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Since 2009, the four-season, naturally-grown Urban Roots Farm has established itself as a downtown staple, providing 600 pounds of produce every week for Springfield’s residents and businesses. The 1.7-acre plot, which sits in the West Central neighborhood, will go quiet indefinitely after this season’s harvest, as owners Adam and Melissa Millsap focus on other projects.
The thought of Urban Roots going dormant is a punch-to-the-gut for Springfield’s locally-harvested produce market. It’s a hit to many of the city’s restaurants that relied on the farm for fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a shock to the small-farm community in the Midwest and across the country.
And it’s a blow to the Millsaps, in many ways. Adam and Melissa called the farmstead home for years, even raising children there. They’re still coming to grips with their decision.
“As we’ve moved through this, we’ve related the sensations that we’re going through to the same ones you have when a good friend or family member dies,” Adam said. “It’s very much the same grieving process.”
One-stop produce shop
Farm-fresh produce was only one of many services Urban Roots provided for Springfield. The farm hosted a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, where every Tuesday members would come pick up their week’s fresh veggies.
“It’s basically a subscription to the farm,” Adam said. “They pay up front, and then they get paid back with their share of vegetables weekly through the season.”
The program once boasted as many as 80 members. There were about 65 this season.
On top of the CSA, Urban Roots operated an on-site, self-service farmstand, which operated on the honor system. The stand circumvented farmers markets, which the Millsaps found to be costly endeavors for small cultivators. Instead, Urban Roots brought the produce straight to customers.
“When we built Urban Roots, our goal was to bring people closer to the food they’re eating,” Adam said.
The farm was used for much more than growing produce. The Millsaps donated space for a “community fridge,” which Better Block SGF operates alongside Urban Roots Farm and Drury University’s Freedom by Design Chapter. The refrigerator runs on the motto, “Take what you want, leave what you can.”
The Millsaps purchased a house in West Central in 2003, years before the idea of the farm came to fruition. One of their biggest accomplishments is helping turn their part of the neighborhood from an eyesore to a place that the community could be proud of, Adam said.
“This was a rough spot over here,” Adam said. “The back was totally overgrown and just a mess. The neighborhood used this as their dumping site.”
The farm, “caused a change in the neighborhood,” he said, and has given a sense of community ownership that has grown with the farm over the years.
People have told the Millsaps the farm helped “persuade” them to purchase a house in West Central. Kids from surrounding blocks have grown up helping on the farm, getting their hands dirty and learning about sustainable food production, Melissa said.
“When you drop a farm in the middle of a city, you create what we call ‘unavoidable agriculture,’” Adam said.
That kind of in-you-face aesthetic juxtaposition spurs people’s curiosities and helps improve a space, he said.
Events of all sorts, including farm-to-table dinners and cocktail workshops, drew crowds of hundreds to the farm, Melissa said.
“We learned early on that agritourism was a really important part of telling” the farm’s “story and getting people here,” she said.
The Millsaps — unexpectedly — found themselves to be landlords to the eight tenants living in the apartments on the farm. The rent money was an “absolutely critical” part of keeping the farm afloat and keeping the lights on, Adam said.
Urban Roots Farm tattoo
“The tattoo is what we call ‘Love Carrots.’ We harvest carrots that look like this. I got the tattoo because I consider the development of this farm as a love story between us and our community. When you look at the carrots, they’re clearly taking turns of holding each other up. And so sometimes that says farmers are holding up the community and other times the communities are holding up the farmer.”
– Melissa Millsap said, proudly displaying her first tattoo
One less family farm
While other farms serve Springfield’s residents, like Fassnight Creek Farm, Ozark’s Finley Farms and Box Turtle Farms, none are as close to Urban Roots as Millsap Farms, owned and operated by Adam’s brother, Curtis Millsap, and his wife, Sarah. Curtis Millsap purchased the 20-acre lot four miles north of Springfield in 2007.
Curtis Millsap said Adam and Melissa aided him in starting Millsap Farms, doing landscaping and helping him on a number of projects. In turn, when Adam and Melissa started eyeing the land in West Central, Curtis played a strong role in making the Urban Roots Farm come to fruition.
