When Dan Landes and his family converted their Lakewood backyard into a small farm four years ago, they started planting vegetables to use at WaterCourse Foods and City O' City, the two vegetarian eateries Landes owns in Denver. The decision to do so, he says, was at least a bit naivete. "I got my first subscription to Mother Earth years ago, and I had these ideals of being a farmer," the restaurateur explains. "I had this instinctual call to produce food. As a chef, I wanted to figure out where food came from and what really went into it. Now that I know what goes into farming, I have so much more respect for the product itself."
He dubbed his suburban plot Hazel Rah Farm, naming it for the main character in Watership Down because, he says, the book is "an account of loss of farmland and loss of open areas, and Hazel Rah is a really amazing character."
For three seasons, Landes was happy with his production. He hooked up with WWOOF, a worldwide network of organic farms, which netted him volunteer farm hands and the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Plus, "the full circle really happens at WaterCourse and City O' City," he says. "We compost, and we're able to divert 70 percent of waste. That goes to waste farmers, which turns into compost, which goes back to the farm. It's cool as hell to be able to close the circuit."
This year, though, Landes wanted to scale up. "We hired a company called Agriburbia, and they come from a landscape design background," he says, adding that the company has integrated all of the technology that they use on landscapes and golf courses to turn small pieces of land into micro-farms. "We'd started buying produce from them, and we connected with them on our little farm. They took it and manhandled it."
Agriburbia came in and divided Hazel Rah's land into twelve sections based on how much water plants need. Then it installed a state-of-the-art irrigation system that delivers different amounts of waters to each section -- plus uses two-way GPS technology to determine whether the soil is too wet or dry, adjusting water delivery accordingly. And that, says Landes, has led not just to efficient water use, but also to a mind-boggling harvest.
"From two thirds of an acre, we've harvested two tons of produce this year," he says. "It's tremendously efficient. We think people would be shocked at the yields."
The bulk of that haul is made up of "heirloom seeds that you can't get from a distributor," says Landes, citing vegetables like red vein spinach, sorrel with a mint-lime characteristic, several varieties of heirloom tomatoes, rainbow carrots, rainbow chard and beets that "you just can't find in the store." Those crops are suggestions from his chefs, who decide what to plant each December and then begin to use the harvest in the spring. "It gives them an enormous amount of freedom," he says. "They work with a variety of things that no one else will have. It takes our menu to an entirely new place."
Anything that doesn't get used goes through a canning, preserving or pickling process, which will allow the restaurants to put Hazel Rah produce on the menu throughout the winter. Right now, for instance, City O' City is offering a pickle plate, and Landes says several dishes will come sided with kimchi.
Still, for restaurants that use two tons of potatoes per week, Landes doesn't any illusions that his backyard farm will be able to produce everything he needs -- but he does see his relationship with Agriburbia growing. "We're their first experiment in having the restaurant owner also being the property owner," he explains. "We eliminated the middle man and we reduced our food costs tremendously. We're in this journey with them." In the future, he says he may work with the company on a bigger plot somewhere outside of the city or continue to buy produce from other backyard farmers that have worked with the group.
"Small farms are a viable way to keep the cost of food down, reduce emissions and improve the quality of food," he says. "The quantity you can get from an acre plot is staggering. We're really looking at a solution."
Read about other restaurateurs with farms this harvest season: