 

What is your most recent accomplishment that you’re proud of?  
In the 2023 season, we logged over 1,700 hours of volunteer time at our Westport Commons Farm. This included help from schools (with visitors ranging from elementary to college-aged), workplaces looking for a way to give back to their community, church groups, and community members who often volunteered more than once. 

What are your plans for the future of the farm? 
Once we have identified our relocation site for the Westport Commons Farm, we will begin work on adding a community greenhouse, cold storage, and bringing our tool lending library out of the dark garage and into a much more user-friendly environment. 

What is the most important service you think the farm provides to the public? To area farmers? 
I would like to believe that we are an example of what is possible when a community decides to invest in the food system and recognize the environmental benefits of urban farming; our farm is a demonstration, but we will need many more similar sized sites operated by a diversity of farmers to make the biggest impact on our local food economy. 

If you had to choose one thing for the general public to know about farming, what would it be?  
Urban farming is a profession that requires years of experience to perfect, but even beginning farmers can contribute to our food system and ALL farmers need our support.

Regardless of recent obstacles, Cultivate KC is excited for the possibilities, progress and expansion that will come with the new year. Yes, we’re disappointed about leaving Westport Commons Farm location, but we’ve relished our time on this plot of land and all the learning opportunities that have come along with it. We loved hosting numerous farm happy hours, Earth Day celebrations, and our first ever Midtown Hoedown there. Nothing makes us happier when our farms are bursting with ripening produce and lots of visitors.

No matter what soil we farm, we will continue to model sustainable agricultural practices, support our fellow farmers, and promote the programs and initiatives that are imperative to their success. You can rest assured we’ll keep on growing fresh,  healthy produce right in the heart of our city- and finding all the ways we can to ensure access to that food for everyone in our community.