The Longfellow neighborhood sits right off the Troost divide of Kansas City. The Troost divide refers to the racial and income split that is marked by the street of the same name, it has been the subject of tension and controversy for the better part of a century and beyond. Recently it has given rise to many artistic and community driven project to revitalize the area involving people from all walks of life, age groups and backgrounds. The quarter acre plot that sat a few blocks from my house sat fallow, the home of apartment buildings some decades ago now full of weeds, broken bottles and used needles. We had discussed taking things to the next level for some time none of us knew the first thing about growing food. There is knowledge gap among those I have known and meet on the whole, an entire generation that has grown up thinking food comes from grocery stores, packaged, branded and available on demand. I had a good friend Neal in a program called “Growing Growers” [part of what is now Cultivate KC] where experienced farmer’s taught young apprentices paired with the agricultural biology necessary to truly understand the nuts and bolts of turning a seed into food.
So we set out to get inputs, my partner wrote a letter and got 400 dollars worth of organic heirloom seeds donated from Baker’s Creek in Mansfield. Neal set up shelving and lights for transplants and we set out to getting the soil ready for growing. Basically what they did when they tore down the apartments was clear the bulk of it and then pour about 6 inches of topsoil over everything. I’m not sure if words could every properly describe the days of tilling through those 4 30×30 plots and getting the massive pieces of foundation out of the ground, wires, hinges, brackets, enough bricks it seemed to build a house and concrete to motar them. But in the end we did it and had more yards than I care to mention of Missouri Organic composted soil brought in to till into the soil and make it rich in the good old nutrients needed to grow healthy food. We finally raked out the remainder of gravel and detritus out and formed the mended soil into beds, covered everything in straw and let it be. The entire time we soaked up as much information from every source we could ranging from the Kansas City Food Circle to the Center for Urban Agriculture, to KC Community Gardens and every farmer’s almanac and book we could find on organic no till gardening. I know what you’re thinking we did till but the idea is once we tilled the original compost in, the following year we would simply add to it and thus layer upon layer season after season the soil would just get richer and richer only having to til the first time. Tiller’s by the way are no joke, I have the scar across the bridge of my nose that can tell you just what happens to those who lose their focus, a little reminder to keep my humility in check- from the latin humilis- low to the ground HA!
I could tell you a million stories about our adventures learning to grow food and sell to local stores or getting fencing from good old boys in the boonies but I’ll simply rely on describing one thing. We had 100 tomato plants in 6 different varities one of which were heirloom cherry tomatoes. I had never been a fan of them myself but I recall clearly after the hot days of weeding, watering, tending, trying to find the time to maintain such a large piece of land with only one consistent partner [everyone likes the idea of urban farming, few the actual work]. There was one day in particular when I picked the first tomato and popped it in my mouth and all I can say is that it was the best thing I had ever tasted- tomato or otherwise. It was the first time the connection between the ground and my stomach made sense, I had just eaten sunlight and it was glorious.
It was during this period that the BP oil spill consumed the airwaves and I spoke with someone about how they felt hopeless because all they saw everywhere were things going wrong. I thought about that conversation as I spent my mornings, afternoons, and evenings in the field, pulling out the rubble and waste of excess and putting tools to the earth to make of it something better, I worked along side good people, was brought food and drink by others, made connections with yet others and in the end found myself exhausted and sun burnt yet unable to argue the purity and joy that resounded in me nor wipe the real and genuine smile from my face. This is how we do it, by putting our time and sweat and blood into the earth- and is it overshadowed by giant oil spill- I say not a chance in hell. You get 60 odd years on this earth I dare you after it’s done to look at your hands and know they have done good and honest things, each violence, negative action, atrocity will inevitably be met with peace, positive action, and progress- make yours part of the greater whole.