What do you do when you're concerned about the impact of big agriculture on your health?
Many turn to organic supermarkets, local farmers markets or CSA (community supported agriculture) shares. Then there are those who seriously do not want any part of mass distribution of our food supply, no matter how well-intended. They turn to growing their own food and connecting to the rising number of urban farmers who identify as homesteaders.
All about self-sufficiency, homesteaders grow, eat and preserve fruits and vegetables in quantities that allow them to keep trips to the supermarket to a minimum. Many also own ducks, chickens or rabbits as protein sources, and most keep bees for honey, as well as wax, which has its own DIY, crafting appeal.
Christine Faith and her husband, Ben Gleason, consider themselves homesteaders. Their small lot in the Ivywild neighborhood is home to Colorado Springs' first official backyard farm. They cleared Ivywild Farms (ivywildfarm.com) through city planning, filed LLC tax forms, and took all the necessary steps to ensure their micro farm is a legal entity.
"We did this for ourselves," says Faith. "We wanted to protect our ability to eat well, even if prices go up [in the grocery stores]. But we went into it deliberately, to make a model that people could duplicate if they wanted."
Then add water
Faith and Gleason made sure their neighbors knew everything they were planning to do, assuring them that nothing would decrease property values in the neighborhood. They also showed gratitude by sharing some of their eggs and honey with them, says Gleason.
"The bees can be a concern sometimes," Faith says, pointing to a tall stack of bee boxes surrounded by an electrified fence to keep wildlife out. "The hive swarmed last year, and when the new queen took over, it changed the personality of the whole hive. They're more aggressive now. ... The new queen's a bitch."
The couple's fairly small backyard is packed, but well laid-out with various raised garden beds, young fruit and berry bushes, vines, hen and duck coops, and even an aquaponic greenhouse that uses a koi pond to feed the plants.
"Ben's an engineer," says Faith. "I come up with the idea, and he builds it. Neither one of us could have done it alone."
Groceries are still a significant part of their budget. But the farm cushions the costs, while also serving as a classroom for Faith's larger mission to educate others on homesteading practices. She works full-time farming, teaching free classes, running her websites (see righttothrive.org), and doing private consulting.
"If you want to make money on this, you need to look at SPIN models," she says, noting they can supposedly net an urban farmer tens of thousands of dollars a year.
SPIN, or Small Plot INtensive farming, is a business model that uses sub-acre urban land plots to produce varied, common crops — like garlic, salad greens and herbs — that resell at top prices. According to Bonnie Simon of the Springs' Hungry Chicken Homestead blog, a simple 20-by-20-foot plot can generate more than 500 pounds of produce per season.
She says the one-time cost of materials and soil to build the bed will run about $450. Add in seeds for $100, and an annual watering bill of about $60, and the build is complete.
"By mid-July of the first year, the entire capital investment is recouped through harvest, and the rest of the year is all 'free' food," she says. In subsequent years, she adds, "that 500 pounds of produce can be had for about $160 and some sweat equity."
Share and care
With all that food, homesteaders and urban farmers have the potential to spread the goodness throughout a neighborhood or small community. Under the right conditions, they can defray some or all of the expense of cultivating backyard crops through a neighborhood sponsored agricultural (NSA) zone.
Consider an NSA a much smaller, ultra-local CSA. As with a CSA, participants in an NSA pay a fixed price at the beginning of the growing season for a share of the produce that a farm (or co-op) cultivates. Some neighbors might even be willing to donate additional space for more garden beds and a wider variety of produce.
"CSAs sometimes ship their food up to a hundred miles; [NSAs are] more interested in walking it across the street," says Faith. It's not unusual, she adds, for an NSA to only have one or two official subscribers.
If a homesteader is efficient, there might be a little excess produce, which could lead to a little profit via a contract with the Ivywild School's Hunt or Gather. Just opened last week, the purpose of the market is to allow "broader access to locally and regionally produced, chemical-free food, along with educational opportunities to learn the importance of real food."
Since NSAs are not collective groups and not formal businesses, and because of their inherent small scale, it's hard to tell how many there are in the city. Two that make their presence known at the Ivywild Market are the Dale House NSA and the Colorado College NSA. Both sell leftover produce after they have provided shares to their subscribers.
According to Megan Andreozzi, Ivywild market manager for the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, Hunt or Gather intends to be a place where homesteaders and NSAs can sell some of the fruits of their labor — as long as they meet certain criteria.
"I'd have to check them out first," Andreozzi says, "and they'd have to sign some forms agreeing to specific ways of growing and ethics, as well as meeting legal standards."
And it's not just crops, necessarily. For instance, if you're looking for a source to buy the occasional organic chicken, a person could go to Hunt or Gather to be put in contact with a local provider.
That said, keep in mind that very few, if any, urban farms are officially "organic."
"It's an expensive and time-intensive undertaking to be able to label products with that term," says Andreozzi. She explains, however, that by listing with Hunt or Gather, local homesteaders agree to adhering to organic practices.
Consuming good, healthful food is, of course, the end result of all this. As Faith says: "We're not trying to be fear-mongers, but we try to encourage folks to look at things like monocrops, [genetically modified organisms] and pesticides. ... We can talk about this stuff, or we can do something about it.
"And if that's simply a tomato pot on your balcony, if that's what you can do, then God bless you for it."
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