“He definitely encouraged us to go down that path,” Adam Millsap said of his brother.
The friendliness between small farmers extends far beyond their family, Curtis said. In fact, collaboration plays a central role in the survival of small farms.
“Most small farmers are very open,” Curtis said. “They want to share knowledge and expertise. It’s a huge marketplace and there’s just a few of us in it so we don’t really have to compete with one another.”
Family-owned farms account for 96 percent of U.S. farms, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture Farm Typology report. Family farms also accounted for 82 percent of the value of all agricultural products sold that year, according to the report.
The Midwest and Northern Plains regions have the lowest shares of family farms already, according to the report. The Midwest farming industry will likely see further consolidation as successful, multigenerational farms purchase smaller operators, Brad Summa, regional director at National Agriculture Statistics Service, said by phone Aug. 28.
“It’s generally survival of the fittest,” Summa said. “We’ve seen a lot of multigenerational farms that have just continued to succeed and to expand.”
Restaurants turn to other vendors
Urban Roots Farm acted as a produce vendor for many restaurants like Hotel Vandivort in downtown, Lindberg’s Tavern and Cherry Picker Package and Fare, Adam said. One partner, Craft Sushi, which has two Springfield locations, says if the farm closes its doors permanently, it will be a loss felt by the whole community.
“We’re very sad,” Jenny Cho, Craft Sushi owner, said by phone Aug. 28. “We’ve been with them since the very beginning. I hope that someone else is able to take over and carry on their legacy.”
Even with Urban Roots not planting, Cho said there are plenty of options for fresh fruits and vegetables in the Springfield area.
“There are several farms that are going to be able to expand upon this and hopefully develop their business a little further,” Cho said.
What comes next?
The Millsaps are nearly finished on a project in northwest Arkansas that will be “basically a little farm on a creek,” Melissa said. The project, which sits on property between Bentonville and Bella Vista, Arkansas, will include a one-acre urban farm, a café, a trailside bar and a farm stand, Melissa said.
It’s a “dream come true” for the couple, who closed on property two weeks ago, Melissa said. The project has been in the works for about three years. The Millsaps, who have officially called northwest Arkansas home for about five years, hope to see more businesses like theirs.
“I really think the attitude is shifting towards that in Bentonville,” so, “we’re really excited to see that,” Adam said, adding that the high number of small businesses in Springfield “lends a high degree of authenticity to this city.”
As for the land that Urban Roots Farm sits on, the right project hasn’t made itself known, Adam said. The farm has barely made the couple a cent in the last five years, and really, they’ve paid into it, Adam said.
“It’s not going to hurt us to let the soil rest and it sure won’t hurt the soil,” he said, so there’s no immediate push to sell the land.
“If it’s not going to keep being the farm, or at least our farm, then let’s take a step back and let’s wait for an answer,” Adam said. “And when we have an answer, we’ll move on it.”
No matter what comes of the land, it will remain a green space and a community space. “This is a preserved greenspace in the middle of a downtown neighborhood in Springfield and it’s going to remain that,” Adam said.
A weeping-willow ‘love affair’
In the middle of the farm stands a giant 40-foot tall weeping willow that the Millsaps planted nearly a decade ago. There is a “drain garden” directly below the tree, which allows the farm to be a zero-runoff site, effectively bypassing the storm drains and recycling all the farm’s dirty water.
The couple has “always had a love affair with weeping willows,” Adam said. The landscaping company the Millsaps once owned included a willow in its logo. An image of the tree even made it onto their wedding invitations, he said.
Much like the green space that has become a community staple, that weeping willow will stand strong for generations to come, likely outlasting the farm itself and the people who love it now. Even as the Millsaps cheerlessly leave Springfield and the legacy of the Urban Roots Farm behind, that willow will be there.
Adam will remember that “beautiful” tree fondly, and he is proud that the couple will always be known as “the foolish farmers who planted the willow tree on the south side of their garden” in the middle of a downtown community.