Young farmers show off the smells of a healthy garden. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

When Anneliese Kerr considers why she traded in her dream of wearing a chef’s hat for a farmer’s overalls, she talks about road trips in an old Honda with her mother and sisters to pick strawberries.

“My favorite thing when I was a kid (was) driving out to these farms with the windows down and the heat of the summer,” the 24-year-old Springfield native says. “And coming back and snacking on strawberries and throwing them out the window.”

Another favorite thing was frequenting farmers markets with her mother, Gretchen Graff, to bring less-than-perfect tomatoes home to their kitchen a few blocks from Missouri State University, where “she’d make salsa and I’d make marinara,” Kerr says.

Anneliese Kerr is the Springfield Community Gardens farm team coordinator. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

When a college job made her realize she didn’t want the stress of working in a restaurant kitchen, Kerr remembered those road trips. The city girl switched her major to agriculture, even earning a master’s degree in plant science at Missouri State University. 

Today, Kerr is living her new dream as a Springfield Community Gardens farm team coordinator — and as urban farms crop up here, her story isn’t as unique as some might think.

Pandemic intensifies young adult interest in urban farming

The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census pointed to an aging farming population, putting the average age of Missouri farmers at about 59 in 2017. Yet it also highlighted an increase in small farms of less than 10 acres, as well as an uptick in young farmers (ages 25-34) over the previous five years.

For these Gen Z-ers and millennials, farming is not just a trend, says 26-year-old Cameron Bigbee, who grew up working with his family on their Springfield acreage, Fassnight Farms, and now manages the SCG garden Amanda Belle’s Farm near Cox Medical Center South. 

It’s “more of a movement,” Bigbee says, one that is “just going to keep getting bigger, and people are going to be more aware of where their food comes from.” 

A bell pepper just as it ripens at the Amanda Belle Farm. (Poto by Shanon Cay Bowers)

Surviving a pandemic, younger generations want healthier lifestyles — not days spent indoors, gazing at computers. On top of that, easy web access since their elementary days has Gen Z-ers and millennials schooled on sustainability.

“Since we have the internet, more of us in the younger generation are able to see the holes in our food system,” Bigbee says, “And whenever you outsource your food to someone else that grows it a thousand miles away, for one, it’s not good for you and two, it just doesn’t taste good.” 

The Greene County University of Missouri Extension office saw interest in these topics boom when COVID-19 hit and fresh food was sometimes hard to come by at supermarkets. 

In the Ozarks, gardening has always been popular, says Kelly McGowan, a field specialist at the Extension. With COVID, it “exploded.” 

There was “a surge in people contacting us interested in vegetable gardening and even having small urban farms,” she says, “and a lot of those were from younger people.

“Many of them had no gardening experience whatsoever, but they were just ready to learn whatever they could,” McGowan says.  

Both young farmers are proud of the work they have accomplished at the Amanda Belle Farm. (Photo by Shanon Cay Bowers)

Out from behind a screen and into fresh air 

In 2021, Alex Fleit ended up working at Millsap Farm on Springfield’s northern outskirts because she, too, was ready to learn.

At the start of COVID, the 35-year-old Los Angeles native got laid off from her job as an information technology specialist, where she “pounded away at a keyboard eight hours a day.” That misfortune turned into a “godsend,” though, Fleit says — adding that her job was ruining her posture, anyway. 

“I finally took it as a chance to change my lifestyle and try something different,” she says, telling her story from one end of a picnic table where the Millsap family and their staff share a buffet lunch of salad, corn on the cob and homemade lasagna. 

Converting a van to a camper, she traveled as a farm worker until she landed at Millsap Farm through a Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farm grant.

There, Fleit met people like Jennae Mollenkamp, 29, who read about the farm in 2019 while searching sustainable agriculture internships.

Jennae Mollenkamp discusses her experiences since arriving at Millsap Farms. (Photo by Shanon Cay Bowers)

As a child in Kansas, Mollenkamp had always loved being outside, yet her grown-up job in graphic design and marketing meant more time spent indoors than outdoors. At Millsap Farm, she was “just looking to do something I was more passionate about than what I had been doing,” she says.

And this summer, Kansas City native Madi Gothard, 24, came to work there after earning a biology degree — then discovering she didn’t like working in labs. 

Finishing lunch, Gothard leaves the table to play with one of several friendly dogs roaming around under the shade trees. 

“I just really don’t do well with staying in one place,” Gothard says. “I really have to be moving around. And that physical aspect of farming is really good for me.” 

‘This is how I want my days to look, because I feel so good at the end of them’

For some first-generation farmers, such self-discovery plants the seeds for a new way of life. 

Eight years ago, Kevin Prather was a Starbucks shift supervisor, only 24 years old yet full of anxiety. 

“I was trying to climb that ladder,” Prather says on a hot August day at Urban Roots Farm, a 1.7-acre farm in center-city Springfield. 

Urban Roots Farm manager Kevin Prather harvesting mixed greens. (Photo by Abigail Zajac)

Then, on vacation at a music festival, Prather took the advice of a friend with the Springfield Urban Agriculture Coalition, once located where Urban Roots is today, just off State Street. 

“Basically, she just told me that I sounded pretty angsty about my life and I should find an outlet, and she recommended that I volunteer on this farm,” he says.

