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Denver's urban gardeners are digging their backyard farms

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La Ferme de Beau à Manger is one of the most tidy and picturesque farms I've ever seen.

With the growing season just beginning, terrace upon brick terrace is primed and ready for a soon-to-be-lush sea of asparagus and strawberries and raspberries and pumpkin and spinach and lettuce and zucchini. Six-foot-tall wooden A-frames stand ready to support cucumber and snap-pea vines, while wire cages arch over seed beds in anticipation of the myriad tomatoes they'll accommodate.

And in the middle of it all, there's the penthouse of all henhouses: a stained and shingled beauty complete with a skylight, an easy-access egg door, a fully enclosed chicken run and cushy nesting boxes. Not too shabby for its feathered occupants: Annie, Marguerite, Charlotte, Rosie, Dolly and Mrs. Merriweather.


Urban gardening

But La Ferme isn't located in some rural Colorado locale. It's in central Denver — Platt Park, to be exact — squeezed into a 2,500-square-foot back yard behind an otherwise unassuming mid-century brick bungalow. The incongruous location is a bit disorienting, especially when a fox crosses my path in the front yard when I first show up.

That's the neighborhood fox, explains John, owner of La Ferme de Beau à Manger. It's been poking around since December, when it got a taste for Charlotte: John was late one evening putting the hens into their fox-proof abode, and he found the hen in a pool of blood. Luckily, she made a full recovery, and John learned to be more diligent.

There's a lot of learning to do when it comes to backyard farming, and it's something more and more people are learning to do, John explains while sitting on the patio with a roundtable of other green-thumbed Denverites.

There's James Bertini, a retired lawyer and real-estate investor who hopes to open an 8,000-square-foot urban agricultural training center this summer where people will learn how to raise chickens, keep goats, even run backyard fish farms.

Next to him is Lisa Rogers, the small-business maven behind the Common Grounds coffee shops and Little Man Ice Cream who's spearheading Feed Denver, an initiative to develop urban greenhouses fronted by produce markets. Who knows, she says — maybe someday they'll be as ubiquitous downtown as coffee shops.

And finally, there's Sundari Kraft, former events manager at Highland's Garden Cafe and onetime executive with the Denver Independent Network of Restaurants. She recently launched Heirloom Gardens, a conglomeration of six northwest Denver front and back yards that will total 8,000 square feet of farmland; together, the donated yards will provide fruits and veggies to volunteers and dues-paying members all summer long.

They aren't the only ones imagining a Denver filled with chickens and goats, vegetable beds and compost bins. Owing as much to hipsters as it does to hippies, the so-called urban homesteading movement is a response to rising food prices and a desire to eat food grown locally and organically, since it's generally agreed that the latter is better for the environment. Urban homesteading is also part of an Internet-fueled interest in becoming self-sufficient.

The movement's bible is Michael Pollan's 2006 bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which described the myriad ethical, ecological and health problems associated with our nation's food-production system. People like John see themselves as creating an alternative to that system; that's why he named his Rollerblade-clad scarecrow Joel, after Joel Salatin, an innovative farmer celebrated in Pollan's book.

"There is quite a movement," says Doug Kelley, director of Denver Animal Care and Control, which issues city permits for livestock such as chickens. "There has definitely been an upswing in permit requests. It seems like we have been getting at least a couple a week, if not more than that." In the first three months of this year, Kelley's department received eight chicken permit requests, two more than they received for all of 2008.

The city didn't get a request from John, however. While small livestock like chickens (though not roosters) are technically allowed in Denver, the rules are so arcane and complicated that they are almost impossible to navigate. John, who didn't want his last name used because of his renegade status, eventually learned that owning chickens required a months-long application process, $150 in fees, and $75 a year thereafter.

"The rules just don't make sense to me," says John, who quietly set up his coop last year without the proper permits after running the idea by his neighbors.

Now he and his colleagues are pushing the city to streamline the permitting process to encourage more people to get on the city-farm bandwagon. They're hoping that as part of the city's zoning-code update — drafts of which will be made public in late May — certain livestock will allowed in residential areas.

So far, officials have been receptive to the idea. "Anything that makes the process easier, as long as it's effective, absolutely," says Kelley. If livestock regulations are eased in city limits, Denver, which passed an ordinance allowing backyard beekeeping last November, would be following in the footsteps of Longmont and Fort Collins, which embraced chicken-friendly ordinances in the past year.

With that sort of bureaucratic blessing, the quirky barnyard scene could grow quickly. Bertini, having compiled an informal animal census, estimates that there are about 400 permitted chickens in Denver, not to mention a bunch of miniature horses, dwarf goats, churro sheep and potbellied pigs.

And Krystal Keistler, area manager at the Arvada-based Echter's Greenhouse and Garden Center, notes that seed sales, particularly vegetable seeds, are up 35 percent since January; she's expecting a similar surge when customers start buying vegetable plants in early May. Once these new backyard farmers start producing food, Kraft says, they should be able to sell it at a weekly operation called the Highland Micro-Market this summer.

Beekeeping and hen-raising classes at the Denver Botanic Gardens sold out last year and could be offered again this fall; other classes will touch on these subjects over the summer. The Greater Denver Urban Homesteading Group, which started in January to promote urban agriculture and livestock, already boasts nearly 200 members. And this Friday, area businesses and organizations will kick off Grow Local Colorado, a campaign to plant 2,009 new food gardens statewide this year.

It doesn't hurt that the result of it all — pesticide- and preservative-free food that's as local as you can get — tastes darn good.

As I depart, John, who gives away whatever eggs or produce he can't use himself, offers me a carton of eggs produced by Mrs. Merriweather and her girlfriends. It's emblazoned with La Ferme's colorful logo and nitpicky storage directions.

The next morning, over breakfast, I start to understand the attraction of urban homesteading. As I dig into some of the best eggs I've ever had, I wonder how I'm going convince my wife to let me put a chicken coop by the garage.

Contact the author at joel.warner@westword.com.

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