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Urban Farming: The Challenge of Producing Food in a City in Austin, Texas | Urban Roots Farm

Urban Farming: The Challenge of Producing Food in a City | Urban Roots Farm

There are a ton of benefits to urban farming. 

Local food, farm to table, 100 mile diet, all of this is possible with urban agriculture. Further, urban gardens are often built over abandoned spaces in cities, converting them into green space, helping increase the beauty and value of the neighborhood.

However, there are also many challenges with urban farming. There’s potential contaminants from city water runoff, zoning laws that must be overcome, laws about owning chickens, bees, and other farm animals, as well as major space constraints.

We get into all this and more on the latest episode of Small Business War Stories featuring Mel Millsap of Urban Roots Farm.

Listen to the podcast:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Mel Millsap of Urban Roots Farm is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

Can you tell me more about the concept of urban farming, so what does it mean that we are here in the middle of Springfield, Missouri and there is a farm?

Mel Millsap: Urban Roots Farm is in a very unique location because we are in the West Central neighborhood, which encompasses the downtown, the square of Springfield. It’s a pretty large neighborhood, but it’s the second lowest-income neighborhood in Springfield. So it’s pretty diverse.

It’s an urban area. You don’t see the white picket fence and the big red barn because we can’t do that here. You see a lot of concrete. You see a lot of houses. You hear a lot of cars. It’s city life.

How did you end up doing this?

Mel Millsap: Purely by accident. We’ve actually lived here in our house in West Central for almost 15 years. We bought the property next door in 2009 and started farming it in 2010.

When we bought our house 15 years ago, the plan was to buy a cheap house close to downtown because downtown was really growing and just reviving itself, and we thought it’d be a great investment. You know? “We’ll buy this house. We’ll fix it up. We’ll flip it.

So we bought the house and then we thought that we would flip it and buy land and move to the country, maybe near a river, and we both really enjoy the wilderness. I knew I wanted to farm, so I knew I wanted some land. Then just a turn of events happen and I kept staring at this acre and a half next door and wondering, “I don’t know. What would that be like?” If we just stayed here and did this.

And at the time, my brother-in-law had started a farm and I was helping him. That farm is north of Springfield, so I helped him get started and all the while thinking, “Where’s my farm? Where’s my farm?” I heard about some urban farms in Kansas City and St. Louis and went up and visited and thought, “Wait a second. You mean I could actually farm and bike downtown for a cup of coffee? Absolutely.

This is kind of the lifestyle I want, but then also just being here, it’s the lifestyle that a lot of the people in the neighborhood needed, especially the kids because they’re never going to get to go outside of this city to visit a farm. I think most of the people in my generation had a parent or a grandparent that had a farm.

So we had that connection, and a lot of the kids now, there’s that gap and the gap is only getting bigger and bigger between having a connection or a relative that farms and gardens, and here in West Central, you don’t see a lot of that. It kind of became a mission to us as well to think, “Well if we had a farmer where people work and live and they play, then maybe they’ll just get something out of it by walking by it every day.” You know? It’s accessible to them.

How do the neighbors feel about it?

Mel Millsap: Most of the neighbors really like it. Every now and then we’ll get somebody that gets upset about this, that, and the other, but nothing major. Honestly, the kids in the neighborhood love it the most. In the summertime, there’s this little group of kids that, you know, they’re a little biker gang, and they ride over here and they call it, “Narnia.” And they just hang out. It’s a safe place.

And we get a lot of people over here that want to volunteer that live in West Central neighborhood and there is a lot of substance abuse, and that’s unfortunate, and I have a place in my heart for folks that struggle with that. It’s nice when they do come over. I usually only see them when they’re sober and feeling good, but I think the farm also makes them feel better. Then, when they kind of go downhill and are struggling again, they don’t ever come see me.

It is a bummer, but it’s also one of those things where I can be there for them when I can, and I can give them a place and some food. They like to work. It feels good to work. There’s just a subconscious thing that happens to your emotions I think when you’re working in the dirt.

I’ve experienced it myself because I feel like it’s kind of a sacred place and a connection with Mother Nature, and you can actually see the work that you’re doing, whether if you’re pulling weeds and you look back and all of the sudden, the row of onions is gorgeous and the onions are glowing and before, all you saw was a few rows of onions and some weeds in between. It’s just like satisfaction immediately.

Then also, the fact that when you’re pulling food out of the ground, you know when you’re harvesting it, there’s again, like a pride, a “I can do this” feeling that I think maybe people are aware of it when they’re over here volunteering and helping and maybe they aren’t quite aware of it, but the fact that they keep wanting to come back and enjoy it and get their hands dirty is something. Something’s happening.

What has been your relationship with the city and what hoops have you had to jump through to make this happen?

Mel Millsap: We’ve worked with the city a lot because what we wanted to do with the farm was completely illegal whenever we started. We decided to ask for permission and that question turned into an eight-month conversation with planning and zoning and building and development and city council meetings. The area is zoned residential.

