But Davis is a contrarian and a natural rule-breaker — sometimes by will, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by mistake — which always seems to land her and her farm in some kind of trouble. Since moving onto the Adams County property in August 2012, she has violated her share of zoning codes, building un-permitted structures, storing animal feed in banned containers and leaving unlicensed cars and piles of dirt on her property, evoking words like “blight” and “junk” from county inspectors and “eyesore” from a neighbor. A vegan for ethical reasons who sells cheese made from the milk of the goats she raises, Davis has also drawn the ire of the animal-rights community, whose members criticize her on social media and in person.
For better or for worse, she is driven by her own fierce ethics code and unwavering sense of justice. She admits that she has often failed to respond in a timely manner to the demands of zoning inspectors, but the tangle of regulations foisted on her by government bureaucrats won’t stop her. Davis fights for the legless, the udderless, the snotty and the unloved.
Davis’s parents, missionaries turned grocery-store workers in Omaha, indulged her tendencies to rescue fallen birds, paving the way for — or dooming her to, depending on how you look at it — a life of saving animals. But it wasn’t something Davis considered doing professionally.
In her twenties and early thirties, Davis frequented music shows and haunted Denver’s music venues. She scored a job working for Denver Public Libraries, where she earned a reputation as the “library lady of Washington Park,” building a flourishing children’s program at the Decker branch. Davis, a whirligig of creativity, dove into the program, often working unpaid overtime.
She was a bootstrapping rising library star — only she wasn’t a librarian. She was a clerk without a degree. When her beloved boss left and new management took over, “things went to shit,” she says. Workers with four-year degrees replaced those without degrees, no matter how successful and experienced they were.
In 2009, the city boarded up Decker for renovations, and higher-ups shuffled Davis from her station as the popular library lady to the basement of the downtown library.
“I decided it was that time in my life where I needed a little adventure,” she says.
After buying into the idea that local animal husbandry was more environmentally sustainable than veganism, an idea she now refutes, Davis, her boyfriend and her daughter packed their bags and drove to North Carolina, where she would intern for several months at a dairy farm that included chickens; Davis hoped to learn to wring their necks, pluck their feathers, gut them, rinse them off and cook them up. Her plan was to return to Denver after the Decker library reopened and raise a couple of Nigerian dwarf goats — which was legal at the time — in a large back yard.
Three months into the internship, she fell in love with two goats, Lilly and Willy, and bought them from her boss before they could be sent to slaughter. With that purchase, she gave up the idea of returning to her day job and knew she would have to buy some farmland. After taking a break from the North Carolina dairy farm to do an internship in Hawaii, she returned and became a cheese-making apprentice.
A gig she thought would be bucolic became a hard education in how not to run a dairy. The longer she worked there, the less she liked the violence inherent in the day-to-day operations of producing milk. She was quickly disgusted by how disposable male goats were and how tragic it was for kids to be separated from their mothers. She remembers a mother goat so aggrieved by the loss of her kid that she started jumping fences to try to find her child. The farmer’s solution: Send the grief-stricken mom to slaughter. Once Davis saw chickens slaughtered, she wanted nothing to do with it.
PETA, as they leave her depressed for weeks and trigger nightmares about what she saw working in the industry. But the experiences proved fruitful in some ways; they shaped her own ethical code about how to raise goats and run a small-scale dairy.
Davis, her boyfriend and her daughter loaded sixteen goats, 24 birds, five dogs and eight cats into an RV and a shuttle bus, drove back to Colorado and rented a farm in Erie. Davis started selling raw goat’s milk through a legal loophole by which customers would buy a share of a goat and get its milk in return. To keep her skills fresh, Davis started cooking up cheese on her stove top at home.
At first she gave her cheese to friends. Then they started giving her money for “hay” — a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sales scheme. Eventually she found herself coming to Denver with three coolers of cheese for local wine-and-cheese pairings and was soon taking weekly orders. But trafficking in the underground cheese market could have put her in the crosshairs of the law, and she worried she would be busted.
She connected with a dairy in Northglenn, shared her cheese recipes with the company and built up its distribution list. In turn, they let her make yogurt to sell in their licensed kitchen.
With her small business growing and folks in Denver begging her to return, she and her boyfriend decided it was time for a move. They found the nine-and-a-half-acre plot of land in Adams County, which was zoned for farming.
The property had been in the DeMott family for decades and parceled out to the younger generations, including Davis’s neighbor, Rocky. But the land that would become Broken Shovels was owned by Rocky’s cousin George.
