Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.
The red-brick house, a tidy Denver square, looks like any other on the comfortable, tree-lined street in Park Hill. But to me it's special -- wondrous even.
I've come here on a mission: To find the origins of some of the best bacon I've ever eaten.
The journey began a week earlier at the Highland MiMa, a super-small, super-local farmers market in Highlands Square. That's where I'd met Mitchell Alexander, owner of the grassroots Green Fooder LLC company, which sells natural and sustainable meats, eggs and cheese from local sources. I'd heard good things about Alexander's products, so I'd purchased a package of bacon from the stand he runs at the MiMa.
The next morning, I learned what all the fuss was about. The bacon was a revelation -- thick and salty and rich, without any hint of the chemical aftertaste associated with the straggly supermarket stuff. In short, it was downright perfect.
I had to see where this über-bacon came from -- and that's what led me to Alexander's house in Park Hill, the HQ of his one-man operation. I sit in his kitchen as he prepares lunch for his three young kids, boiling water for mac and cheese and cooking up some hot dogs. Alexander's a stay-at-home dad when he's not been running his company -- sending out weekly product lists of duck eggs, tenderloin filets and other goodies to the 150 or so Denver-area residents on his e-mail list, receiving orders back from a small percentage of them, getting the goods from his web of producers (either via shipment or, in a few cases, by stopping by the farm) and hand delivering items at the end of the week. He doesn't like to talk hard numbers, but it sounds like in the year since he started he's done okay for himself.
Alexander has no background in farming, livestock or even small business. This soft-spoken guy says he's just a concerned citizen. Like most folks, he got into the sustainable-food phenomenon courtesy of books like Omnivore's Dilemma and films like Fast Food Nation (Alexander used to work with Richard Linklater, Fast Food Nation's director, at the Austin Film Society). Unlike the growing ranks of urban homesteaders, Alexander was less interested in cultivating his own veggies than in enjoying local dairy products and meats. And since he couldn't very well run his own pasture and slaughterhouse in his backyard, that meant patronizing local, sustainable farms and ranches.
Thanks to clearinghouse sites like EatWild.com, Alexander found it was easy to connect with local producers -- but not so simple separating, storing, planning for and preparing the tons of unprocessed meat local ranches would provide. Since his friends didn't have time for all that work, they started asking him to pick them up a few extra pounds of local hamburger or flank stake or roast. It didn't take long for Alexander to realize he'd hit on something.
Now he gets eggs from Prairie Promise Farm in Byers, grass-fed beef and lamb from GrassRoots Meats in Pagosa Springs, pork from Larga Vista Ranch in Boone, pastured cheese from Windsor Dairy in Windsor, organic fruits and jams from Rancho Durazno in Palisade and unfiltered honey from Kentner Farms in Lakewood. While he wasn't planning on going out of state, he admits he also gets poultry from Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Kansas. "Chicken is still kind of a weak link in the Colorado local foods movement," he says -- plus the birds he gets from Good Shepherd are worth the trip, he explains.
To show me why, he takes me out back to the freezer he runs in the garage, one of several packed with meat he has around the house. He pulls out frozen game fowl, a heritage breed, from Good Shepherd. Its meat is lean and caramel colored, promising a rich, gamey taste, says Alexander. Sure, there are a few bits of feather left in the meat, but that's what you get when you go all natural.
Then he pulls out a cured ham steak to demonstrate some of the challenges he's up against. The vacuum-sealed package he received from a producer is devoid of a label -- no ingredient list, no USDA inspection seal, not even a listed weight. Since the small operations he works with often don't have the know-how or capabilities to provide this info, Alexander has to sell this choice meat officially as dog food by law. Though those who are willing to pay for it know its real use. "A lot of people who are looking for this food have been through enough hoops already that they know what they have to do," says Alexander.
He says he's been flabbergasted by the variety of people who are willing to do that. He'd originally figured his clientele would be concentrated in the affluent areas around Park Hill, but lately he's found himself running deliveries all across the metro area, from far-left animal rights activists to far-right "Maker's Diet" proponents who choose diets based solely on biblical testament. "People looking for whole foods and locally grown non-feed lot meat cut across all socioeconomic levels," he says.
All that extra driving is one of the reasons why Alexander recently made a difficult decision: He suspended his delivery service. Now his customers must pick up their orders themselves, similar to other local-food Denver operations, like the Butcher's Daughter in northwest Denver. "The concentration isn't there to do deliveries," says Alexander -- and he doesn't have the time to build up that concentration himself. Part of the problem, he says, is that while he has a small, loyal and lucrative clientele, most people just aren't willing to pay the extra amount for his local products when they can go to Vitamin Cottage and get "natural" grass-fed beef (albeit from Australia) for $3.99 a pound.
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He hopes to keep the Green Fooder going -- maybe via what he calls a "guerrilla franchise" operation in which some customers would get a discount by agreeing to host pick-up location for other customers' orders. "The opportunity is there," he says. "The right person with the right model could make it happen. I am still going back and forth as to whether I want all the way out. I will definitely run it through October."
After that, who knows. "It's a labor of love," he says. "Maybe that love lasts about a year."
It doesn't help that his children can be fickle customers when it comes to his products. Those hot dogs he's preparing right now? They come from Vitamin Cottage.