Nevertheless She Persisted: How Brooke Salvaggio Made One Of America’s Largest Urban Farms A Reality
by Mary Sauer
Word Count: 1,600
For Brooke Salvaggio an act of rebellion to escape from a suburban upbringing that felt dull and empty came a deep love for a more grounded way of life. “I was always a little bothered by the SUV, the big mowed, green lawns and the microwave dinners,” she says walking through her peach orchard towards a bed where she has been transplanting heads of red iceberg into the ground.
At nearly 35, Salvaggio spends from ten to fourteen hours each day in the fields of her 13.5 acre farm amidst east Kansas City, Missouri. She lives on Urbavore Urban Farm with her two young boys and her husband, Dan Heryer, tending to the land with the help of an apprentice, and the occasional volunteer, permitted the reality of 50 hours a week of intense, physical labor doesn’t run them off, which happened with their most recent applicant.
“Growing up, I just felt like something was missing and I was always asking myself, ‘Is this it? Is this really what life is about?’,” she says. In the background, 200 hens murmur amongst themselves, the white noise of the city in the background. Police sirens sound off in the distance as the traffic travels along a nearby parkway.
We pass her family’s house on the farm property, a cozy structure built by her husband, with off-grid water and solar power systems, where they’ve lived close to six years.
“At the time I never thought I’d stay in America. I didn’t want to be here, you know? I had very much this expat mindset and I dreamed of owning land on some small Italian island and growing figs and making goat cheese.”
In search of answers, she dropped out of art school at age 18 and began traveling the world. Looking for a way to lower her travel costs, she signed up for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that connects travelers with organic farmers around the world. In exchange for a place to stay and food to eat, she worked daily on the farms, not realizing then that her original short-term solution to lower cost would change her entire life trajectory.
“I just fell in love with actual act of working with my hands in the dirt. For me, it was the very first time I felt really grounded and connected to something,” explains Salvaggio, grabbing a handful of dirt, shaking it in her fist for emphasis. “Everything in my life up until that point had felt shallow. I had been depressed and on antidepressants, and ya know, I really just felt sane when I was literally crouched down like I am right now with my hands in their dirt. It was kind of a magical experience.”
Eventually, she found herself back in her hometown of Kansas City with the answer to her life purpose — she was meant to live off the land. But first, she had to tackle the logistics, namely, money.
Blessed with a plot of land in South Kansas City that belonged to her father, Salvaggio began her own version of the suburban dream. But instead of a big, mowed lawn and a minivan, she ripped up two and half acres and started Badseed Farm, her first organic farm where she could hone in on her farming skills and earn some money.
Then in 2009, her farm’s goats became the catalysts for major changes in the urban farming scene in Kansas City.
“I thought what I was doing was just this great thing nobody could question. I’m celebrating sustainability, taking a big, lawn that was ridden with chemicals and turning it into an amazing organic garden that was feeding tons of people every week,” Salvaggio recalls. “Neighbors felt the presence of our farm was going to bring down their property values and…low and behold, the city came down on us big time.”
What followed was months of what turned into a community wide battle. Opinions were very much split on what Salvaggio was doing at her two and half acre farm, especially over the small herd of goats she kept there, and both local and national media were quick to get involved. One publication painted Salvaggio and her husband, who she had met after the birth of Badseed Farm, as victims who “fell prey” to their neighbors, meanwhile the New York Times recounted testimonies of neighbors who feared everything from odor to parasites to falling property values.
In the end, a compromise would have to be reached. Along with Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit devoted to promoting and supporting urban agriculture in the city, Salvaggio and Heryer were able to work with the Urban Planning Department to create the Urban Agriculture Ordinance. This ordinance, which is still in effect today, provides certain protections for farmers growing produce in residential areas. Although a victory in a sense, it was bittersweet one, since the terms of the ordinance meant that what Salvaggio and Heryer were doing on their two and a half acre plot was no longer viable. The ordinance, while protecting many aspects of urban farming in Kansas City, officially ended their CSA, or community supported agriculture, program and required them to give up their small herd of goats.
“We were forced to stop our CSA membership. We had five people coming on a Monday night to pick up a share of vegetables,” explains Salvaggio. “We were forced to not allow volunteers to come help us and learn with us. We could no longer have apprentices. It squashed all the logistics on a practical and on a community level. We couldn’t operate our business that way.”
Giving up their two and half acre plot didn’t mean they were ready to give up on farming, or their desire to farm in an urban environment, and they began the search for a large plot of land. Despite searching all over North America, they found 13.5 acres right here in Kansas City that were being liquidated after the non-profit ownership meant to build low income housing on the land was exposed for laundering money.
“We were naive,” laughs Salvaggio as the recalls the time and effort that went into securing their land. “We sort of catapulted ourselves into this year-long, agonizing process working with the city to obtain and purchase this property. We did everything from writing a 15-page proposal, to holding community meetings, to knocking on doors and getting petitions signed.”
Then, in April of 2010, all of their hard work finally paid off: they official purchased the land, had it zoned for agriculture and Urbavore Farm was born. They left Badseed Farm behind and began to develop the land the following fall. Today, Urbavore is among the largest of urban farms in the United States, according to Salvaggio.
On Urbavore, no-till organic farming is the law of the land. This method of farming is labor intensive, prohibiting them use of plows and tillers to turn over the land, but incredibly rewarding for everyone involved, from the eaters of food grown, to the farmers, to the land itself.
In Jeff Moyer’s Organic No-Till Farming the author clearly outlines why someone would opt for a method that is so time consuming. “It is the hope and dream of many organic farmers to limit tillage, increase soil organic matter, save money and improve soil structure on their farms,” he writes. “Now, armed with new technologies and tools based on sound biological principles, organic producers can begin to reduce or even eliminate tillage from their system.”
Although the methods used on Urbavore Farm must look markedly different from that of a large-scale, commercial no-till farm, they share some for the same goals. Avoid tilling for the good of the earth and the quality of the food that land produces.
“It is a way to looking at your soil as a living organism and treating it as that. When you plow it up and till it and churn it up, you’re basically killing the soil and the microbiology in the soil. We, instead, celebrate the microbiology of the soil.”
Because of their methods, Urbavore Farm produces extremely high yields of high quality produce, the land has yielded $400,000 worth of fruit and vegetables since their first full year of farming in 2011.
While living off the land can sound romantic, Salvaggio will be the first to tell you that the steps that brought her to a life as an urban farmer, and a leader of the urban farming community in Kansas City, have been anything but strawberries and cream.
“Our system works, as unconventional as it may be. Now, the kicker is, you have to have enough energy, enough blood, enough sweat to put into it,” Salvaggio says, who will be the first to admit that the work is grueling and that their system, which has worked so well for so long, has been shaken by her new role as a mother to two young children.
She tells me how much they have questioned their lifestyle over the last few years, how sleepless nights followed by long days spent with her babies strapped to her back while she farms have certainly brought doubts to the surface. She breaks away from her work planting lettuce and pulls her youngest to her lap to nurse as she tells me about the months she has spent just like that, sitting in the dirt, breastfeeding her children and how taxing the responsibility has been, caring for her family and her farm. Nevertheless, their land, the city and the lifestyle they have chosen are their future and this is how they plan to spend the rest of their lives.
“You have these children, but you have this responsibility to your land. It’s what provides you with your income and your livelihood…So, we pour our lives into it. It is our lives.”