George’s land had a scant history of zoning-code violations, in 2001 and 2010 — mostly for un-mowed grass and towering weeds. But as Davis tells it, trash littered the pastures. Rusted-out cars and barrels of oil had sunk into the muck.
“It nearly needed to be condemned,” Davis says.
But Davis fell in love with its potential. When she learned she could not take out a traditional loan from a bank, the DeMott family offered to loan her money at a high interest rate — a boon for someone who had less-than-desirable credit. She took them up on their offer, and she, her boyfriend and her daughter moved in in August 2012.
Shortly after unpacking, Davis says, her relationship with the Northglenn dairy collapsed. She scrambled to set up a cheese kitchen of her own, in her basement, and within a month, she was back in business.
Other than the cellophane that wraps Davis’s American Spirit cigarettes and the metallic gadgets in her cheese kitchen, where she pasteurizes her milk, there is nothing shiny about Broken Shovels Farm. It’s cobbled together, the product of sweat, rural ingenuity and DIY punk ethics. Here, a rusted-out car becomes a goat jungle gym. Scrap lumber nailed together serves as mostly-sturdy animal shelters and pens. The vast majority of Davis’s animals are secondhand misfits that would have been killed if she had not rescued them.
Along with goats, she takes in pigs, cows, turkeys, roosters, rabbits, cats and dogs. She nurtures them back to health, feeds them, carts them to Fort Collins for vet visits at Colorado State University, and pays bills that most pet owners would never consider shouldering for their beloved companions. Her sick animals receive better care than some elderly humans. But an allergy to paperwork, debilitating anxiety and a love of rural freedom have hampered her ability to navigate the demands of Adams County’s persistent zoning-code enforcers.
Davis’s run-ins with the zoning inspectors started in September 2012, a month after she moved in. A driver had crashed into her fence along Dahlia Street, knocking it over. The driver fled. The next day, zoning inspector Andy San Nicolas wrote up the broken fence and gave Davis ten days to fix it. San Nicolas also dinged her for the trash stored outside the property that she was planning to haul off, abandoned vehicles waiting to be towed away, and improper storage containers she used to hold feed for her animals.
It took until November to resolve those complaints. Her insurance company was lagging behind in paying for the damaged fence, she says, and her priority was moving in and taking care of her animals, which took up all of her time.
By mid-November, the property was up to snuff. Much of the trash had been carted away, most of the abandoned cars towed. She thought the hassle had ended.
Following up on San Nicolas’s warning, a new inspector, Gail Moon, visited the property the next month. She snapped photos and returned in early December and again mid-month. She spoke to Davis about the trash on the property and the condition of the land, some of which had turned to mud from devastating floods that had wrecked the property, dampened the feed and endangered the goats.
In an early-December report, Moon wrote of Davis, “She stated the junk items have been placed on a trailer, and several loads have been taken to the dump. However, there is still one more load to take to the dump, and the trailer could not get out of the MUD.”
Just over a week later, Moon returned to inspect the property, and the junk had been carted off.
In early 2014, Rocky DeMott, owner of the property adjacent to Broken Farms, decided to sell his land. When prospective buyers would come to visit, DeMott recalls, they would eye Broken Shovels Farm and ask, “‘What’s going on there, and why aren’t they keeping their place up?’ I had [my property] at one time listed for $700,000 and had to drop it a couple hundred thousand,” he says. “I had several people that said they’re leery about it. You can’t sell a property and a house when you’re living in a blighted area.”
So he started bugging Adams County, leaving a slate of irate voice-mail messages blasting Davis for having illegal long-term storage containers and a fallen fence, among other things, according to county documents.
He also spoke several times to Davis directly, telling her she was dragging down his property value.
As he saw it, both the county and “the crazy goat people” — Davis, her boyfriend and her interns — were unresponsive to his requests. So he went to the Adams County Planning Department. The woman at the desk thanked him for coming in, pulled out a stack of complaints about Davis’s farm, and told him the county was well aware of her zoning infractions. As it turns out, the complaints were all from DeMott — the sole neighbor to complain over the years about Broken Shovels, according to county spokesman Jim Siedlecki.
DeMott was told that the county would eventually take Davis’s case to trial. When they did, he would be called to testify. To his chagrin, they never reached out, so he kept calling.
After DeMott’s calls, inspector Moon started frequenting the farm, inspector reports show. On April 10, 2014, the same day DeMott left a message with the county, Moon wrote Davis up for having non-permitted storage units and failing to have a permitted pasteurizer to treat her milk for cheese-making.