We went and told them what we wanted to do, and they were like, “Oh I’m sorry, you can’t have a farm in the city. You can’t have chickens, bees. You’re talking about growing a lot of vegetables and then selling it. That’s retail.

They were like, “Well…surely nobody else is going to want to do this, so maybe we should just look at rezoning your piece of property.” We were like, “You know, I don’t think so. I think you’re going to see people wanting to do this all over the city.” Like, community gardens are going to start popping up. Hopefully, more urban farms pop up, “So why don’t we look at just changing the zoning laws city wide? Why not?” They were like, “Okay, well why not? Let’s take a look at it.” That’s one of the beautiful things about living in a small town.

The media at the time definitely painted it as like a fight. They took the angle of: “This young couple is fighting to have a farm in this city,” but really it was a beautiful experience to work with our local government

I remember walking out of, I think it was like the first or second meeting with planning and zoning. I was so nervous, but it went really well. I remember walking out and looking at my husband and going, “You know? I feel like an adult for the first time. I feel like I can make a change, and a change that will affect some people.” I don’t know that it really has. I mean, it’s affected me, and it’s affected my family. Yeah, they ended up amending zoning for citywide, so now anybody that wants to can have a farm in the city.

So you didn’t just impact your own proverbial lot, but you improved everybody else’s?

Mel Millsap: Yeah. They decided to break it up into three different divisions, depending on if you’re in a low density residential or commercial or whatever you zoning area is and then they just wrote in agricultural laws for that.  So we are allowed to now have the farm. We can have our memberships and our CSA.

We can sell for wholesale. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s really a horrible acronym, but basically it’s subscription farming. People buy a share. We do a summer season and a winter season and people sign up and it’s a 24-week long season. They pay us to be their farmer.

CSA is great. It gives us the money we need. We ask for 30% up front and most of them do. Some CSAs, you know you can set it up however you want, but we ask for 30% up front, and then they can pay it off over the six months, but what that does is it gives us little bit of money for seeds and water, and you know, feed.

It allows us to budget, and it’s also a shared risk, which is a beautiful thing because they’re basically saying, “Here you go. Here’s my money. I trust you to grow my food the best you can. However, if something happens and if there’s crop failure or something,” then they’re in it with us. They experience it, and I tell them about it, and we work through it. But so far, this will be our seventh year, so I guess that’s technically, what thirteen seasons with the CSA.

Can you tell me about some of the challenges you have had with this program? How did you overcome them?

Mel Millsap: Because we grow year-round, the winter CSA is a little sketchy sometimes. Our winters have been pretty mild lately, but you know there’s always the fear of whenever you’re trying to grow a lot of greens and it’s 12 degrees and cloudy for multiple days, and you’re just out there babying them along, doing everything you can to keep them from freezing, which they do freeze. But if the sun comes out, then they thaw and we pick specific crops to make it through those times, so we’re pretty picky about that. We know what we can and can’t plant.

I mean, I’ve had to send emails out to 30 families and say, “I was planning harvesting 7 vegetables for you this week, and I’m only going to have 4, and I’m really, really sorry.” Sometimes, that’s because something was froze too long and didn’t make it, and sometimes that’s because maybe it was frozen on harvest day and you can’t pick it when it’s frozen. So then you got to kind of move that around a little bit and play with it.

What is the difference in terms of managing these challenges and actually pretty much any aspect of farming, when you are doing it in an urban environment versus when you are in a rural area?

Mel Millsap: Well, I’ve never been a rural farmer. I think the biggest difference besides just the space, the environment itself, is that on any farm, you’re going to have piles. You’re going to have a compost pile, and you’re going to have a metal pile, and you’re going to have things that maybe you don’t need right now but you should salvage and save because you’ll need it later pile.

They don’t really look good, and so trying to keep it aesthetically pleasing when you’re in the city is difficult, hiding those messes is difficult.

The other difference is I own my land, but for what I paid for that property, I could have bought a lot more land outside of town. So that’s a huge difference. Our setup is very unique because we also have eight apartments running along the west side of the farm. As long as we have six of the eight apartments rented, it’ll pay for the mortgage of the land, and then our produce is our profit.

Most urban farms you’ll find on borrowed property. A lot of times you can get the government property and do a low, long-term lease.

After you worked with the government to change the rules, did anybody else start doing this in Springfield?

Mel Millsap: Actually, there isn’t another urban farm yet, like ours. I know of a few of them that are trying to start up and I’m super excited to find out and see, because we do a lot of education stuff over here as well and tours. We get tours from all the colleges and high schools and elementaries over here multiple times a year.

Can you tell me more about your visitors?

We love visitors. That’s one of the coolest things, though. I think you would consider me an extrovert, but just the people we’ve met through this experience has just been amazing, the relationships that have been built. I feel like I’ve had a pretty fortunate life, but this is the by far the best thing that I have ever done.

We also have an apprenticeship program on the farm. People that are interested in becoming an urban farmer can apply. We try to have two apprentices on the farm at all times and they live here on the farm in one of the apartments.

