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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Months Ago, Kansas Citians Planted Pandemic Gardens — And Now The Bounty Is Here

Gina Kaufmann
David Wayne Reed masks up in his Northland garden, where he's added potatoes and corn to his usual flower selection.

Springtime anxiety about access to food turned ordinary people into novice homesteaders, yielding a bounty of produce in Kansas City backyards — and a feverish search for online farming instruction.

Back in March, when the coronavirus was a brand new reality in Kansas City, one of the major sources of stress was figuring out how to get groceries. Every trip to the store felt like heading into battle: you'd pick a time to strike, make a plan to get in and out fast, and hope to find the shelves stocked with most of what you needed, often staring down bleak gaps where popular items used to be. And so, after years of talk about the importance of knowing where our food comes from, an uncomfortable reality set in for many of us that the main tool we used for putting food on the table — a credit card — might not be as handy as we'd believed.

That was certainly the case for David Wayne Reed, a Kansas City artist whose work explores his own rural upbringing, starting with a play, Jolly Rancher, and moving on to a film, Eternal Harvest. After growing up gay in Louisburg, Kansas, Reed was eager to move to the city to find new opportunity and new community. But the pandemic has kicked some serious generational agriculture impulses into high gear.

Reed now officially wants to move back to the country to become "the eccentric and reclusive old homesteading codger I've always secretly wanted to be."

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In early spring, he scrambled to plant what he calls a victory garden. All the food is growing in boxes made out of wooden crates for moving art. The crates had been functioning as seating units, but they suddenly had a more urgent purpose to fill.

"Everything can shift so suddenly," Reed says. "I sound like some kind of prepper, which just months ago I would have made fun of, but when you don’t know, you don’t know. So you start to pull in close and ask yourself, 'What can I do with what I have to create safety in this place, in this space?'"

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Gina Kaufmann
Behind his house in a busy part of North Kansas City, David Wayne Reed grows carrots in art crates.

Reed is a seasoned flower gardener, but this spring was his first time planting food: herbs, tomatoes, bell peppers, and also pantry staples. He's planted onions, carrots, sweet corn, and, most importantly, potatoes.

The potatoes are a prized feature of this garden. That's because they came not from seeds or starter plants at a nursery, but straight from Reed's own food scraps.

"I had some potatoes that got old on my counter, so I cut them where they'd grown eyes, and I planted them, and that's where these came from."

On a breezy afternoon earlier this week, Reed got ready to dig up one of the potato plants.

"I was just thinking maybe I should like, look this up on my phone. 'How to dig potatoes,'" he mused, brandishing a large red shovel. "But I feel like I'm just going to go for it."

After some digging and pulling and wrestling the plant free from the soil, Reed triumphantly revealed a beautiful bunch of tiny golden potatoes with dirt falling off of them, each potato just a little bigger than a ping pong ball.

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David Wayne Reed
The potatoes from David Wayne Reed's garden, along with onions on one side and a tiny carrot on the other. As Reed pulled the not-quite-ready carrot, he confessed that he was "just showing off."

He knew it was time to harvest based on YouTube searches, all of which indicated that flowers turning yellow mean it's time to dig.

The internet has been a crucial tool for new food growers throughout the metro this year, with so many people taking food production into their own hands just as face-to-face mentoring becomes a challenge.

The KC Farm School at Gibbs Road in Kansas City, Kansas, has seen an interest in backyard food cultivation skyrocket since the pandemic began. Every year, starting in January, they start growing plants from seed. Every March, they have a transplant sale for Wyandotte County residents. This year, they sold $25,000 worth of plants for backyard gardening, says executive director Alicia Ellingsworth. Each plant only cost $2-$3.

"Sales just kept coming and coming and coming," she recalls. "Some people came back three and four times."

So the KC Farm School decided to try something new. With food insecurity being what it is, and interest in gardening like they'd never seen, they decided to give away the remaining plants to Wyandotte County residents interested in online mentoring from farming instructors, who usually teach school groups on-site. The class they created is called Let's Grow Wyandotte. Enrollment hit capacity at 85 households in one night.

Ellingsworth does garden visits on Zoom, in small groups divided into neighborhood clusters, making old-school vegetable gardening with neighbors a weirdly high-tech experience.

One May afternoon, about a dozen people joined a meeting live from their gardens. One member updated the group on her yellow squash plants, which she was protecting from borer bugs with a cardboard tube from a paper towel roll. Another fretted about strawberry plants that seemed to be doing fine, but weren't getting many new strawberries. One young woman said everything in her garden looked okay, but she didn't know when to harvest.

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Sheldon Harris
Watermelon vines climb a chain link fence around the garden of Sheldon Harris, who says, "if there's any space, I'm going to use it."

One gardener seemed unusually confident, a man named Sheldon Harris, who was growing watermelons in bags and enjoying his sugar snap peas. Harris was looking for new ways to use all the lettuce he'd been picking. Tired of salad, he'd made a lettuce smoothie.

"It really wasn't that bad!" he reported.

Harris, it turns out, isn't new to gardening. He learned it from his uncle, a Vietnam War veteran, who believes in self-sufficiency. His words still reverberate in Harris's mind.

"When I was a little kid, he stayed with us for a little while, and he taught me how to grow my own food," Harris recalls. "He used to say, 'Nephew, there's gonna come a time when there ain't gonna be no food around. This is what he told me."

At 53 years old, Harris works nights and gardens by day, like he's been doing for years.

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What makes it different this year is having his teenage kids at home. So he's been passing along the life lesson to them — and to his neighbors on Zoom.

"It's always good to meet people in Wyandotte County. This is where I'm from, you know, people from all different backgrounds, and they have the kids involved. We have to teach our kids how to do something, especially with the virus. My girls can't go to summer camps, you know, they can't go to Girl Scouts. You have to teach a kid something besides electronics."

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Sheldon Harris
The Harris family grows food together in Kansas City, Kansas, through Let's Grow Wyandotte.

His advice to new gardeners is to get started with others. "Partner up with somebody, your friends or your neighbors. Invest in the tiller together. That's one of the reasons why people don't grow, because they look at the price of a tiller, six, seven hundred. Go in on the tiller together and everybody uses it."

"We don't seem to want to get along until something dramatic happens to us as a country," Harris points out. "And then, 'Oh, we got to stand together.' Well, why don't we just stand together now?"

Which echoes something David Wayne Reed said, when asked what he'd tell the younger version of himself, who once wanted to get away from the country, now that he wants to return.

"I'd tell him that anything could happen," he says. "That's the good news and the bad news."

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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