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Banking on KC – Tabitha Schmidt of Powell Gardens


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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Tabitha Schmidt, the CEO of Powell Gardens. Welcome Tabitha.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Thank you for having me, Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

I'm really glad that you could join us again because you have some exciting new updates since we last spoke, I think about a year ago. And let's start with the recent signing ceremony that you had with Lincoln University just last month and it created the Agriculture Center for Empowerment. Tell us about that.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Sure. It's a very exciting moment for Powell Gardens. Powell Gardens sits on a 970-acre footprint. We have a lot of land and a lot of opportunity. And so we were introduced to Lincoln University and their Dean of the School of Agriculture Environmental Sciences, Dr. Majed El-Dweik and several of his faculty. And we started talking about their need to have of a location to offer more outreach programming and do some research. And on our end, having the facilities, the infrastructure and the land. And so for the past two years, we've been in negotiations to create a cooperative agreement that we would work together and bring this, what's really is just this perfect synergy together. They have the expertise, the faculty, they're an accrediting body. They're one of two land grant universities in the state of Missouri. And then we have the footprint, the buildings, the infrastructure, the technology and the land to support it. So happily we signed about three weeks ago, I believe we had a ceremony and so we will be offering programming in partnership with Lincoln here at the gardens.

Kelly Scanlon:

You use that word empowerment, Agriculture Center for Empowerment. What is this going to empower?

Tabitha Schmidt:

Well, so Lincoln, this is part of their extension program. And so one of their goals is to provide opportunity through outreach and they target and work closely with underserved rural and urban populations and small farmers. And so the idea is that through their education and the opportunities that we would do through this partnership, they would help equip people to either become a small farmer themselves or learn a new technique or really anything in the natural world that would make someone stronger or give them the inspiration to start off on their own and create their own farm or do something.

Kelly Scanlon:

You also have a new relationship with Audubon and a ranching company called Evergreen. From what I understand, this agreement really represents a new phase for Powell Gardens, because you're going to be introducing livestock into your mix. What kind of cattle are you introducing and what purpose will they serve?

Tabitha Schmidt:

This is an unusual thing at first glance but the more that you dig in, the more it makes sense. So Audubon the bird organization actually has, what's called a conservation ranching program and they partner with ranchers and different livestock that help manage the land or renew land. And in this particular case, we are working with the company, Evergreen Ranching through the conservation ranching program in Audubon. So a small herd of cattle, it's a specific cattle called Criollo, C-R-I-L-L-O. And they're very cute. They're very cute. And they're very, very mild-mannered, very gentile livestock. And because I mentioned, we have this huge footprint, we have a lot of adjacent land that nobody ever sees and we don't really do anything with but it does need to be managed. And so these livestock come in and graze the land in a way that really helps the health of the land.

Tabitha Schmidt:

They also eat brush, which is unusual and that's something because we have quite a bit of Woodland on our property that needs attention. So we're starting to enter into this regenerative agriculture space and that's where the Lincoln University partnership and the Audubon Evergreen Ranching partnership are springing from, we finished a master plan in 2020. And part of our master plan does call for the initiative of a regenerative agricultural Institute, that's still a working title, basically, replace the word regenerative with healthy. So thinking about soil health or healthy ecosystems, whether resiliency, Midwest is a harsh climate. It's hard to grow some things here. So we are venturing into this space in a way that we're bringing partners to the table that are already experienced and working in this space. And that we become a convener, I think is the right word to say, so that place where this work is happening.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So we'll be providing education and outreach and workshops and training but we also can be a place for research. We also are a laboratory. One of the things that I love about Powell is that we have a lot of land that needs to be managed. So we can actually be a place where people can come and see a practice in the works. So actually see, how is it getting healthier? How is it getting better? What is working? What's not working? And I really like that practical application. Powell has always been a showcase for plants. And so this just expands that mission into a broader space.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. So this Institute for Regenerative Agriculture, as you call it, that has now transformed Powell Gardens into a laboratory, where do the researchers come from? Do they come from specific universities that you have partnerships with? Is it open to anyone throughout the country to come and do research here? Talk with us about that.

