A man waters fruit trees in an orchard in Kansas City's Swope Park, intended to address food insecurity through urban farming.
Darian Davis works in the Kansas City Urban Farm Co-op orchard in Swope Park on Friday, July 14, 2023. Davis says competitive grant money could help them address food insecurity through urban farming, but accessing the money is difficult with little resources. (Zach Bauman/ The Beacon)

News that the Missouri legislature has authorized $500,000 for urban farming grants ought to be welcomed by small growers like Darian and Nicolette Davis, who run an orchard in Kansas City’s Swope Park to provide fresh fruit to their community. 

The couple hatched the idea of the Kansas City Urban Farm Co-op during the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 following the killing of a teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer. They wanted to respond to that incident by doing something positive for their own community, which led to the launch of their farm in 2016. 

Darian Davis sees a systemic injustice in the gap between communities where nutritious food is abundant and others where it is lacking. He describes it as “food apartheid.”

“So we’re talking about kids with single-parent households, a lot of them didn’t have cars, and they’re living off of low-value, high-priced foodstuffs,” he said. “So to witness that, we really started thinking about how serious this problem is. We said, ‘Hey, instead of complaining about it, what can we do to make a difference?’” 

The 2024 fiscal year will be the second consecutive year that the state set aside $500,000 to address food insecurity in Missouri’s urban areas. The program began in the 2020 fiscal year with a budget of $200,000. Applications for the program open on Monday. 

But for Davis and other small urban growers, even applying for a grant opportunity can be a challenge. Davis and his wife largely operate their orchard on their own, while taking care of a family and owning other businesses. Their financial margin is so precarious he isn’t sure he can take time away from his farming enterprise to attempt to fill out a grant application.

Nicolette Davis waters plants in a one-acre orchard in Swope Park intended to address food insecurity. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

“Right now we’re having to make hard decisions, saying, ‘Man, should I go to work so I can get this guaranteed money?” Davis told The Beacon. “Or should I spend this six hours and not make money for something that I may or may not get? It’s a hard call to make when you’re super broke.”

Navigating funding support can be difficult for small farmers

Darian and Nicolette Davis have looked at state grants and other competitive resources in the past, but don’t have confidence in their grant-writing skills. And even finding someone to help them write grants is difficult with a small budget, Darian said.

“The key missing part that we need is the initial money to get the money,” he said. “That’s the missing piece, because I can reach out to grant writers that have a proven success record, but I’ll have them say, ‘Yes, it’s gonna cost this much.’ Well, I don’t have that much.”

Accessing grant money can be tricky for farmers, according to Ami Freeberg at Cultivate KC, one of Kansas City’s larger urban farming organizations. The reimbursement structure — plus the application and payout timelines — don’t exactly line up with peak growing season, which can make it complicated to apply for the grant and comply with the requirements. 

“Pretty much all state and federal grants, and a lot of local government grants, are reimbursable,  which means you have to spend the money before you get back,” Freeberg said. 

That’s not a big deal for larger farming businesses like Cultivate Kansas City, Freeberg said. But it’s a challenge for smaller agricultural enterprises. 

“If you’re a farmer that’s operating week-to-week, or your cash flow is better in the summer but the awards for these grants are made in the winter, you may have to be making that investment at a time of year that the funds aren’t there,” Freeberg said.

Some of the problem comes down to the timing of the fiscal year, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The fiscal year begins on July 1, in the peak of summer activity for the state’s farmers. Applications must be submitted quickly so they can be reviewed and awarded before mid-October. And projects must be completed by the end of May, according to the program’s website. 

“It is just a really quick timeline, from October to December when you’re shutting down a farm for the season, to also be making those infrastructure investments,” Freeberg said. “And it’s also not enough time to go out and seek a loan, if you were to try to access the capital that way, knowing you are getting the reimbursement.” 

Despite the hiccups, there are always more applicants for state funds than there is money available, officials said.

Lawmakers and the Missouri Department of Agriculture are aware of the challenges faced by  urban farmers, especially those who operate on a small scale, said state Sen. Barbara Washington, a Democrat who represents Kansas City. 

Washington worked with agriculture officials to increase the state’s share of grants to growers. Previously the state chipped in 50% for the projects it approved. Now it will cover 75%, and the urban agricultural businesses will be responsible for 25%.

“I know that there have been some concessions for the urban farming grant program that are a little more lenient than the traditional Department of Agriculture grant funding,” Washington said. 

Besides the $500,000 allocated for small grants to combat food insecurity, Washington also secured funding to award larger grants of $250,000 each to two urban farming projects in Kansas City. One is for urban farming educational programs, and the other is for youth entrepreneurship and urban agriculture. 

Possible recipients include BoysGrow and Green Acres Urban Farm and Research Project, Washington said.

State support can help improve operations, free up cash for other projects

Farmers who receive grants said the state money can make a big difference.  

“You really just have to plan for it,” said Anthony Nealy, the founder of Global One Urban Farming in east Kansas City. “You have to make sure your deadlines and stuff fit for the reimbursement, and make sure you have the capital to even accept the grant, because you pay for everything upfront.” 

Support from the state last year allowed Nealy to clear 10,000 square feet of trees. And it freed up resources for Global One to invest in things like youth programs. 

Nealy said the educational aspects of his program — where youths learn to grow produce from seed to harvest — can help prepare kids to start their own businesses. 

“We gave them things to do as far as learning how to register their name as an LLC with the state, create a mission statement and create the first budget for business,” Nealy said. “And they love it and we’ve had fun with it.” 

Nealy said he hopes more money can go toward educational projects and urban farming overall, especially for people of color in Kansas City. 

“You have to put the emphasis in place at the state level, that actually looks at helping out Black and Hispanic people, and in the areas of greatest need,” he said. 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...