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QUIET FARM: The owners of Urban Roots Farm plan to pause growing after this season's harvest.
SBJ file
QUIET FARM: The owners of Urban Roots Farm plan to pause growing after this season's harvest.

Urban Roots Farm on hold after summer harvest

Owners intend to keep property while they determine next steps

Posted online

As the days of summer wind down, so too will the activity at an urban farm in west Springfield.

Adam Millsap and Melissa Young-Millsap, the husband-and-wife owners of Urban Roots LLC, say they plan to pause growing at the end of the summer.

The farm, which sits on a 1.7-acre West Central neighborhood property at 831 W. State St., has operated since 2010, growing dozens of vegetable varieties year-round for the community.

The decision was announced late last month on Urban Roots’ Facebook page.

The post said that for its years of operations in various configurations, “we have barely made this work,” noting the owners and staff on farm worked “insane hours.”

“A lot of variables drove our decision to hit the pause button now rather than later,” the Millsaps say in the post, noting they currently are involved in a Bentonville, Arkansas project, dubbed Turnbuckle Farm. The couple moved to Bentonville in late 2018 to become part of Farm Team, a six-member agriculture group organized by Green Circle Projects LLC to train and mentor future farmers to run urban farms, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. They maintained ownership of Urban Roots upon their move to Arkansas and named Alyssa Hughes as manager. Hughes exited Urban Roots three years later, succeeded by Kevin Prather and his wife, Carsen, who still manage the farm.

“This was a good opportunity for us to make that natural next step but also continue our support and excitement for our hometown. We kind of shocked ourselves,” Young-Millsap said of moving to the Natural State in a 2019 SBJ story. “The hardest part was leaving our amazing community.”

Young-Millsap and other Urban Roots officials didn’t return messages seeking comment for this story by press time.

In 2010, the Millsaps paid $205,000 to buy the Springfield acreage, including eight run-down apartments, to convert into an urban farm. The lot was once a blighted property, but the couple saw past the challenges with a desire to farm within city limits.

Since its founding, Urban Roots has offered summer and winter Community Supported Agriculture programs. Prices for the current summer program – the farm’s last for the foreseeable future – range $840-$1,140 for the full 30 weeks of the season, which runs May-November.

Urban Roots also operates an on-site farm stand open daily and wholesale accounts at various restaurants. The farm’s Facebook post said Millsap Farm, owned by Adam’s brother Curtis Millsap and his wife, Sarah, will support the CSA and farm stand for now.

Local impact
Several Springfield businesses source produce from Urban Roots, including Commercial Street eatery Blue Heron and MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods stores and Craft Sushi restaurants. Craft Sushi co-owner Michael Cho said his two eateries have received deliveries from the farm since he opened the first store in 2018.

“I was incredibly saddened to hear it,” Cho said of the farm’s announcement, adding he received word in advance of the social media post from one of his employees, who is friends with the Millsaps. “I’ve always been very inspired by that place and the whole idea of an urban farm, putting down roots in an urban area.”

Craft Sushi primarily sourced mixed greens from the farm but would occasionally get in-season produce, such as garlic and onions.

“It would provide us with a rotating field blend,” he said, estimating they spend several hundred dollars a month with Urban Roots. “Everything is grown organically there, and we love the fact that we know the people tending to it. They are the people that planted the seeds and sowed the harvest.”

Noting the restaurant sources most of its ingredients locally, Cho said Craft Sushi also uses vendors including Willow Mountain Mushrooms in Ozark County, as well as from the Farmers Market of the Ozarks and Greater Springfield Farmers Market.

“We’re in the process of looking for a new vendor,” he said of the field greens.

Cho was familiar with Urban Roots before opening Craft Sushi, as he said his former employer, Hickory Hills Country Club, also sourced produce from the farm. Cho exited Hickory Hills last year to focus full time on Craft Sushi, according to past reporting.

Challenging environment
Patrick Byers, field specialist in horticulture for the University of Missouri Extension, said he’s aided Urban Roots since its opening.

“A lot of what I did as far as working with them was problem-solving, helping with decision making and providing information in areas that was helpful,” he said, noting that included advice on crop issues, such as diseases and insects, as well as installation of movable high tunnels. “Sometimes, I was just a sounding board; sometimes just a sympathetic ear.”

Farming is challenging, Byers said, but in an urban environment it has unique obstacles, such as soil impacted by urban activity and the risk of heavy metal contamination, which can involve foreign objects in the soil. He recalled one instance where Urban Roots staff unexpectedly found a cistern under one of its garden beds.

“That’s something that likely won’t happen in a rural setting,” he said. “Certainly, the availability and cost of water are concerns in an urban setting. First of all, you typically have many more neighbors. Secondly, you oftentimes have people who have diverse activities going on in their properties. That can negatively impact a farm, especially a farm that is using sustainable production practices like Urban Roots does.”

While recent financials weren’t available, Urban Roots officials reported in a 2018 SBJ story that revenue in 2017 was $70,000, noting its CSA programs made up roughly 60% of the total.

Byers said he wasn’t surprised by the farm’s announcement to shut down production.

“At Urban Roots, there is an upper limit as far as the income generation that is possible from that farm,” he said. “If you’re intending to make a living from an urban farm, it can be a challenge because of those limitations.”

The Urban Roots Facebook post notes the farming pause on the property is not being thought of by officials as an ending.

“We are looking at it as a rest,” the post reads. “We will keep the property that houses the farm, give the soil some much needed cover cropping love, and wait for clarity in what comes next for this place we love so much.”

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