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Not Their Grandfather’s Farm: Aspiring farmers build skills with Springfield Community Gardens

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For most, winter offers a break from gardening. But there’s plenty of action at Amanda Belle’s Farm on East Primrose Street, a Springfield Community Gardens project at the edge of the Cox Medical Center South campus.

On a wet, chilly Friday, SCG Executive Director Maile Auterson examines rows of seed starts under plastic cover inside the farm’s propagation house. Two of the project’s farmers, Kindra Ritter and Emily Cline, are tending ground outside.

Work happens year-round at SCG’s 16 community gardens, three urban farms, a food forest for foraging and a test kitchen.

The vision of the nonprofit is “to create a community where everyone has access to healthy, local food.”

In 2022, 323 volunteers gave 6,934 hours to further that vision, joining forces with Ozarks Food Harvest to distribute 151,000 pounds of produce to low-income neighborhoods in partnership at a value of $290,000. Since its first garden was planted in 2010, Auterson estimates SCG has donated nearly 2 million pounds of produce to the community.

The annual budget is $1.2 million, with revenue generated from the sale of produce through community supported agriculture subscriptions from its hospital and neighborhood gardens, as well as through grants and donations.

Getting food to area residents is only part of the SCG mission. Another component is helping to grow farmers through its farm incubator program.

Diversity in action
Auterson says Ritter and Cline are examples of the up-and-coming farmers being trained by SCG. They are part of a staff of 12 that includes eight women.

Auterson pointed to some crises in contemporary agriculture, with labor shortages, a shift to large-scale production and much of an area’s produce being trucked in from hundreds or thousands of miles away. She noted this area was once a center of production for tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, butter and cream – a cornucopia for the nation, lost to what she referred to as big ag.

“I think a lot of our problems are related to having too much masculine energy and not enough feminine energy to balance it out,” Auterson says. “Women have a lot to offer in regards to food systems.”

Cline owns Rogersville farm Green Future Cultivators LLC. During the growing season, she sells greens, herbs and seasonal vegetables at area farmers markets and by delivery.

Historically, farmers grow up on farms and learn the trade from their families. That’s not the case for Cline.

“I just got on YouTube and learned how to do everything on my own without any mentorship,” she says. “I’ve been doing it for a little over four years now, and I love doing it, and I’m really excited to be part of the team here.”

SCG offers paid yearlong apprenticeships to train farmers on incubator farms. It also has programs for veterans who are interested in farming, as well as a 16-member 4-H club for area youths. Additionally, last year, SCG offered 47 community workshops on regenerative agricultural practices. There also is a four-week internship program funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some refugees from the Chin State of western Myanmar also share their specialized farming knowledge through SCG. Auterson says they grow Asian produce, like bok choy, bitter melon and hibiscus.

“I think everybody has a history around the production of food – of being more self-sufficient and growing food for the local community,” Auterson says. “We’re just trying to tap into those stories.”

Multiple perspectives
Curtis Millsap, co-owner of Millsap Farms LLC, an urban farm north of Springfield, is a frequent partner of SCG. Soon, an SCG farmer, Kaitlin Hewitt, will begin working at Millsap Farms one day a week to learn about flower farming while being paid by SCG.

Millsap Farms, in turn, contributes expertise and mentorship.

Millsap says anywhere he can help with the SCG mission, he’s in.

“To take farmers that have gotten a little bit of a start with Maile and scaffold them into a for-profit model – that’s the sort of stuff we get excited about,” he says.

Millsap notes historically on family farms, men were thought of as farmers and women as in charge of the household.

“In reality, farmers, male and female, have a more complete role to play than that,” he says.

The commodification of farming shifted the balance toward what Millsap calls a masculinized model of agriculture. Men traditionally have been viewed as being oriented toward objects, while women have been viewed as being oriented toward relationships.

“You need both of those on a farm,” he says, adding he operates his 20-acre farm with wife Sarah and manager Kimby Decker. “Things break; you need someone to fix roofs and build fences. But you also need someone who understands what it means to nurture a sick animal.”

Farming requires multiple perspectives and talents, according to Millsap.

“I see tremendous value in having a diverse staff, whatever that looks like in terms of backgrounds,” he says.

“If we get too singular in our influences, we shouldn’t be too surprised if our creativity dwindles.”

Ritter would like to apply her creativity to her own farm, which she is looking to buy.

“Especially after the pandemic, a lot of people started to look at ways to sustain themselves – to be less reliant on the current food system,” she says. “A lot of people I know took up gardening and got interested in it. The value came home to people when they were more turned inward toward home.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2022 census found 36% of U.S. farmers are women. The average age of farmers is nearly 60, and a third of farmers are 65 and older.

Food for health
Jesse Baedke, administrative director of food services for CoxHealth, says fresh food is a priority for the hospital system.

“Fresh food and vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet,” he says. “We want to utilize every resource possible to accomplish that goal.”

With SCG, the hospital operates a CSA model that provides fresh produce by subscription. Last year, 70 employees participated.

“We’re looking to implement a program to get fresh produce to our patients,” he says.

“We’re pretty excited to be able to move into that next phase of the farm as it continues to grow.”

CoxHealth also is home of the SCG test kitchen, where growers independently process value-added products like jams, salads and soups to help diversify their farm’s income stream, according to the SCG website. The kitchen also provides food safety training for farmers and students – among them Cox College dietetic interns.

Auterson said she knows of only seven hospitals with farms in the United States.

She notes the hospital farm is just one part of SCG, which partners in gardens in churches, nonprofits and neighborhoods.

“We want to reinvigorate the community with the idea of growing food, and you know, I can’t think of a better place to start than in urban areas,” she says. “Farming is so much a part of our culture, and I think that’s why we have grown so fast and why we’re so popular.”


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