When Fort Collins-born Kipp Nash moved to Boulder in 2004 after several years of international travel, he had a single objective: "I was a farmer looking for land."
The problem: Land in Boulder isn't exactly cheap. The fix: Get creative.
"The only resource that made any sense to me was my neighbors' front and back yards," says Nash.
While researching that idea, Nash stumbled upon a guy in Saskatchewan, Canada, named Wally Satzewich, who runs a successful urban garden business across 25 residential properties.
On spinfarming.com (as in S-mall P-lot IN-tensive farming), Wally and his partner, Gail Vandersteen, argue that more money can be netted with less effort by growing multiple crops intensively in the city than on a conventional farm.
So in 2006, Nash convinced a handful of the willing to let him dig up their properties and launched Community Roots Urban Gardens. Five first-year gardens grew to six the following year and to 13 as of this year. Nash takes a portion to market, sells another as shares in a community-supported agriculture program or CSA, in which each "shareholder" pays the farmer up front to receive a weekly harvest during the growing season and lets the homeowners munch from the gardens for their cut.
"I haven't gotten it working on all cylinders yet," says the 32-year-old Nash, meaning he still drives a school bus to supplement his income. "But what I'm trying to create here is more than just a profession for myself and a garden for someone else. It's really more of a community project, where people are going to hopefully come together and feel a sense of hope. That can really pull a neighborhood together."
Considering how often his name is mentioned by Colorado Springs gardeners, it's safe to say that others share his idealism. What Nash calls his "modern-day form of sharecropping" has inspired a number of local people who, like him, want to help the urban garden trend grow in the face of economic and environmental concerns nationwide. His model has also caught the imagination of countless folks who've seen rows of food instead of spreads of grass laid out in front of suburban homes.
"It's like, 'Wow, they're growing food in their front yard,'" says Nash, imitating a passerby. "'That makes so much sense, why aren't we all doing that?'"
Death to the lawn
In the post World War II-era of Victory Gardens, home and community efforts supplied 40 percent of the nation's produce, according to an Oct. 12 New York Times Magazine article by The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan.
Pollan, addressing what our incoming president should do to reform our agriculture system, cites "soaring" demand for both farmers' markets and CSAs (of which there are roughly 1,500 nationwide now).
"There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken," he writes. "Markets for alternative kinds of food organic, local, pasture-based, humane are thriving as never before."
Another New York Times article from Oct. 7 cites the 3,000-person town of Hardwick, Vt., which is shifting its depressed economy from granite mining to sustainable agriculture, including the development of community gardens and a CSA program.
Now, we're not seeing changes on that scale out here. But even if Front Range towns aren't giving up their granite, so to speak, Front Range townspeople are giving up their grass.
"The lawn is going to go away," says Becky Elder, of Blue Planet Earthscapes and Pikes Peak Permaculture. "We're at a time of great change," particularly in relation to water in the West.
Along with other local pioneers in the sustainable foods movement, like Larry Stebbins of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (PPUG), Elder wants to make it affordable for everyone, not just farmers and yuppies, to get involved in growing healthy food. [Disclosure: Midway through work on this article, I joined PPUG's advisory board. It is not a paid seat.]
In addition to do-it-yourself classes on permaculture and food-growing principles, Elder began offering her clients a produce gardening service this year and intends to expand it in 2009.
Stebbins, a 35-year schoolteacher, now retired, devotes his full attention and volunteers his time to help folks create and maintain community and neighborhood vegetable gardens.
This past year, PPUG helped start a 30-by-20-foot garden for tenants at Shadowwood Apartments off Galley Road and Academy Boulevard. Stebbins raised startup money to buy seeds, tools, soil and more by selling PPUG gardening DVDs.
He also met every two weeks with 12 families at the Holy Theophany Orthodox Church, off North Chestnut Street, to start raised food beds amounting to roughly 2,500 square feet behind the church. The enthusiasm and food yield at that site was so high, says Stebbins, that he expects them to double the space in 2009.
PPUG says gardens help lead to stronger communities, reduced crime rates, improvement of "eyesore" lots, reduced use of fossil fuel and of course, healthier eating habits.
"If I had my way," says Stebbins, "every front yard would be one big broccoli patch."
