Young Family Farm, a Black family-owned and operated farm in the Kansas City metropolitan area, does more to address urban food deserts than simply growing and selling produce. Through education, community events, and organic connections, the Young family empowers individuals and families to strive for healthy, sustainable living.

Their powerful presence as one of few Black-owned urban farms in the area helps them not only provide access to healthy food options in an underserved area, but also create an intentional space for Black individuals and families to get curious about agriculture and strengthen their understanding of and relation to food, their community, and the earth.

Young Family Farm is an intergenerational family farm, formally established in 2019, spanning an acre across three locations in the Kansas City metro. The farm is operated by Alan and Yolanda Young and their children Alana, AJ, Aaron, and Alex, with assistance from the grandparents and grandchildren of the family as well.

Combatting the Urban Food Desert

Through their work with the farm, the family’s mission is to empower residents in the community to control their own destinies and health by encouraging them to grow their own food, shop locally, and choose healthy food over junk food.

The Young family, who have been residents of Ivanhoe neighborhood for more than 30 years, did not start out with the intent to build a large-scale farm. When a farmers market was introduced to the area, they decided to begin growing produce to support the market in providing nutritious food to the area to combat local food deserts.

Although Missouri makes up a large portion of the agricultural sector, it is still food insecure in many areas, particularly the urban core. “The ability to purchase fresh produce really becomes a pretty significant challenge,” Alana said. “Doing farmers markets in these urban areas provides an opportunity for folks who may not have the means to go to a Whole Foods, or to go elsewhere outside the metropolitan area, to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.”

After seeing other harvests brought to the market, the Youngs quickly realized that vending regularly would require them to shift from a few plants to a full-fledged farm. They needed to significantly expand their operation to make a significant dent in food insecurity in the area.

In addition to selling produce directly through their farm and local markets, the Youngs also provide education about agriculture and healthy eating. According to Alana, education about and access to healthy foods not only combats the food desert but also health disparities that disproportionately affect people of color.

“The Black community and the Hispanic community, we have challenges with health-related disorders and issues that come from unhealthy eating practices, so it’s really important for folks to educate themselves on how they can live more healthy lives and also just have the access to healthier foods,” she said.

Yolanda added that oftentimes, people don’t get curious about eating healthier until it’s too late and disease has already set in. With the education offered through the farm, she and the other family members help people in the community understand how eating clean can help lower the risk of diseases like diabetes and the importance of preventative health.

The family offers free tours of the farm to interested groups and hosts workshops and events targeted to both youth and adults. Workshop and event attendees can talk to the family and occasionally the farm’s beekeeper to learn what is grown, how to grow produce themselves, the nutritious values of various produce, different recipes for healthy meals, and more.

Every Saturday throughout the harvesting season, the family hosts their own market at their Wayne Avenue farm location. Market attendees are encouraged to tour the farm while they are there and to get curious about trying new things, whether that is attempting to grow their own tomato plant or simply taste testing a vegetable they’ve never had before.

This same curiosity is what helped grow the farm into what it is today. While health care providers may warn about the need for eating nutrient-dense food or monitoring caloric intake, education often stops there. Patients are left to develop healthy eating habits on their own which, without proper guidance, can be overwhelming and difficult to maintain. According to Alana, the laid-back weekly markets provide a comfortable environment for people to learn in a way that is exciting, feels manageable, and will stick.

“That’s a fun part of the experience and the culture that we’ve built here, is being able to do those sorts of things where it’s organic learning versus structured learning around calorie count and macros, etc.,” she said. “Connection, I think, is the foundation for growth — without that connection, it’s hard to sustain. What we hope we’re doing here is providing an opportunity for folks to connect with farmers, to connect with the land, to connect with the food that we all need to live. And then hopefully they will, within their own lives, make some changes with their eating habits or their living or even consider growing fruits and vegetables in their own dwelling.”

To help keep changes sustainable, the Youngs encourage people to start small. During tours and market days they frequently hear people comment, “Oh I could never do this,” – and they don’t expect anyone to. “Families don’t need to do this,” Alan said. “What families need to do is maybe one-fiftieth of this.”

Alan pointed out that even their family started small, beginning with a few potted plants before eventually moving to raised beds. During market days, the family talks to people about what foods to try growing first and how to get started. These conversations continue throughout the year – people can report back about how their plant is growing and ask questions about any challenges that arise, learn what healthy recipes they can make with the produce they grow, and determine what they should be growing next.

“It is doable for most people,” Alan said. “We try to help those that come here and then their appetite is wetted to try something at home. One of the first things we advise them to do is not to go too big. Start small and try to grow things that are easier to grow.”

“That gets to the idea of sustaining your effort as well,” Alana said, adding that people often bite off more than they can chew to start. As a result, the process of growing one’s own food can become daunting, and it becomes difficult to sustain. Starting small and taking time to get comfortable learning and connecting with the process will make growing much easier.

Reconnecting with Ancestral Roots

All local farmers markets provide much-needed access to fresh food that empowers consumers to eat and live well. However, Black-owned and operated farms offer a unique space to reclaim agriculture as a celebratory practice. Through their work, the Young family both honors the trauma their ancestors endured and empowers Black individuals and families to become knowledgeable about agriculture to sustain themselves and their communities.

“When I think about agriculture and the Black community specifically, there’s of course sort of this marred history and there’s a lot of trauma associated with agriculture as a result of slavery and sharecropping,” Alana said. “Our ancestors were incredibly knowledgeable about the plants, the animals, the insects, the trees, and the seasons, and unfortunately that knowledge and those skills were taken for someone else’s personal gain to build wealth for others. But some of those skills and some of that knowledge helped sustain our lives as well.”

