The 1.7-acre lot in West Central that houses Urban Roots Farm LLC was once a neighborhood dumping ground.
“It was a completely blighted piece of property,” says owner Melissa Young-Millsap. “There were couches and mattresses and broke-down appliances – there was drug abuse and prostitution.”
Beyond the mess, Young-Millsap saw possibility.
In 2010, she and her husband Adam Millsap, paid $205,000 to buy the property, including eight run-down apartments, to convert into an urban farm.
“I’ve always wanted to farm, and we love downtown and being in the city,” Young-Millsap says. “It’s a beautiful place in the middle of the hood.”
But there was a significant hurdle early on.
Farming within city limits was illegal at the time. After eight months of talks, Springfield City Council unanimously approved zoning changes to allow farming.
Now, Urban Roots grows 114 vegetable varieties year-round.
“The only way to make a living on a one-and-a-half-acre farm was to never stop producing,” Young-Millsap says. “We plant and harvest every single week.”
Kevin Prather, who has worked on the farm since 2014, says he’s especially excited this year about growing tomato and pepper varieties.
“They just kind of scream summer,” he says of tomatoes. “I love eating vegetables and watching them grow.”
Urban Roots’ summer and winter Community Supported Agriculture programs make up roughly 60 percent of the farm’s $70,000 annual revenue.It’s grown to 65 shares from 15 shares in 2010.
West Central residents Jay and Amber Howard have participated in the CSAs for the past few years.
“There’s such amazing variety in the vegetables you get, some stuff you might not regularly see in the store,” he says. “It encourages you to try new things.”
Urban Roots charges $395-$690 per season. Recently, he’s been enjoying “space spinach,” which he says has leaves as big as his hand.
Additionally, Urban Roots operates an on-site farm stand open daily and wholesale accounts at downtown restaurants, as well as MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC. The business also holds farm-to-table dinners in the fall and summertime cocktail-mixing events.
In addition to farming, the Millsaps own eight apartments on the property.
One houses an apprentice, six are rented and one recently was converted into an Airbnb short-term vacation rental. Organized through Millsap Properties LLC, Young-Millsap says the $75 nightly rental is almost completely booked for the next few months.
“It’s hard to find those unique things in a city,” she says. “I felt like doing (Airbnb) here would at least introduce something unique to folks traveling through.”
Another new venture for the farm this spring is Uber Eats.
The on-demand food delivery service entered the Springfield market in November. Young-Millsap says Urban Roots was the first farm to partner with Uber Eats to deliver fresh vegetables. No one has used the service so far, but she anticipates a pickup this summer when more vegetables are available to order.
Young-Millsap says the farm has doubled as a safe haven for neighborhood kids.
West Central has the lowest median household incomes in all of Springfield at $19,731, according to census data. Within a half-mile of the farm, McGregor and Campbell elementary schools have 95 percent free and reduced lunch rates.
Partnering with Missouri State University, Urban Roots kicked off a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe this month to start an after-school program.
Young-Millsap says kids often hang out around the farm, but she wanted to formalize what’s happened organically and get help with supervision and programming.
The $15,000 goal will fund an MSU graduate assistant to run the program, which will provide mentorship and teach participants about urban agriculture and sustainability. In the first few weeks, the campaign has raised nearly $1,000 from 16 people, according to the GoFundMe page.
“Seeing the reach that the Millsaps have had on this neighborhood, the kids specifically, I think has been really powerful,” Prather says. “That’s been more important than the food we grow.”
Young-Millsap says many of the families in the neighborhood have never seen a farm.
“We had our garden in the front yard before we started the farm, and the kids were like, ‘What is this? What are you doing?’” she says. “Everybody should know where your food comes from and who produces it and have access to it.”
Young-Millsap says it’s been a challenging but productive eight years.
“One of the beautiful things about farming is that it’s ever-changing. There’s no end to the challenges, but I like that,” she says. “We still have so much room to grow.”
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