Cities are for farming. That's the idea a partnership of local food aficionados have planted in a project that's starting to take root. But for it to fully bloom, they want City Council to start allowing residential farm stands by the time harvest rolls around later this summer.
Up by Fillmore and Prospect streets, in a neighborhood considered a food desert, a coalition of food justice nonprofits including Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, Pikes Peak Small Farms PBC, UCCS's Health Sciences Department and Colorado Springs Food Rescue have staked out a one-acre plot of land to develop into an urban farm.
The arrangement is complicated, with the land divided into thirds: one plot for a community garden tended by neighbors and managed by PPUG; a plot for a federally funded "TinyFarm" run by a young college grad; and another to be farmed by her and the property's two other new residents. The mission is singular: to transform underutilized infill into a literally fruitful part of the community.
Elise Rothman, founder of several local food ventures and prolific grant-writer, is part of the tiny farm team. At first, she and Pikes Peak Small Farms director Craig McHugh wanted to build 20 TinyFarms right off the bat. When that started to seem less than feasible, they zeroed in on one, but with a unique twist.
"We know that urban farming lets people access fresh, cheap food where they otherwise couldn't, but the issue is when they're not manned at night, it can get trashed," Rothman told the Indy. "But if a farmer lives on the property, that's not been seen."
Mercedes Whitman, 22, is that farmer. She plans to populate the land with 10 free-range chickens, two mini goats, a beehive, 16 fruit trees (planted in a U with a bench in the middle for anyone to sit on) and a "high tunnel" style greenhouse. That 5,000-square-foot structure is designed for year-round resiliency, its passive solar ventilation and drip-irrigation beds supporting kale, collards, spinach, peppers, leaf lettuce, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, pole beans, kohlrabi, leeks, onions, peas, radishes, rutabagas, summer squash, turnips, beets, Swiss chard, tomatoes, rhubarb, potatoes, apples and peaches. (If that list intimidates you, a UCCS contingent plans to offer in-home classes for people to learn how to cook new veggies.
The produce will be distributed several ways. "We'll have a website where people can order online, then come pick it up or we'll deliver (by bike, of course)," Rothman explains, adding they really want a farm stand — a table on the property where Whitman can sell produce to neighbors. Like a vendor at the farmers market but solo, lemonade stand-style. That part of the plan, however, could spell trouble.
As it stands, that would be considered a garage sale under current land-use definitions. Per zoning regulations, citizens can have two garage sales a year with combined sales over $300 subject to tax.
Lonna Thelen in the city's land use division told the Indy that urban agriculture has different designations for those that have a retail component and those that don't. Community gardens without on-site sales are permitted in residential zones, but adding that sales component makes it crop production, zoned only for agricultural districts. Certain home occupations are permitted by the land use division as long as hours of operation, number of employees, volume of customers, exterior signage and off-street parking fit the city's parameters.
Regarding a farm stand, Thelen says traffic is a concern but her division has recently been directed to look into it. That's because these farmers would rather change the law than comply with it. To do that, the allied Food Policy Advisory Board concocted an ordinance that, with the planning commission's blessing, would go to Council by way of president pro tem Jill Gaebler, one of the few elected officials to take local food production seriously as a civic goal.
"It was a tough sell," Gaebler said about creating the city/county board last year. "My colleagues kept saying I was trying to ban soda or tell people what to eat."
But sustainability isn't a Whole Foods buzzword to Gaebler, it's tied to self-sufficiency, resiliency and plain-old survival. "There are four or five companies that provide the majority of the food in this city. It's nuts," she said. "In case there's some issue where food trucks can't get here, we need to grow our own."
Doomsday aside, Gaebler simply believes local food is vital to a healthy community. "Other cities in the state get that it's important," she said. "By starting local gardens we can reduce food deserts, increase accessibility to fresh foods and help low-income neighborhoods support themselves financially. ... There's nothing bad about this."
She hopes to move legislation through quickly enough for residential farm stands to open this summer.
Such a zoning change is a new possibility in Colorado. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Cottage Food Act in 2012, letting people produce low-risk foods in home kitchens for sale with a certification rather than full-blown safety inspections. Homemade pickles, empañadas, honey and more all became fair game for commercial sale, but cities still dictate where those sales can take place.
In 2014, urban ag players in Denver saw the gap that their Springs counterparts are looking to bridge now: Citizens can grow produce at home and sell it at farmers markets or to restaurants. But they can't sell it from the very place it's grown — at home.
Eric Kornacki, leading nonprofit Re:Vision in developing local food systems in marginalized communities, was part of the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council's push for farm stands there. "You can cut hair, be an accountant, do all these other commercial things at home. So you should be able to sell food from where it was grown too," he says about the rationale that ultimately prevailed. Concerns about increased traffic didn't pan out, Kornacki says, adding that if anything, more people are walking to pick up groceries now rather than driving to the store.
Farm stands' community impact in Denver hasn't really been studied, but UCCS researcher Nanna Meyer plans to do that here. She got approval and funding for an exploratory study on how a tiny farm affects food literacy and nutrition in the neighborhood it feeds. The methods are playful, she says, meant to focus more on personal engagement than on clinical indicators like weight or cholesterol.
"We want to know: Do [participants] learn about where food comes from? Do they gain skills in cooking? Does that increase fruit and vegetable consumption?" Meyer told the Indy. "This is about having a lifelong impact on their relationship with food."
Key to that goal is the Flying Carrot — a UCCS mobile food awareness project funded by Pikes Peak Community Foundation. Under Meyer's guidance, grad students lead hands-on veggie prep and cooking classes at farmers markets and schools to promote health, autonomy and well-being in communities traditionally cut off from local food systems. The actual bus needs maintenance right now, but its mission chugs on regardless.
Meyer says the Flying Carrot will start home visits this summer, meaning families can sign up for cooking classes in their own kitchens. "We'll go through their pantry, go through their fridge, take produce from the farm and go over recipes," she says. "It's critical to actually connecting these veggies to this skillet so you can make this meal."
Pikes Peak Small Farms PBC estimates the city has more than 18,000 acres of farmable infill. And if, as the group's prospectus claims, a half-acre can eventually feed 60 people, the tiny farm model is ripe to do big things.