“On the days when we’re out here working in the heat and thinking about how miserable we are with the mosquitos and all of that – it’s like imagining what the experience would have been like not too long ago and to know that from sun up to sun down, that’s what you were doing,” she continued. “It didn’t matter how hot it was, how tired you were, how pregnant you were, how thirsty you were – that’s what you were doing. There’s a level of appreciation for what so many folks had to do and ended up losing their lives doing, and an appreciation for how they paved the way for the future today and how privileged we are in the present to be able to choose this path and to not be forced into this path.”

Alana recognizes that land ownership itself is powerful and believes the act of cultivating your own land to grow your own food is a “disruptive act in the best possible way.” Although grocery stores are convenient and necessary, she believes the constant convenience of readily available, ready-to-eat foods and delivery services like Door Dash has caused a disconnect that plays a role in poor outcomes for both people and the planet.

“We’ve gotten so used to the instant gratification, the quick food consumption circle we’ve created for ourselves, and insulated ourselves from the act of being in nature, and connecting in nature, and working in nature,” she said. “I think it’s been a disservice to us in terms of our physical health and the health of our planet. Through this type of work, there’s sort of an appreciation for the earth itself and how we’re really all connected to it.”

The Young Family Farm’s presence in the urban area also represents new interests and possibilities for Black residents in the community who may not have otherwise considered agriculture. According to Alan and Alana, the community has often expressed gratitude for having Black farming represented by three generations of family and neighbors, right here in the urban core.

“I know I’ve had several people say, ‘We are so glad that you guys are doing this here and it’s good to see a Black family that’s trying to grow better food, trying to be an example of sustainability,’” Alan said. According to the Youngs, Black children and young Black families specifically have shared that not only have they never seen an urban farm, especially to this scale, but they’ve also never seen a Black family selling produce in the city.

“I do think that representation does have an impact, people can look at another individual and say, ‘Wow I can see myself in you, I can see myself be able to do this, I hadn’t seen anyone be able to do this before, but now maybe I can try this,’” Alana said.

Leaving a Family Legacy

The Young family is especially unique because of the skills, passions, and other careers that influence their work on the farm. Alan, the father, is the Housing Director for the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. He also has a background in construction that lent itself to the building of all the farm structures and expertise that contributes to calculating the layout of the raised beds and similar projects.

Yolanda, the mother, is the State Representative for District 22. Having grown up on a farm in rural Texas, her practical know-how of growing and harvesting is the backbone of the farm’s operations. Her expanse of knowledge regarding food insecurity as well as the needs of farmers and urban farmers specifically is the foundation for her advocacy work.

Yolanda advocates for the needs of farmers and the communities she serves through legislation and committee work, while simultaneously serving as a resource for people in her community who have questions about policies and legislation.

Their daughter Alana’s journalism degree, previous work as an English teacher, and strengths in writing prepared her to handle all social media and communications for the farm, including organizing tours and creating workshop lesson plans. Alana’s three brothers – Aaron, Alex, and AJ – also work on the farm.

AJ, who passed away in November 2022, will always be remembered for the infectious joy he brought to the farm. Following his death, members of the community expressed their shared grief and fond memories of his laugh, musical talent, and the comfort he brought to those around him.

AJ was incredibly physically strong and did much of the heavy lifting, lovingly referred to as the workhorse of the family. He was known to alternate between completing tasks for the farm and taking a break to work out or build a makeshift exercise machine. He would also frequently bring his guitar to the farm and play, whether for the family, market attendees, or just for fun.

Aaron, a radiant youth leader for the United Nations, travels frequently to advocate for sustainability. According to Alana, the UN has outlined 17 goals for sustainability, one of which is developing sustainable cities and communities through innovative methods such as urban agriculture. His work advocating for sustainability influences his contributions to the farm, and vice versa.

Because of Alex’s dependable nature and incredible eye for detail, he serves as the final set of eyes before a project is deemed complete. “When you need to know that something is done accurately, thoroughly, and is complete, Alex is your man,” Alana said. “Having someone who can be that sort of anchor to being regulated and meticulous is actually very important and very helpful.”

Alana believes part of the impact of the farm is due to the fact that it’s intergenerational and the legacy the family is leaving for the future – especially regarding her late brother, AJ. “My grandparents have come here and helped, and then of course my parents and my siblings and their children,” Alana said. “Both Aaron and AJ have a son and they are here often helping. I think the legacy there is leaving behind a son who also has a love and appreciation for family and what we’ve built here.”

Making the Community Part of the Family

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Youngs had already planted for the season, and immediately worried the lockdowns would impact sales. Instead, the open-air market welcomed masking, and the opportunity to connect with friends and neighbors made business boom. People had been isolated and were craving conversations and community that the family farm could safely provide.

When concerns about food handling and safety were at an all-time high, the farm also allowed customers to see where their food was coming from and trust that it was safe – because they had seen the entire handling process for themselves. People could then purchase produce directly each week, or ask the family for guidance on growing their own.

One benefit of the market that has continued to have a lasting impact is the slow checkout line. Alana had heard of places beginning to implement deliberately slow checkout lines that encourage chatting with the cashier for people who were lonely and craving connection. She immediately thought of the farm and how transactions are far more about the conversations and relationship-building with customers, rather than the purchase.

“I would encourage people to try to come out to our market once this summer,” she said. “I do think the experience that we offer here is something that’s unique and that’s why we have so many dedicated and loyal customers, because when you come here, you feel like you’re connected to the family. We talk, we don’t try to rush you out of line.”

“I think to alleviate or to address some of the fragmentation that we’re seeing in our society, we have to really examine, ‘What am I doing to build connection with others, to be perceptive of someone else’s need at any given moment, and to help meet that need if I can?’” she continued. “We can’t serve everyone in all ways at all times, but we do what we can.”

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