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Central Standard

Urban Farmer Brooke Salvaggio Reflects On Kansas City's Organic Scene

Julie Denesha/KCUR
Farmer Brooke Salvaggio holds one of her chickens at Urbavore Urban Farm.

Brooke Salvaggio isn’t your typical urban farmer.

She grew up in the suburbs, in an upper-middle class family in Johnson County.

“I grew up like most typical suburban kids: vast mowed green lawns, the SUVs in the garage, food out of boxes, microwaves,” she told guest host Brian Ellison on KCUR’s Central Standard.

Salvaggio runs the Badseed Farmers Market, which she is closing Feb. 26. She also produces fruits, vegetables and eggs at Urbavore Urban Farm, her 13.5 acre farm on the east side of Kansas City.

Her journey from surburbia to living off the land started during her teenage years.

She was a self-described jaded teen, a party girl who did everything under the sun. She was unhappy, but she didn’t know why.

“Consumerism has always made me feel really empty. I’ve always hated buying things,” she said.

“I grew up in a culture where that’s where you did — you aspire to be in a position where you could buy lots of stuff. I was very unhappy in that context; it made me uncomfortable.”

After dropping out of art school, she needed to feel a deeper connection to the world. She traveled overseas, working on organic farms in various countries to help fund her trips.

“I got to just get my hands in the soil, be out there for hours in the hot sun, sweat it out … I loved it. That just changed me,” she said.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this feels good. This feels so much better than all the drugs I ever did and all the stuff I ever bought, all the jobs I ever had.’”

Returning to her roots

In 2007, when she was 24, she decided to come back to Kansas City.

She wasn’t planning on staying; she thought it would be a two- or three-year stint to spend time with her family and to try her hand at gardening.

Her grandfather owned a building in the Crossroads. She rented a storefront from him — which became the Badseed market — and she also started living there.

She also planted a garden at her grandfather’s house in south Kansas City. He lived on a 2.5-acre residential lot around 95th and State Line that butted up to Johnson County. She eventually added chicken and goats, and called it Badseed Farm.

Salvaggio could feed herself from the garden, and she sold her produce at area farmers markets for extra income.

“I dove headfirst into this sort of homesteading, mini-farming, renegade, growing lifestyle,” she said.

The Badseed market in the Crossroads also grew. Salvaggio started opening her living room up on Friday nights to hawk the vegetables from her garden.

“Over time, it evolved into a legitimate farmers market and food hub of sorts,” she said.

“It took a while for people to take me seriously, especially the farming community. At the time, I had a blond mohawk and I wore red lipstick in the field while working. I was not your typical farm girl.”

On the land

Badseed lived up to its name.

In 2009, her grandfather’s neighbors complained about the farm.

“It got extremely ugly. Urban agriculture is loaded. I think people should understand that it’s really not about beans and tomatoes so much,” she said.

“It’s about property values, there’s racism, there’s a lot of discrimination, there’s a lot of classism that comes into play.”

Then, four years later, her parents, who now own the Crossroads building, leased the space that’s next door to Badseed Market to a Papa John’s.

Salvaggio and her husband, Dan Heryer, have since relocated to Urbavore Urban Farm. It was completely raw, she said – no electricity, water or fences.

They’ve built it up; they’re deep into the process of building a “passive, solar, off-grid edible oasis of sorts,” she said, with orchards, no-till gardens and 200 free-range hens.

Renting from family — and the issues that arise from that — is a tiny part of why Salvaggio and her husband are closing Badseed Market.

They’ve also been stretched thin for many years, with running two businesses, building a farm from the ground up (and running it) and raising their 4-year-old son. They're also expecting a baby in April.

Plus, Badseed market’s customer base has taken a nosedive over the past few years. She said she used to see lines out the door; now, there are nights where just 30 people stop by and farmers walk away with $45 in their pockets.

According to Salvaggio, the “buy/eat local” sentiment is a trend — one that’s on the decline.

“Buying local … not just food, but T-shirts, merchandise, all of it … I really think it’s largely hypothetical.

“There is a ton of greenwashing going on right now. There are so many corporate entities that are trying to take our little piece of the small-scale organic pie. And it pisses me off, and people buy into it, and that’s unfortunate.”

The harvest

Salvaggio says Urbavore will continue to evolve. She and her husband will scale back their production next year, for after the baby arrives. Later down the line, they’d like to incorporate more livestock, producing pasture-based meat and more animal products.

“I still pour two hundred percent into what I believe in every day, in my field, in newsletters and in my relationships with customers.”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.