May 15, 2008
Growers Share Space, Ideas at Greenhouse

You’re a farmer in an urban area. You grow produce on a small plot of land – a few acres at the most – and would love to start your transplants in the controlled environment of a greenhouse, but you don’t have the resources to build and maintain such a structure. What are your options?

Well, if you live in or around Kansas City, you can try renting space at the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture’s (KCCUA) Community Greenhouse. You might have to wait in line, though. There are 22 growers using the space, and others who want to.

“We’re pretty full,” said Katherine Kelly, the center’s executive director. “There’s no formal waiting list, but I know people who would like to be able to get in.”

Building another greenhouse would free up some room, but the center can’t afford that right now. It’ll have to make do with the current structure – about 6,000 square feet. That’s enough room to house tens of thousands of transplants, giving growers lucky enough to rent space there all the advantages of a greenhouse without bearing the full cost.

The growers are all commercial producers, not home gardeners. They pay a flat fee based on the square footage they rent and a percentage of the greenhouse’s gas bill. The renters aren’t just individual growers, either. Nonprofit groups, such as the New Roots for Refugees project, use the greenhouse as a training ground for refugee women, Kelly said.

The greenhouse is a great place to learn from and get to know other farmers, she said. Growers there are a diverse mix of nationalities, ethnicities and farming experience, where even the most seasoned veteran can learn a new technique or two.

Bev Pender has started transplants in the Community Greenhouse since growers began renting space there three years ago. There was just a handful in the beginning, but now the structure is completely full. The growers all have different ways of planting and aren’t afraid to share information. One of them taught Pender how to start her own sweet potato slips last year. Sometimes, if a grower has too many plants, he or she will leave the extras by the door for someone else to grab. The greenhouse has a communal, social atmosphere, she said.

Pender grows vegetables and fruit on eight vacant lots in Kansas City. She calls her operation, about 2 acres total, Soul and Soil Rainbow Gardens. She concentrates on heirloom vegetables – including 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes – but also grows peaches, pears, apples and apricots.

Pender, 58, has been growing produce in the inner city since 1994. About eight years ago, she started selling at farmers’ markets and from her home. Farming has been her full-time job since she retired from General Motors. She owns four of the lots she grows on and has agreements with the owners of the other four. They like that she keeps the lots clean; people dumped trash there before she set up her gardens.

Pender “can’t imagine” paying for the gas and electricity it would take to run her own full-fledged greenhouse. Renting space at KCCUA’s greenhouse to start her plants is much more cost-efficient, even though it’s a few miles away. The monthly cost varies according to the weather, but in March her total bill for gas and space was $33.

“It’s a sound investment for me,” she said. “It’s a good deal for people that can’t afford to have a greenhouse and need space to get started.”

It’s a good deal for growers at all levels. Pov Huns, owner of Huns Garden in Kansas City, starts about 10,000 transplants in the Community Greenhouse at the beginning of every year, which gives him an eight- to 12-week head start on his crops – mainly greens but also tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage, basil, onions and lemongrass.

The Community Greenhouse was originally built by a cut flower operation that went out of business. KCCUA eventually took over the lease and started using the facility to grow microgreens, onions, brassicas, herbs, cucurbits and other crops for its Community Farm. The greenhouse was much larger than what was needed, however, and – since people had been asking about it for years – the center decided to rent out space to local urban farmers, Kelly said.

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