Prather knew he was an unlikely volunteer. He grew up in California “hating dirt, hating work. I would, like, cry if I got sand in my fingernails,” he says. 

And when he started showing up at Urban Roots, he didn’t even know how to pluck spinach, he says, yet owners Adam and Melissa Millsap welcomed him. 

Soon, Prather’s stress lightened “to the point that I decided that this is what I wanted to do every day,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about it being a career. I was just like, ‘This is how I want my days to look, because I feel so good at the end of them.’”

Urban Roots Farm chard, kale and lettuce patch. (Photo by Abigail Zajac)

By 2017, though, his new skills had gotten him a job with the Springfield Community Gardens. As a lead farmer, he helped break ground at urban gardens like Amanda Belle’s Farm. 

Earlier this year, though, he circled back to where he started with his wife, farmer Carsen Prather, to manage Urban Roots.

He wanted to spend less time on phone calls and emails, he says, and more time with dirt under his fingernails. 

Farming can be for anyone

“You Can Farm.” 

That was the book Curtis Millsap consulted when he and his wife, Sarah Millsap, started what he calls their “para-urban” farm about 15 years ago. 

Today, vegetables and flowers on about two of Millsap Farm’s 26 acres provide their living through community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription orders, farmers market sales and weekly pizza nights.

Curtis Millsap believes that farming is a lifestyle choice. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Yet growing up in Springfield, Curtis, 46, was himself a “typical work-averse teenager,” he says: “I was always the kid hiding in the closet, reading a book when it was time to pick the beans or weed the garden.”

Reading “You Can Farm,” by Shenandoah Valley farmer Joel Sartin, though, inspired Millsap with lists of ways to make a go of farming after he and his young family moved back from Sarah’s home state of Colorado, where Curtis had worked as a river guide. 

It also reassured Millsap that he could always get a more typical job if necessary: “Krispy Kreme is always hiring, and they’re probably paying more than we are,” he jokes.

But more typical jobs with 9-to-5 schedules aren’t what the Millsaps — or younger farmers — want.  

“Although you’re unlikely to ‘get rich’ in farming, at least it provides an opportunity for self-reliance, working outside instead of behind a computer, and promises a more fulfilling life than killing yourself to make your boss rich at a corporation,” wrote Anna Withers, SCG farm and resource development manager, in an email to the Daily Citizen.  

They also want to collaborate, not compete, says Prather, adding that farming advice is often just a phone call away.  

“We all talk,” he says. “There’s nobody gatekeeping; there’s nobody withholding information.” 

Sustainability, healing and food security

A sunflower on the Amanda Belle Farm in Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

As their farm survived a few heartbreaking failures — like record-size hail that punctured a greenhouse one year — the Millsaps began to mentor others, too. 

Not all of the more than 100 interns and apprentices who have worked at Millsap Farm have become farmers, but that’s OK, Curtis says. 

After at least a year of working there on college breaks, Dan Guion, 22, is joining the Peace Corps and moving to Africa.

“It’s not that I’m not interested in farming — perhaps I might own a farm someday — but I’m really more interested in issues of global food security,” Guion says. 

On the other hand, while visiting the Millsaps and former coworkers this August, Alex Fleit says she wants to become a horticultural therapist and start a farm sanctuary for domestic violence and human trafficking victims. 

At Millsap Farm, “I experienced a lot of healing,” she says, adding that it will be good to pass that on someday. 

Working in a tomato patch at Amanda Belle’s Farm, Cameron Bigbee says he has a five-year plan to work for SCG until he can buy his family’s farm. 

And from the porch of the shed there, Anneliese Kerr looks out over what was once an empty field on a busy street, sharing complex ideas about urban farming as a way to “bring the local food system back.” 

Anneliese Kerr is very proud of her sunflower field at the Amanda Belle Farm. (Photo by Shanon Cay Bowers)

Yet on the sunny summer day before, a road trip to orchards for peaches and blueberries had brought to mind a simple childhood memory. 

“And same thing, coming home with the windows open a ton of fruit in the back of my car,” Kerr says. “I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I wanted to do.’” 

Deepen your knowledge of urban farming

  • Besides one-on-one expertise, the University of Missouri Extension offers a variety of classes for farmers and non-commercial growers. Zoom courses beginning Sept. 6 include classes on the following topics: soils for
    gardeners and homeowners; Food Safety Modernization Act requirements; produce safety class for home and community gardens; and specialty crop business management.
    • For more information, go to visit the Extension’s website or call the Greene
      County office at (417) 881-8909.
  • The Missouri Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Program offers mentoring and education for farmers and ranchers ages 18-35. For more information, go to the farm bureau’s website.
  • An “Intro to Year-Round Gardening” workshop will be held Sept. 17 from 2-3:30 p.m. at Finley Farms in Ozark. Cost is $20. Find out more at the Finley Farms website.
  • “Millsap Farms Walk: Fall Production” will be held Sept. 21 from 6-8 p.m. Find out more at the Millsap website. An Oct. 19 class on produce safety is also scheduled at the farm.

Susan Atteberry Smith

Susan Atteberry Smith is a Dallas County native, a former college writing instructor and a former Springfield News-Leader reporter. Smith writes freelance pieces for several publications, including Missouri Life Magazine, Biz 417 and Missouri State University alumni publications. More by Susan Atteberry Smith