Children and chickens run wild between rows of okra, a happy chase that ends with the whole crew resting beneath a tree, save one wise chicken that perches out of reach on a branch. Meanwhile, adults nibble chard bruschetta and sip craft beer from jam jars under an alfresco chandelier. Put it all together in Springfield, Missouri, and Urban Roots Farm’s annual Harvest Dinner is a slightly surreal hipster-meets-country, food-lover’s fantasy.
The story of how this improbable farm sprouted in the heart of a hardworking Ozarks town starts with a couple looking to make ends meet. Adam and Melissa Millsap were raising a family and slowly rehabbing an old house when, in 2009, Adam lost his job as a steelworker. And that’s when a little idea took root.
After a year of saving and researching, they purchased the blighted lot next door and sought the city’s permission to cultivate the land for profit. Adam and Melissa have told their against-all-odds story a thousand times, but Adam still chokes up remembering the day a council member said, “As a matter of fact, no, you can’t farm here—but we would really like you to.”
Bolstered, they navigated the red-tape labyrinth, only to discover bigger challenges when they emerged on the other side. The Millsaps live in Springfield’s second-poorest neighborhood, and the new lot was a shambles. (A blender fell out of one tree.) Turning a profit on an acre means being extra efficient. Urban Roots rotates crops year-round through nine plots and three hoop houses, forgoing space-hogs like broccoli for high-yield veggies like pea shoots. As their workload grew, the couple rehabbed the lot’s tiny apartment building to house interns who will become, the Millsaps hope, apostles for small-scale farming. “This is not a business where you want to be elbowing competitors out,” Adam says. “You need to be letting people in.”
Sometimes, that’s a literal invitation. Urban Roots Farm has a magnetic effect on everyone from neighborhood kids to the UPS guy. The Millsaps encourage curious passersby to stop and ask questions. In that spirit, less than a year after planting the first seed, they hosted their first Harvest Dinner, a ticketed event to celebrate the bounty born from their backyard.
The evening includes a tour, live music, local brews, straw-bale seating and a rustic dinner cooked, for the most part, in Adam and Melissa’s kitchen. At show time, the kitchen has the feel of a newlywed couple’s first Thanksgiving. Cooks hop over baby gates while trays of roasted beets cool on every available surface.
After dinner, Doug Fredrick, a childhood friend of Adam’s, says, “It’s been amazing to see this thing go from nothing to …” He trails off and gestures at the mellow scene around him. “Look at this, look where we’re sitting.” Candles flicker, the chickens have settled in to roost, and a handful of people dance by the bonfire. Occasionally a car honks, and once, an ambulance passes a block away. The whining siren drowns out the music—but just for a moment.
Urban Roots Farm
To meet the folks behind this story, visit the Millsaps’ booth at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks on Saturday mornings in Springfield (loveyourfarmer.com). Those who live in the area can receive weekly veggie boxes through the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The 2013 Harvest Dinner will be held September 20; tickets are limited. (417) 597-4858; urbanrootsfarm.com
Urban Roots Farm’s Harvest Dinner is a team effort bringing together members of Springfield’s burgeoning creative class. Here are a few we met and loved.
The Nude Foodie Grace Rybarczyk runs a small catering and food education business. She helps cook the meal. https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Nude-Foodie/132612610134965https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Nude-Foodie/132612610134965
KatieMade Katie Kring bakes bread for the dinner. She sells a variety of baked goods and sweets at the local farmers market. katiemadeit.com
Askinosie Chocolate Melissa remembers the day in church when Sean Askinosie announced he would leave his career as a lawyer to make artisanal chocolate. His chopped bars garnish dessert each year; shop for them online or at the downtown factory, where tours are available. (417) 862-9900; askinosie.com
Obelisk Home J. Kent Martin and Nathan Taylor, who coordinate the decorating, operate a family of design-related businesses and shops out of a sleek downtown building. (417) 616-6488; obeliskhome.com
Mother’s Brewing Company A passion for craft beer and a sense of humor unite the employees of this brewery that offers tours and tastings. (417) 862-0423; mothersbrewing.com
Circle B Ranch Marina and John Backes raise Berkshire hogs on a 90-acre farm in Seymour, Missouri. Shop online for their Italian-style meatballs, sauces and chutneys. (417) 683-0271; circlebranchpork.com
Urban Roots recipes