Tabitha Schmidt:

The initial core group that we're working with is Lincoln University. They are our higher education partner and we have a sincere commitment to keep them in that base. We really want to grow our relationship with them and really develop the programming through them. The Conservation Ranching and Evergreen are the other partners. And then we are also in talks, very serious talks and I'm not going to mention them just yet because we still have to get an MOU signed, but with a local Kansas City developer group that specializes in regenerative agriculture. And I feel very optimistic that we're rounding the final curve and we'll have that MOU done. And they will be a major leader in convening the right partners. So we're starting with this core group and getting our operating structure and how are decisions made about programming? How are decisions made about land use? That sort of thing. There's a lot to work out. And then once we really get that going, we can start to look at other partners in how they fit in the larger scheme of things.

Kelly Scanlon:

And you said that you could replace really that word regenerative with healthy. And I think that more and more people are starting to realize that get back to the fundamentals and the natural farming is not only healthy for the environment and for the land but for people who eat the products that are grown on it or raised on it as well.

Tabitha Schmidt:

I'm a gardener myself, I have my flower beds and anyone who digs in the dirt will instinctively know if something is wrong with that dirt. And it's just something that basic that you could look at your garden, you can see where things are doing well, what's not going well, testing the soil, just understanding if it's the right mix, an important first step but also understanding, did you plant the right thing? One of the things that Powell Gardens has actually been wrestling with and challenged with is the right type of plant or tree or the right variety. Some do better than others because they can handle the weather or they can handle the conditions. And then non-natives don't do so well. And sometimes they actually cause more problems than they're worth. So just really trying to find that balance in what will be beautiful, what will be very sustainable. I know that's a buzzword these days but the truth is, it's an important piece of it, it's about the balance.

Kelly Scanlon:

You're also introducing several new experiences for the public this year. One of those is Orchid Delirium, which you just held in March and then you have one coming up, call Fortopia. Talk with us about each of those.

Tabitha Schmidt:

I want to emphasize that Powell Gardens is a botanical garden. And so even though we're working on the regenerative agriculture and regenerative horticulture aspects, those are happening more at adjacent properties. The core business is the botanic garden. And so we were really reconciling and working through was driving more traffic to the gardens. And the two things that we simply cannot control are weather and location. And so when we sat back and we looked at those two things, trying to figure out how to mitigate those factors, we came up with the lineup or the theater season, essentially. Here's what we are doing for you. And the two new things that we're adding this year is the Orchid Delirium, which just closed at the end of March. And it truly is a beautiful exhibition of orchids. There were over 600 orchids on display this past March in our conservatory, truly beautiful, really beautiful.

Tabitha Schmidt:

And it was very well received. So in a typical March, when we would not be doing something like this, we would see less than 500 people in a 31-day span. And we saw well over 3000 in probably a 15 to 18-day span, it was a big success. So it will be coming back every March. And then the summer, right before Memorial day, we will open Fortopia. And so Fortopia, we were inspired by something similar at Botanic Garden, outside of Austin at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower. We are having eight custom-designed concepts, forts built by A to Z Theatrical as we speak, the designs came through a request for proposal process and eight were chosen and each one is totally different. They're so over the map, which is what makes them so fun, they're works of art all by themselves, they're interactive.

Tabitha Schmidt:

And so we have two architectural firms that have two in the show and then we have all the way down, we have two early childhood classes that submitted concepts with their teachers and then everything in between with different artists and designers. So it's going to be installed in a green space that's shaded over near our fountain garden and by our lake. So think of it as a Fort city that you'll go into and you can climb and play and run and just feel like going back to your childhood memories of playing in nature and building your own forts is what we're going for. It'll run four and a half months, closing in mid-October.

Kelly Scanlon:

And it sounds like you're going to have a winner with that one as well. What inspired Orchid Delirium? Why orchids?