All of their expenses are paid for while they’re working with us and they get a stipend. We eat breakfast, lunch together. We work together every day. You can apply at UrbanRootsFarm.Com, and you can click on “Jobs” and scroll down to “Apply.”

We have had really diverse apprentices. We had a guy from New York City here. We’ve had a guy from Colombia here. We’ve had Ohio. All over.

We get the applications and there’s kind of an interview process, but we love it. I think it’s there is no better way to learn about this. You jump in. You help me with marketing. You help me with accounting. You help me with growing, planting.

We also get interns from the colleges over here. We have a couple of those all the time, and it’s awesome to get Ag students in, and of course they’re book smart. They know the bugs. They can identify the weeds. They’ve got great skills. Then they get out there in the field and they’re like, “Oh my gosh. This is so much more than I thought it was.

There are so many variables. You can romanticize it. You know, people tend to do that these days. Being a farmer sounds so wonderful and romantic, but man you got be able to put in the hours and break your back. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or snowing or 100 degrees. You’re out there and you’re working hard. It’s not for everybody.

What percentage of the people that come bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to do this program walk away and say, “Whoa this was cool but no, not me”?

Mel Millsap: You know, we’ve actually only had a couple people walk away and say, “I don’t think I’m interested in that.” Recently actually, my first employee, she was an intern with us for a full year, and then I ended up hiring her on as my field manager, and she was with me for two years after that and now she’s started her own business where she installs gardens, design, and maintains them for people in their own backyard, you know?

When you live together and you work together for a full year and you have a bond. I like to keep tabs on everybody and see where they are and what they’re doing. Most of them have all started a business.

What are some of the oddest and wackiest things you’ve seen? I’m sure you’ve come across a lot of really interesting stuff here.

Mel Millsap: Just learning and dealing with theft has been interesting. We haven’t had a ton, but they’ll show up and check out the place, and we kind of figure that we just talk to everybody. We don’t turn our back on anybody, and so I think just having a presence and being in the field and always letting them know that you’re there and you’re watching and calling them out on it or telling them, “You know, I don’t think you’re welcome here.” And that’s hard, but you really got to trust your gut. That’s a difficult situation for me to get into sometimes.

Then sometimes, you know, they’ll just flat out say, “I’m sorry. I just need some food.” And if they say that, I will send them away with bags and bags of food. But yeah, just kind of navigating the folks that walk onto the property.

Have you also had great moments of connecting with the community?

Mel Millsap: There have been beautiful moments too, like whenever we were putting the plastic on our greenhouse for the first time. At the time, there was this old man and woman that lived in a couple of the apartments. They didn’t live together but they were neighbors and they lived there when we took over the property.

They would sit on the front porch and just watch us work all day long and they would just make fun of us but they were super sweet about it, like, “You guys are wearing me out just watching you. Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” The woman was on oxygen. She wasn’t very healthy and she had a lot of stuff she was fighting against with her heart.

So we’re out there one day and we’re putting on the plastic and the wind picks up and we’re just like, “Oh my gosh. We’re going to lose it,” struggling to just hold the plastic down and all of the sudden, somebody had the other side of the greenhouse, and we’re like, “What was that?” And that little old lady had gotten up off her porch, walked over there with her oxygen and just grabbed that plastic and was like putting her entire body into it to help us out. It didn’t fly away. We got it attached. It was fantastic, but it was just like one of those “Aha” moments, where you’re like, “Okay. They care and they love this and we are making a difference for them.

After that we sat down and thanked her and she was like, “No, thank you.” She lived her for like 6 years before we took over and she was like, “You know it just felt like this part of the neighborhood was just forgotten.” The landlords wouldn’t even come over and fix things. You just like see people moving in and see people caring and see people trying to make it something. Because it was just nothing for so long. It was just a open field.

What would you say is the number one lesson or piece of advice that you would have for small business, either people who are operating small businesses, people thinking about starting a business?

Mel Millsap: Number one lesson or piece of advice? Honestly, there are so many smart things I can probably tell you like by the books, but I think if you’re going to start up your own business, you have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to be passionate about it because you’re going to work endless hours, especially in the beginning and it’s going to be so hard. There’s going to be days that you love it and I don’t think I could have made it this long had I not just been completely in love with growing food and passionate about working outside and being a part of the community and there’s just no way I could do this if I wasn’t passionate about it.

Where do you see this going the next ten years?

Mel Millsap: Well, I see us just getting better at what we do because there’s just so much to learn. We’re getting there slowly but surely, so I look forward to that. We want to keep nailing down some of our practices and honestly, taking a little bit more time off.

I want to play more. I don’t think it takes much to get re-energized. I just think you need to protect yourself and if you are passionate about something, know that that’s a gift and know that you have to nourish it.

Final Thoughts

A common theme we have seen across all these interviews with small business owners is the connection they have with their local community and their drive to follow their passion.

Mel Millsap had to overcome a lot of challenges with her city just to earn the right to start to deal with the regular challenges of running a business and farm. This takes a tremendous amount of drive and conviction. No one would choose this path unless they fully believed in what they were doing.

If you have any questions or comments about today’s episode, please leave them below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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