A few days later, DeMott left another message, and Moon issued another citation: “Please remove storage containers from property…. Please obtain a Conditional Use Permit to operate the Dairy/Dairy Products Processing business at this property. Please call the Planning Department...to discuss this application.”
In May, Moon returned to the property twice and cited Davis for code violations — including not having a conditional-use permit, which offers some wiggle room in the code, for a pasteurizer Davis uses to treat milk.
In June 2014, Davis and the inspector spoke. She told Moon that Colorado’s Right-to-Farm Act — which protects agricultural operations from lawsuits and government overreach if the farmer is utilizing common or reasonable farming methods — protected her from the code violations the county was throwing her way.
Davis says that bunk allegation about the pasteurizer ignored what she had spelled out to Moon again and again: that the kitchen where she treated dairy and processed her cheese had been licensed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2013.
What angers Davis more is that her pasteurizer — the piece of equipment that many of Moon’s citations focused on — is basically a 22-gallon pot, and to call a 22-gallon pot a sign that she was running an unlicensed dairy was laughable, says Davis. Commercial dairies use thousand-gallon pasteurizers. There is no doubt in Davis’s mind that she is, and always has been, running a permissible cottage industry, which is allowed on agricultural property. But unclear language in the zoning code makes it virtually impossible to determine what she is actually running.
The Right-to-Farm Act defense wasn’t enough. Moon insisted that Davis did, in fact, need a conditional-use permit. In a report for the county, Moon wrote that Davis would notify the county of her progress on the application.
But applying for a permit in Adams County proved nearly as difficult as navigating the roughly 2,000 pages of zoning code. Each of the three required forms spelled out different steps for how to apply. Baffled, Davis asked the county officials which form to follow. As she tells it, they said, “Don’t bother applying for a permit until your farm is in compliance with code. We won’t issue permits unless you comply.” Now she was flummoxed. How could she get the permits she needed to resolve violations for not having permits if she had to resolve those violations before she could apply for permits? Every time she encountered a problem and voiced her confusion, she says, Adams County officials just shrugged their shoulders and pushed her along. Figure it out, lady. Meanwhile, she kept receiving citations.
Things were quiet for a couple of months until DeMott complained again, in March 2015. This time he said that there were inoperable, unlicensed cars parked on weeds, people living in RVs strewn about the property, and tiny homes built without permits.
Moon then issued a flurry of mandates: Get rid of the vehicles, stop using the RVs as residences, get a building permit for all structures over 120 square feet, get another conditional-use permit for the second dwelling on the property, and get permits for the fill dirt on the property. (Davis was building a berm out of goat manure and dirt from the flood.)
On April 6, 2015, Moon checked up on the property only to find that the code violations had not been remedied. On April 23, once again, the same.
The county brought together officials and Davis’s attorney on May 18, 2015, to make sure that Davis knew how to comply with zoning and apply for a conditional-use permit, which included her holding neighborhood meetings and proving that conditions on the farm were sanitary and that there would be adequate parking and appropriate water services, among other terms.
She went back and forth with the county through the summer of 2015, trying to respond to its multitudinous requests while running the farm.
That autumn proved to be a difficult time for Davis. She and her long-term partner, who had founded the farm with her, broke up, and she fell into a depression. Instead of addressing Adams County’s concerns, she started ignoring its calls, notices and demands.
Then, of course, there were more animals to rescue. Davis set out to save a baby cow whose leg had been broken and who was being sold for little money. She arrived to pick up the cow just before a huge blizzard. At the same farm, she saw two other calves with goopy eyes and noses — signs of pneumonia — and no food or water. She realized that they wouldn’t even make it to slaughter. Unable to save one animal and leave others behind, Davis bought all three.
She drove Rex and Mabel, the two cows she’d never intended to purchase, home and took Michelle, the crippled cow, to Colorado State University for physical therapy. The cow’s system collapsed and she slipped into a coma. The vets euthanized her.
Rex and Mabel were still sick at her farm. Then one day, an intern told Davis that Rex had fallen down. Davis saw that the cow had bloat, another symptom of pneumonia. She ran to the house to grab a knife to puncture him — the usual treatment — but by the time she returned, he was dead.
Because cows are herd animals, Davis decided that Mabel still needed a companion. So she purchased two even younger cows that had been pulled from their mothers too early. They lived with her for two just days before they shed their intestinal linings and died.