Tabitha Schmidt:

Orchids in March work really well for many Botanic gardens, we actually have an orchid collection and we have an orchid expert. And so we just seized the day and we got busy and got it launched this year. And so we actually have been purchasing a lot more orchids. So we're growing our collection as we speak. So the show can just get better and better.

Kelly Scanlon:

Now, of course, you're going to be featuring some of your popular annual events as well, lot of new things on tap but there are also a lot of things that you have done year to year that continue to be public favorites. Talk with us about some of the ones you're bringing back.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Yes, we love the things that are already out there that people look forward to. So our spring festival is called Painted Garden and Painted Garden will open April 21st and it runs through May 15th, Wednesday through Sunday. This is our bring moment where we bring the arts, nature and design together in the garden. And so Peregrine Honig, most people will probably know her as very well-known Kansas City artist. She is going to take over the conservatory and do an installation in there. We have 10 artist, designers who are creating very large floral containers, inspired by works of art from the Nelson Atkins Museum's European Victorian era painting collection. And then we have Rachel [Yun 00:12:35], this work will be displayed near our garden galleries. It's just a funny take on movement and flowers. I'll just leave it at that. It's something to be experienced.

Tabitha Schmidt:

And then we activate during Painted Garden. Strawberry Swing, which is a great vendor faire will be here opening weekend. One weekend will be baby animals, it's called Wildly Cute, everybody loves baby animals in the spring. Mother's day weekend we do a brunch. It's just a great time to bring mom and get out in the garden, grab a mimosa and just enjoy the flowers. So all of that is available online. Festival of Butterflies is back later in July and through the beginning of August, this is our 25th annual Festival of Butterflies, which is hard to believe, tried and true, another great one. Last year, we launched a Halloween experience called Dark Forest. It was a seven-day run and it was a partnership with Quixotic the artist collaborative. It will be back this October, essentially, if you did not experience it last year, here's what I will tell you.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Tickets will go fast. They are limited. It runs eight nights and we hand over a mile long, a mulched nature trail, two Quixotic in our forest. And so you walk through the forest with sound and lighting and performers and music. I mean, it is amazing. It is so cool. And we activate our Missouri barn with refreshments and bars and lights and camp fires, fire pits and everything. So it just really is such a fun fall experience. And then of course, we'll close our year with Festival of Lights. This year's our sixth annual and it runs about eight weeks. And we essentially switch all of our programming to evening programming during the run of Festival of Lights. And it has become a Kansas City tradition and you just wander a mile-long lit trail in the garden. That is so beautiful. We have fire pits throughout, fun drinks and concessions throughout, music. It's just, it's such a lovely way to end a year.

Kelly Scanlon:

Definitely sounds like it's so many fun things to do this summer with your new exhibitions, as well as the favorites. I'm sure you're going to have lots of people out there. I want to ask you about something we talked about the last time you were our guest and that was about 18 months ago. I believe you were gifted or Powell Gardens was gifted with a Native Prairie outside of Sedalia. And I'm just curious about what your goals were for that and how they're progressing.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So yes, we were gifted a Native Prairie. It's a 40-acre Native Prairie. And for our listener, that means the dirt has never been turned. It's never been tilled. And the owner of the Prairie Ona Gieschen is the very generous donor who gave it to Powell Gardens. She took immaculate care of this property. So if you don't care for something like this, invasive plants will get in there and it will destroy it, it will choke out all of the good stuff. And the bad stuff will take over. So think Sericea Lespedeza or Poison Ivy, this property doesn't have any of that. The Forbes and everything, depending on the time of your beautiful color, tons of beneficial insects at this property. So when we acquired it, thankfully it did come with the trust because there's a lot of work involved in continuing the care of something like that.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Our first goal was to just make sure we knew how to manage it and take care of it and have the right people and the right equipment. And we spent the last couple of years doing that. So we feel really good about how we're maintaining it and preserving its preciousness. So this year, though, we are launching a Prairie program. There's a limited small group of people that will be working directly with our conservationists, Julie Copley on a Prairie program, there are three separate workshops and some of the time will be at the Native Prairie. Powell is also renovating some of our prairies and our meadows. We use goats, the goats like to eat the bad stuff. It's just the funniest thing. It's so cute. And then they bring the good stuff back. We see more insects, we're seeing more Forbes. So we've got this showcase again, that word of how to restore one. And then also, what does one actually look like when it's in its prime?

Kelly Scanlon:

What do all these new developments mean? Not only for Powell Gardens but also so for Kansas City and especially in terms of our national profile.

Tabitha Schmidt:

There's been a lot happening at Powell in the last five years. And so much of what's happened in the last two years is really starting to gain traction in the community. We are definitely hearing more that people are hearing about us. There's a lot of buzz in the community. So I think that the exhibitions, the signature events and the festivals are causing the public and the community to take notice. They now know we're here. We found that during the COVID nightmare, that was for everybody, many people found us because they realized one, how important nature was or health and mental wellness. But two, they wanted an outdoor big venue, a place where they could feel safe. So we've seen a lot of new people find us. And then once they get here and they experience a Festival of Lights or one of these others, they're joining, they're becoming members because members get in free and they don't have to pay parking.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So it's the best deal in town and what I'm seeing and what I'm believing is happening, which makes me really proud and happy is that we're more and more being seen truly as Kansas City's botanical garden and our location has made that a bit of a challenge, a little out of sight out of mind but now that's changing, that conversation is changing. The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative is going to change the national conversation for Powell, it really is. It's an important part of environmental health. Powell is well-positioned. We've got great partners coming to the table. So I think you'll see a lot more in that main hit the national spotlight in the coming years.

Kelly Scanlon:

And it struck me, as you were talking, earlier when you were talking about the Institute for Regenerative Agriculture, you were talking about how Powell Garden is really becoming a convener with what you said about the popularity of the gardens locally and the people, the citizens, residents, discovering that more and more, that you've become a convener of community in that sense. So on both levels, you've become a convener.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Yes. One of the things that I love so much about the work that we do here is that we really bring joy to people's lives and nature, it makes you happy, getting outside makes you happy. And so when we host these beautiful festivals and these fantastic exhibitions and we're a place where a lot of rights of passage happen, people get married, they get engaged, they come here for holidays and celebrations. It's a place where multi-generational families, they come, I laugh at how many times at Festival of Lights, we see four generations of families coming in and their shirts and their fun little bling and getting their holiday photo at that time. While we do serious things. The environment is serious, education. We have a lot of mission-driven aspects of the garden. We also just remind people about how precious it is to be outside and be in nature and be with your loved ones.

Kelly Scanlon:

Absolutely. And all of these events because you've listed off, talked about a lot of them, they're all on your website, correct? At powellgardens.org.

Tabitha Schmidt:

They are. The regenerative ag stuff is still being formulated. So there's not a lot on the website about that but the other annual events and everything have landing pages, yes.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay. So powellgardens.org go out and refresh yourself on what you heard here today and try to get out there in the coming months to enjoy some of these exhibits and experiences. Thank you so much, Tabitha, for sharing this update with us and for all that you do for Kansas City.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Tabitha Schmidt for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Powell Gardens is Kansas City's botanical garden, with its thousands of varieties of plants and unique seasonal displays and events. More and more people from around the region are discovering this local gem. Even more exciting is what's happening out of sight. That visitors don't observe.

Powell Garden's expansion into agricultural education and research is transforming it into a living laboratory with the potential to innovate the food and farming industries, elevate Kansas City's profile nationally as a hub for regenerative agriculture and drive economic development in our surrounding rural communities. These initiatives are still in their early stages but it will be exciting to see the master plan unfold. In the meantime, be sure to head over to Powell Gardens in the coming months to enjoy the beautiful garden landscapes and interactive events.

Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

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