PPUG will in part be responsible for a new, ambitious CSA that will be available primarily to Peterson Air Force families next season, but also open to Springs residents. The other face behind that venture represents a whole new generation of farmer.
One foodbox at a time
On unused portions of farmland east of Colorado Springs, Katie Rosing of Heritage Belle Farms aims to apply the same intensive farming method as Kipp Nash, while also raising livestock.
Rosing scoped out open space on several farms within a 15-mile radius of Calhan and gained permission to graze cattle in some spots and to raise food in others. In total, she acquired access to 120 acres, for which she says she'll give the landowners a share of meat in payment.
In addition, Rosing was invited by PPUG to farm one acre of a three-acre, donated plot in Fountain that, with the help of $5,000 in grants from Peterson Air Force Base, will provide discounted CSA shares to military families, as well as regular shares to the public. (A regular-priced CSA share typically runs roughly between $400 and $600.) Ideally, she'll sell excess product for her cut, donate some produce to Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado and give PPUG 10 percent of her gross sales for its support.
"It's been a dream of mine," says Rosing. "All these opportunities threw themselves at me."
PPUG has helped provide Rosing tools, lumber for beds, soil and other supplies, and grant assistance to get her Fountain plot going, and she intends to use a portion of incoming pre-season CSA money to purchase livestock and fencing materials for Heritage Belle Farms.
"I'm counting on everything paying for itself," says Rosing, in regards to the fusion between ventures.
Neat, if you're, say, organizing a charity wine dinner. Simply astonishing if you're talking about launching an agriculture business across multiple locales two years out of school with no capital.
Rosing, 23 and a Springs native, graduated from Colorado College in 2007 after designing her own degree in sustainable agriculture and studying with farmers in the region. From there, she interned and then became intern coordinator at Venetucci Farm for a year and a half. She's currently working toward becoming a certified educator in holistic management in a two-year program based out of Albuquerque, N.M.
Neither Rosing nor Stebbins knows of anyone who's tried to farm a significant chunk of land in raised beds, versus conventional rows. For example, in the first 20-by-20-foot bed Rosing's completed, she's planted 2,200 garlic cloves.
"No farmer in his right mind would do this," says Stebbins, who maintains the "ambitious" method is doable because Rosing won't have to weed, freeing up time to care for all the other 12-inch tall, 4-by-8-foot raised beds they intend to construct on the acre and have in production for the 2009 season.
Rosing says several people have told her that she's not going to achieve all for which she's aiming.
"That's what's keeping me going," she says. "I'm starting a garden here, grazing there you break it down into little pieces, and it's accomplish-able."
Your own personal farmer
In addition to those who are finding innovative ways to use urban and rural spaces to boost the local, sustainable food market, there are also those, like Elder, who are beginning to expand their existing, home-based landscape and gardening businesses to help people grow their own food.
Two more Venetucci alumni who already run their own horticulture companies intend to, for lack of a better term, become personal farmers of a sort. (Why not? We've all got hairdressers, mechanics and accountants by now ... )
Manitou Springs native Ben Lewis, 24, who worked at Venetucci last year after a few other farms out of Vassar College, intends to offer a mentoring program beyond basic consultation and yard work. His existing local company, Luna Landscapes, will expand into Luna Microfarms, and Lewis plans to meet with clients at their homes twice a week to walk them through the growing season.
"This [local, sustainable foods] movement has really blown up on the East Coast in the last couple years," he says, citing prior work experience in New York City with the Greenmarket program, which oversees farmers' markets. "Things have blown up so much you can't even get CSA memberships, even though there's farm country all around there."
Though CSAs have become quite popular, if not already pass in elitist foodie circles, Lewis believes there's a niche of people who aren't necessarily seeking the consumer-farmer relationship that the food movement espouses, but who still want sustainably grown local food.
Like him, Sara Foster, 34, of I Dig the Garden, believes people may be interested in a company that provides house calls. Foster served as Venetucci's CSA coordinator through most of 2008 and has designs similar to Lewis' for helping folks garden in 2009. Hers, though, go one step beyond, in that she tentatively plans to take 10 families and do the dirty work for them, from planting to harvest all homeowners would have to do is water.
When asked whether the small, relatively tight-knit community of local green thumbs have started to step on one another's toes, Foster replies, "This isn't a competition. There's more than enough work to go around. We're all working towards the same goal."
