By Chris Adams

The Kansas City metropolitan area is home to 2.1 million people, thriving industry, manufacturing plants – and farmland.

Katherine Kathleen Kelly has been helping refugees till inner city land for more than a dozen years, teaching them the basics of farming, growing techniques and business practices.

In Kansas City, Kansas, Kelly’s organization, Cultivate Kansas City, runs the Juniper Gardens Training Farm. Refugees from Burma, Nepal, the Congo and other countries control plots of about a quarter acre each, growing food to sell to restaurants, farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) shares programs, as well as to feed their own families.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows learning about the future of agriculture, Kelly showed the small farm plots that are bursting with a cornucopia of vegetables, grains, flowers and fruits. There’s okra, sweet bell peppers, corn, beans, eggplant – even papaya trees. The papaya trees won’t last into the winter, but the leaves are edible – sort of.

Kelly snapped off a piece of papaya leaf and sampled it. “Hmm,” she said. “It’s actually quite bitter.”

Many of the immigrant farmers attempt to grow vegetables and fruits they know from their home countries. Part of what Kelly and her staff do is steer the farmers to the products that will have the best marketing potential in the Kansas City food market. After graduating from the four-year program, trainees aim to establish their own farms, finding land in or near Kansas City.

Part of Kelly’s mission is to teach immigrants how to farm successfully, contributing to their families’ bottom lines. But she’s also trying to change the way people think about food and where it comes from.

“What we want to do is normalize the presence of healthy food production in neighborhoods,” she said.

She introduced one of her trainee farmers, Dhan Rai, who came to the United States from Nepal in 2009. His plot of land is full to overflowing with about 25 different types of vegetables – beets, carrots, lettuce, peppers, okra, eggplant and a host of others.

Weeding is done by hand, and it’s not easy. But neither was farming in his native Nepal. Back there, there were no machines, no tractors; bulls pulled the plows.

As Kelly notes: They can’t use bull labor in Kansas City – meaning that tractor training is part of the Cultivate KC program.