Davis tried again. She adopted an eleven-month-old beef cow whose human family had bonded with him and couldn’t stand to send him to slaughter. Unlike the calves Davis had rescued, Big Fat Wally had nursed his entire life. He’s an oversized spoiled brat, Davis says, and she worried that if she put Wally into a pen with sick, frail Mabel, he would crush her. Instead, the two cows fell in love.
While it was a happy ending to a tragic saga, Davis was distraught. Drowning in anxiety about the unaddressed citations, her grief about the cows and her taxing twenty-hour work days, she leaned on her lawyer to navigate the zoning fiasco. The county set up meetings with the attorney to help her come into compliance. Things plodded along until Davis received a note in the mail and a $500 fine for skipping a meeting with the county.
Communications had broken down, and the case careened toward trial in spring of this year. At stake: Davis’s 22-gallon pasteurizer, the tiny homes her interns lived in, a vehicle her goats used as a playground, and RVs parked off of permitted areas. Davis feared she would lose it all. She quickly resolved as many issues as she could.
As Dori Richards, Davis’s lawyer, tells it, Assistant Adams County Attorney Christine Francescani told her that the county’s goal was to shut down the farm and force Davis to move. Siedlecki responds: “Our code officers do not advise residents to move, only to come into compliance.”
The May 20 trial for zoning violations was messy. Francescani turned in dozens of pieces of evidence late, forcing Davis’s attorney to bill the county $5,000 in overtime for reviewing materials. Davis contacted the Adams County commissioners to complain about the suit, and Francescani called Richards and told her that contacting the commissioners, who made up the official body suing Davis, was not allowed. Richards shot back that the U.S. Constitution allows citizens to petition government officials, arguing that the county violated Davis’s constitutional rights.
The county based its case against Davis’s pasteurizer on Broken Shovels being zoned as an agriculture-support business, the kind of company that would produce products for farmers: tractors, hay and the like. In all likelihood, this was a clerical error; the farm was not zoned as such a business.
The charges that would have forced Davis to shut down her cheese kitchen were dropped. The farmer could keep her pasteurizer and her business intact.
In the process of going to trial, Davis and Richards filed an intent-to-sue notice with the county and Moon, alleging that county officials had harassed Davis. The notice also charged Francescani with violating the Constitution by telling Davis she could not petition her elected officials.
In response, Siedlecki says, “While we respect her right to pursue any action, the county does not believe that there is any merit in Ms. Richards’s intent to sue.”
Whether the pair will proceed with the suit against Adams County, the attorney and the inspector is unclear. While Davis says that she won in court, she now shoulders more than $30,000 in legal fees, which she would like to win back. She fears the county will start harassing her again, though Siedlecki says that it is investigating no current claims against her and will treat her like any other property owner. He adds that agricultural properties often have code violations, and notes that inspectors did not spend an inordinate amount of time on Broken Shovels.
Davis, on the other hand, says the county had a heavy-handed approach that traumatized her. “The people who were supposed to be public servants, and help me have a small business that brings tons of people to Adams County, have been monsters, really — just absolutely incredibly difficult to work with,” she says.
What’s painfully ironic is that Davis nearly lost everything defending a pasteurizer she uses to produce cheese, a product she is ethically opposed to.
On a recent summer day, Davis is sunburned and wearing muck boots, a short denim skirt, a white tank top and horn-rimmed glasses. She’s swatting away flies, drinking ice water, and sitting on a stage her interns built on her property to showcase touring bands, another of many Broken Shovels undertakings.
Once abandoned and starving, now-plump roosters dart about, crowing. Goats bleat. Davis’s interns curse as animals scurry over patchwork pens.
Davis learned about animals through her internships, online forums and vets she works with. She cares for roughly 200 maligned creatures salvaged from the horrors of both the industrial meat and dairy industries and urban hipster homesteaders. Her goat dairy is no-slaughter and sells rustic gourmet yogurts, cheeses and butters to chefs and local foodies through her distributor, Cheese Importers.
Cheese Importers has peddled her products to some of Denver’s best restaurants and food markets. St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop & Market started pushing her products early on. Restaurants like Root Down, City, O’ City, the Kitchen and The Fox & the Crow, and stores like Vitamin Cottage, Marczyk Fine Foods and Tony’s Market soon followed. Broken Shovels has sold out of its cheese every week since the first month it opened.
When animal-rights activists take Davis to task for profiting off of animals, she tells them she agrees, philosophically. But it’s not as simple as that, points out Davis. Although running a dairy is a huge ethical compromise for her, it helps pay for her $200,000-a-year animal sanctuary, so it’s a move she’s willing to make. She doesn’t have a huge donor base to pay for these unwanted creatures’ existence. She has a few other profit streams, but nothing substantial enough to drop her dairy.
“Truth be told, I hate milking goats so much,” she says. “It’s the worst part of our day; it’s the worst thing we have to do. I told my new vegan intern, ‘I’m more vegan than any of you because I hate cheese so much more than the rest of you. I don’t get to sleep because of cheese. I sometimes don’t get to eat because of cheese. You know, I have no life because of cheese. I am the ultimate vegan in cheese hating.’”
Davis was nominated for a Martha Stewart American Made Award in 2013. The nomination described her products as “beyond humanely-raised dairy.” But Davis wrestles with the word “humane” and now flat-out rejects it when it’s applied to raising animals. There is no such thing as humane animal agriculture, she says. For goats to be milked, they must be separated from their children. Male goats are killed at birth at most goat dairies. Baby bulls have a better chance of surviving a few months before being sent to slaughter, but they, too, are ripped apart from their mothers and their mothers’ colostrum at birth and condemned to a short life of illness. And the idea of “humane slaughter” appalls Davis, who says that people who say they can humanely murder an animal are fooling themselves.
Vegetarians who pretend they can eat eggs without roosters dying also infuriate Davis. To raise eggs requires raising chicks, which are mostly born in factory farms, where they are sexed before delivery. “Sexed” is a nice term for separating out hens from roosters. While the hens are stuck in boxes and mailed across the country so homesteaders and large-scale producers can raise eggs, most roosters are suffocated in a bag, drowned or tossed into a grinder.
Davis has taken jabs at more than a few members of the urban-homesteading scene, inundating them with vegan propaganda on social media. She decries idealistic backyard chicken farmers who pride themselves on their humane small-scale projects without paying attention to the suffering and death that allows them to have their trendy, do-gooder hobby.
Urban chicken-raising hipsters often show up at her farm to give her a rooster because they are illegal in the city, Davis says. She scolds them for buying chicks in the first place and makes them promise never to do so again as a condition of her taking their rooster. To their dismay, she also makes them give her their whole flock, as she refuses to separate birds that have been raised together and have bonded.
In part, Davis thinks factory farms can be better places for animals than backyard chicken and goat farms. “At least these giant factory farms have vets on site,” she says. “The most humane way you can treat animals is to just leave them alone, not breed them, not use them for anything.”
Davis is exploring how to cut back on income from animal products and rake in the lion’s share of her farm’s revenue from donors, events and plant-based products. She’s started talking to entrepreneurs who are trying to create milk in a lab that she could use to make her signature cheeses without goats. This year, she released a line of vegan truffles, and she’s exploring hosting corporate events and weddings. Though Broken Shovels is already a popular concert destination, she’s creating a regular concert series through which bands come and have a comfortable place to play a show and have a home-cooked meal and get a good night’s sleep in one of her much-maligned tiny homes, which were built by Nathan Reitz, a local photographer/videographer and sustainable-living designer. All profits go to the bands, but they are welcome to donate back to her sanctuary. She’s building relationships with public and private schools, opening a pick-your-own-berries patch, and considering bringing a social worker on to provide animal therapy for autistic children. A few donors have helped fund the animal sanctuary, and Davis sells a children’s book she’s written about her animals.
To give back to the area around Broken Shovels, Davis hopes to eventually grow her own produce and start a pay-what-you-can food stand for her neighbors.
Davis likes to tell a story about a potbellied pig named Holly. In 2014, an animal shelter phoned Davis with a problem and knew she might be Holly the Hog’s last hope.
Holly had survived severe abuse before landing at the animal shelter, which sent her to a foster family that thought it was adopting a sweet, lovable pet. But Holly acted more like a gremlin than the cuddly darling the family craved. At best, she hid from her foster parents, occasionally baring her teeth at them. At worst, she sank those teeth into the owners’ legs. Five foster families had written her off as unlovable and dangerous. The shelter’s options were limited: Euthanize Holly or ship her off to Broken Shovels Farm.
Davis brought the potbellied pig to the farm to live with her goats and roosters and other creatures once deemed unlovable. Holly seemed lonely, so Davis bought her a friend — two, actually: young, full-sized pigs for Holly to boss around like “a grumpy old lady yelling at children from her porch,” Davis says.
Eventually, the pigs grew up, won Holly over and mellowed her out. Psychological problems mostly resolved, Holly now runs toward people with her teeth concealed, rolls over for belly scratches, and has learned to love and be loved.
Davis, on the other hand, has three more mouths to figure out how to feed.