Missouri Entrepreneur Turns Hobby into a Business, Reimagines Urban FarmingDavid Cawthon
Many farmers have been working in agriculture their entire lives and always knew they would be farmers.
Amber D. Smith isn’t one of those people.
Instead, she’s showing how it’s possible to go from not even owning a houseplant to full-time urban farming. Her new-found passion has grown into Farms by Amber, which provides organic produce and designs gardens for people around the Kansas City area.
From STEM to stems
Amber worked as a science and math teacher for 20 years. She taught every level of math from kindergarten to university and trained teachers. She then moved into project management, even earning her project management professional certification.
But along with work, life happened as well.
“I started farming because I had a friend dying from cancer,” Amber says. “She had all these plants, and said, ‘Don’t kill my flowers.’ I said, ‘Girl, I don’t have anything green in this house!’”
But Amber used her science background and management skills to care for the plants. After her friend passed, tending to the plants became a therapeutic way for Amber to manage the depression and anxiety stemming from the loss. She had a friend build plant beds outside of her home in Independence, Missouri. Then, Amber was hooked.
“I loved it! I needed bigger beds,” she laughs.
The school where Amber was working caught wind of her new hobby. Soon, she was the sponsor of the garden club.
“I’m a natural expander,” Amber says. “I took those beds from five to nine – and then we started using the football field.”
A grant from the Whole Kids Foundation helped expand the program. Then, COVID hit, and Amber was out of a job.
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A pandemic and a new passion
Amber was feeding her neighbors, giving away produce because she enjoyed the planting. But when her full-time job went away, Amber reexamined her farming plans.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to monetize the farm,’” she says. “I put out a post – people had been saying they love this. They said they’d buy it. That’s how it started.
“I wish it were some phenomenal story, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t glamorous. It was ‘How am I going to feed my son?’ Because we need to make sure we eat.”
Amber had a handle on the planting, with produce growing in her yard and in her basement. But the business parts of the business presented some challenges. That’s where MOSourceLink came in.
“I reached out to the Missouri Small Business Development Center, and they referred me to Caitlin Jones at MOSourceLink,” Amber says.
Resource Partners to the rescue
Working with a MOSourceLink Network Navigator was a little overwhelming at first.
“Caitlin sent me a massive list of resources,” Amber says. “That’s the first thing people need to be prepared for. There are all these resources nobody tells you about. And Caitlin is a walking Yellow Pages, but better.”
By using the MOSourceLink information as a checklist, Amber has steadily made connections and built her business. She took care of the basics, like a business license. But she also made sure Farms by Amber is certified as a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) and Women Business Enterprise (WBE) in Missouri. The farm is registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Safety Administration. And it’s set up to take SNAP benefits.
Building this foundation required diligence and a willingness to ask questions.
“Amber has lots of ideas – which is great – but I try to have her narrow in on one or two things so we don’t both get overwhelmed,” says Caitlin Jones, Network Navigator at MOSourceLink. “She can prioritize her needs well, and she doesn’t get discouraged.”
Caitlin also cites Amber’s eagerness to learn as a key to her momentum.
“She is open to new ideas and perspectives,” Caitlin says. “She has a positive attitude and wants to be successful. She’s like a sponge for information and is excited to learn about what can help her business.”
That support and access to information has been key to Amber in the last year.
“The learning curve of entrepreneurship has been easier because I have resources and support,” Amber says. “It’s not isolating because I know I can reach out and say, ‘Can you help me? I’m struggling and not sure what I should be doing next.’”
Those next steps have included working with many MOSourceLink Resource Partners. Amber has connected with SCORE KC, Women’s Employment Network and The Porter House KC. And she’s found support from SBDC, the Missouri Department of Agriculture and the Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority.
“All those letter people – I’ve talked to them all,” Amber laughs. “They are so gracious. Even if you are talking to the wrong person, they get you to the right one.”
Next steps in farm growth
Farms by Amber just started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. This membership delivers organically grown produce and handcrafted artisan products each Saturday. You can find Farms by Amber at the Park Place Farmers’ Market, too.
Amber also offers microgreens, which are seedlings of vegetables and herbs. Microgreens are loaded with nutrients, sometimes 40 times more than the mature leaves of the same plants. Microgreens are also available as a weekly subscription.
The farm is a true family operation. Amber’s mom helps with packaging, and her dad makes deliveries. Her 6-year-old is the chief hydration and harvest engineer, and her nephew helps harvest. Amber’s best friends assist, and farm dog Judah provides security.
This team has empowered Amber to provide build-a-farm services in addition to produce.
“People can say, ‘I want a salsa garden’ and I can show them a picture of what the farm will look like,” Amber says. “The other way we design is to talk about what they like to eat and we customize the farm that way. It’s really cool because we get to build relationships. We go back and teach them to harvest. We talk about fertilizing, companion planting and pest control.”
Some people have suggested Amber is literally giving away the farm by sharing her knowledge.
“They say, ‘This could hurt business’ – but no,” she laughs. “There is enough business for me even when I share what I know. I really believe in seed to harvest, full circle – you reap what you sow. And if you put it in the ground and it grew, you did it right!”
Life as an entrepreneur and advice for others
Starting her own business has pushed Amber out of her comfort zone – in a good way.
“When I worked for other people, I knew I would get a check every two weeks,” she says. “It didn’t require me addressing my nonsense. But entrepreneurship has brought up all my issues.”
Business growth and personal growth are tied together.
“I believe if I stay on this path, I can do it,” Amber says. “It is a lot of grinding, connecting and talking, but it is so rewarding. I’m loving it – not just the freedom, but analyzing my systems, creating standard operating systems. Those are things that people don’t give entrepreneurs credit for. I’m working on my internal systems, too. I’m working on in my purpose area, and not a lot of people that can say that.”
Amber’s days as an urban farmer are never the same. Each one has different issues and different answers. And some days have a little panic mixed in, too.
“It’s scary,” she laughs. “If anyone has catastrophic thoughts like I do, it’s easy to think, ‘It’s going to end!’ But it’s not. You’ll find the support you need at the time that you need it. But you have to take that initial step – to try. There are support systems in place – you aren’t the first entrepreneur.”
For people dreaming of starting their own businesses, or business owners who need a boost, Amber recommends reaching out for help.
“Talk to MOSourceLink,” she says. “Caitlin does a great job of listening and asking clarifying questions so that she can help you flesh out your idea. The thing I’m learning about entrepreneurship is that your idea isn’t a crazy idea. It’s an idea, and you have it for a reason: So you can manifest it.”
Amber is a big proponent of preparing for success but knowing that it often works on its own time.
“It’s like a garden – you have to let it produce,” she says. “You can control when you put seed in ground, but you don’t control the growth or harvest.”
Help your business grow
When you’re ready to cultivate a business, MOSourceLink is here to show the way. Our Resource Navigator lists hundreds of organizations and programs that support entrepreneurs in Missouri. And our Network Navigators – like Caitlin – are here to provide personal guidance. They can prepare a free Personal Action Plan to show you next steps toward your specific goals.
MOSourceLink services are free, and the Resource Partners we work with provide help at low or no cost. Your success is our focus.