Urbavore's Dilemma: Final harvest

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.

I've spent all summer exploring Denver's urban homesteading scene, from ad-hoc veggie gardens sprouting up in vacant lots to a luxurious green oasis blooming in the heart of downtown. I've checked out several types of chicken coops worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest, a mystical space garden that has to be seen to be believed and an ambitious plan to launch subdivisions built around urban farming. But like every growing season, Urbavore's Dilemma is coming to an end. So now it's time to eat.

I gather for dinner with the local-food advocates who met with me back in May when I started the project. We arrange to eat at the home of Sundari Kraft, the owner of Heirloom Gardens, a new community-supported farm in which the produce is grown in six northwest Denver yards. Along with me, there's James Bertini, founder of the recently-launched Denver Urban Homesteading school and Lisa Rogers, creator of Feed Denver, an effort to launch downtown greenhouses, fronted by farmers markets, all over town. Our fourth original member, John Beauparlant, can't make it, which is unfortunate because I was hoping to hear about Annie, Marguerite, Charlotte, Rosie, Dolly and Mrs. Merriweather, the four feathered ladies who rule the roost at La Ferme de Beau à Manger, Beauparlant's cushy backyard farm.

We dine in Kraft's backyard, surrounded by corn stalks and a fenced-off pen bustling with goats and chickens. We've all brought along something for the meal that we've grown ourselves. There are fresh grapes, steamed greens, basil salads and lots and lots of tomatoes (it's been a good year for them). And when we're all sated, I announce it's time to digest -- not just our meals, but what we've learned this summer.

The season's been a success, all three announce. Sundari will be expanding Heirloom Gardens next year to include additional backyard plots and will start an apprenticeship program to teach others how to launch similar programs. Feed Denver has partnered with the Urban Farm at Stapleton, a 23-acre community farm, where Rogers and her colleagues will be building a greenhouse, developing a large-scale compost farm and hosting a training seminar in November led by Will Allen, the founder of the Milwaukee-based local-food organization Growing Power, who's one of the most recognized urban-farming icons around.

There have been setbacks, too -- and not just the hail storms wiping out garden plots and fungus making a mess out of corn crops. Bertini's had a tough time getting people to sign up for classes at his school. Part of the problem might be encouraging people to shift their mindset. City dwellers have long been removed from the agrarian lifestyle; it's not always so easy convincing them that to embrace local-food ideals, they'll have to accept seasonal vagaries at local farmers markets, pay more for meat produced in-state and be okay with the concept of chickens as their next-door neighbors.

And there's the conundrum of how to make a living off of it. Kraft, Rogers and Bertini are approaching urban farming from a business perspective, but none of them expect to grow into a local-food version of Wal-Mart. After all, the entire concept of eating local revolves around keeping everything on neighborhood-wide scale. Residents can grow their own food in urban farms like Heirloom Gardens, merchants can open greenhouse/markets under the Feed Denver model, and everyone can take classes and cook community meals at places like Denver Urban Homesteading -- and the next community over will start the process again. The model seems attractive, though it's counter-intuitive to the way most of this country works.

"We have the mentality that to be a viable business, you must be very, very big and make a lot of money," says Rogers. "Whereas Balkanization isn't really an issue in this area. Food can only spread so far."

Furthermore, there's the challenge of how to make the movement sustainable. Not only is there a risk urban homesteading will just be a passing fad, but as winter sets in and gardens are buried in snow, some of the momentum built up this summer could be lost. But while my dining partners agree the movement could lose ground in the coming months, they point to several encouraging developments that suggest interest in local food may be here to stay. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, for example, recently announced an ambitious local-food policy for the city, and Denver itself is considering adding "urban gardens" as a new city use in its revised zoning code.

During my summer-long series, I noticed another trend that suggests the urban homesteading movement might have some legs to it. While many of the projects I explored, like Grow Local Colorado, have as their central goal to promote local, sustainable food, I found there were almost always other, more personal reasons as well behind why people were turning their back yards into farms. For some, it was giving a voice and direction to communities of color; for others, it was reconnecting with their family history; and for a few, it was as simple as finding a bit of peace and quiet in their lives.

The deeper reasons behind the urban-farming movement make me believe it won't wither away as the seasons change -- especially since many of the people I talked to this summer have been connecting with one another in ways I never would have imagined -- setting down roots for seasons to come. Breaking Ground, for example, was launched thanks to a chance connection on Grow Local Colorado's website. Compost king Mike Hayes will be showcasing his contraptions at Bertini's school.

Another connection occurs right here, while we're enjoying our dinner. While Kraft is talking about her two goats, Bertini has a revelation. Dasha, one of her goats, is actually the daughter of the goat he used to have named Lena, which he'd been forced to give away to a breeder years before.

"This is so fascinating," says Bertini, feeding table scraps to Dasha -- his sort-of long-lost grand kid. "This is the best part of the day."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner