The gardens of the city

The Switzer Neighborhood Farm-Westside Communtiy Gardens at 20th and West Pennway in Kansas City, Mo.

I grew up in a house sandwiched between waving fields and a muddy creek bed. I spent my childhood traipsing up and down paths walled off from cows by barbed-wire fence. I carved out my own right-of-ways through the land, ones that could only make sense to a nine year-old’s brain.

The environment I was raised in during my early childhood was rural but my family had nothing to do with agriculture. The world of farms and fields sat outside our front doorstep but we did not inhabit it. It was more of a piece of the world to be viewed from a car window as we traveled the gravel road into town.

The idea that a farm or garden could be urban wouldn’t have really made much sense to me back then. So, there was a sense of magic that came with attending the 2011 Kansas City Urban Farms and Garden Tour on Saturday.

What I found during trips to just six of the nearly 40 sites on the tour was more than I had even imagined, despite my knowing about the growing attention these sorts of farms and gardens are getting.

Just yards away from the hum of interstate traffic in Kansas City, Kansas, there’s a tucked away urban farm that produces 25,000 pounds of organic produce each year. Miles away in another part of KCK, a neighborhood garden not only produces food but has brought together people of different church denominations and ethnicities to work it. Further north in an area called Armourdale, a nonprofit group has transformed a vacant lot into a source for its food pantry.

Travel across the state line into Midtown KCMO and you’ll find the cutting-edge design of DST 18Broadway, a sloping “agricultural garden.” It has been built with a system of rain gardens and bio filtration to redirect runoff into producing food. The growing plants here tend to be arranged with beauty in mind, with reddish-hued lettuce adding splashes of color.

Several blocks to the west, behind a razor-wire topped fence, you’ll find urban chickens milling about in the shadow of a long-abandoned school building. The raised-bed gardens flourishing in the Switzer Neighborhood and Westside Community Gardens represent a rebirth for this reclaimed industrial property.

The striking thing to me was how each of the food-producing sites I visited represented something different to the community, despite a similar core purpose. In an environment where there is no shortage of concrete, these urban farms and gardens represent something healthful, useful and beautiful.

After decades of having agriculture increasingly become something that we viewed from afar, these sites remind us how food doesn’t just appear magically on a supermarket shelf. It comes from the land, conjured up from rain, water, soil, sun, and through the work of dirt-caked hands.

Our sustenance is created through work and nurtured by good fortune, a blessing that shouldn’t solely be represented in far-off fields and pastures. That some of it should grow close to us, tucked within the overpasses and sidewalks of the cities and suburbs most of us call home, seems only natural, too.

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