In case it's escaped you thus far, that goal is to eschew industrial, mega-farm models laden with pesticides and ill labor practices. It's to have people apply sustainable farming methods to lessen their environmental impact, feed themselves healthfully and foster supportive community interaction.
If that all hadn't been the way of things before, maybe we could call it futuristic. In actuality, the movement's just as regressive as it is progressive.
Seeds of change
Yet another unique new addition to the back-to-basics food front in 2009 is the Hobbs Family Farm's organic garlic share out of Avondale, which lays just east of Pueblo. Rather than buying into a single year of mixed produce as in a CSA, customers will instead prepay for three years of garlic, delivered annually in late summer. The 10-pound increments (about the size of a tomato box), which keep nine to 11 months, will feature seven varieties.
Dan Hobbs, program pioneer and executive director of the national Organic Seed Alliance, calls it "more of a subscription-style" model; he'll ship his garlic around the country. But Hobbs says he based the idea on the locally based CSA model: "CSAs are so flexible, and it's played such an important and revolutionary role in small-scale agriculture all over the world."
Hobbs decided to launch the program to raise money to buy and save from development a neighboring 30-acre farm. He hopes to sell 200 shares at $315 to raise the $60,000 needed to pay off a two-year interim loan on the land. Currently, Hobbs devotes half his land to seed production, which he says was long the "forgotten aspect of the movement."
"Seeds are the basis of food security," he says, noting the benefits of decentralized production also inherent to a thriving CSA market. Many people are concerned about a consolidated industry where, according to Hobbs, Monsanto controls 60 percent of seed and works toward patenting things like gene trait improvement.
That people are becoming aware and investing in innovative new food systems signals a clear desire to take the power back. We live in an era when contributing to the movement means doing something as simple as saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Today, being a radical doesn't mean ripping up your neighbor's lawn.
Rising sharesThis past growing season, which ended in mid-October, only four CSAs were available in the Springs, from Venetucci Farm, Country Roots Farm, Grant Family Farms and Javernick Family Farms. (See "Standing for Sustainability," April 17, at csindy.com for more.)
Several friends and I bought shares in Venetucci, which was offering a program for the first time. Susan Gordon and her husband, Patrick Hamilton, provided for 52 local families in 2008 (and intend to accept 10 to 15 more than that in 2009, out of a 50-person-plus wait list), earning overall positive response from members. But they also realized several aspects of the system need improvement, such as client communication, labor-cost control and transportation to market.
In terms of factors they couldn't control (about which members are forewarned upon sign-up), Gordon says Venetucci endured 240 straight days with no significant rainfall, which stressed crops and left them more vulnerable to pests and disease. The farm was also met with high wind, hungry deer and a strong hailstorm.
It certainly could have been worse. In Fort Collins, for instance, an August hailstorm destroyed entire fields of produce at Grant Farms, according to CSA coordinator Josh Palmer. Some 1,028 shareholders (including 200 from Colorado Springs) saw no lettuce for a month, though their pickup boxes still bore modest variety.
All in all, Gordon and nearly all Venetucci members, according to an end-of-season survey felt pleased with the quality, quantity and diversity at each weekly farm or farmers' market pickup. Beyond fairly ubiquitous crops like beets, carrots, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes, we were met with lesser-used produce like turnips and more exotic products like tatsoi (an Asian green), pac choi (Chinese celery) and mizuna (a peppery salad green).
"I'm in love with the program," says Gordon, who was thrilled that people experimented with foods new to them and spent more time in their kitchens and with their families.
"People want this greater connectedness with their food source," she adds. "It's not just economic reasons, it's also spiritual, quality-of-life reasons."
In addition to Katie Rosing's Heritage Belle, another 2009 CSA newcomer will be Greenhorn Acres out of Fowler, which is 45 minutes east of Pueblo. Marcy Nameth, who runs Greenhorn with the help of her four boys, ranging from 6 to 13 years old, practices the same "beyond organic" principles as the other CSAs. (Grant is the only farm to have true organic certification.) She fed 20 families around her in 2008, her "test" year, and expects to feed 80 total next year, when she opens up distribution points in Pueblo West and Colorado Springs.
Some CSA programs will begin accepting deposits for the 2009 season soon. All but the large one at Grant Farms will likely fill up quickly; don't procrastinate if you want to become a member.