When Slow Food Nations descended on Denver, the international organization brought with it nationally known power players in the sustainable food movement who convened seminars to share knowledge and inspire food lovers across geographical regions. But the festival and its many events also gave Denverites a unique perspective on agriculture in our own back yard — sometimes via a tour of a literal back yard.
Such was the case with the compact-farms tour, an excursion led by Josh Volk into three small urban farms in Denver and Lakewood. Volk, who hails from Portland, Oregon, wrote a book called Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on Five Acres or Less that took him to tiny growers all over the country. His subjects ranged from a rooftop farm in New York City to his own tenth-acre plot just outside of Portland. As the title suggests, none of the farms he showcased in the book were larger than five acres, and all produced commercially.
That was the lens through which he led a group into Denver's own compact-farms ecosystem, which proved that small-scale agriculture is not only commercially viable, but is already having an impact on us, by supplying the farmers' markets where we shop and the restaurants where we eat.
Below, take a peek into three of the city's compact farms.
City Yard Farms
775 South Raleigh Street
Pass through the gates of an unassuming property on a residential street and you'll quickly find yourself on a real farm, miniaturized and plunked into a sizable back yard. A chicken coop sits near the entrance, hoop houses protect tomato plants, and greens shoot up from fifty-foot rows. This is City Yard Farms, a commercial production nestled into a property that is less than one-third of an acre, and whose planting space is about 4,000 square feet — one-tenth of an acre. "I saw the yard and said, 'This is it,'" says James Thole, who owns City Yard Gardens with his wife, Anna.
The pair had explored farming for four years while living in Korea, Anna's home country, before returning to the States and enlisting in an agricultural apprenticeship program in Texas. There they learned about handling livestock — not exactly a blueprint for what they'd eventually plant in Denver. When they picked up this piece of property, they spent several months shaping up the clay-like soil (an endeavor they hope to continue this winter with cover crops) before planting their first beds in March of this year according to organic practices.
They also built out a packing operation, complete with a walk-in cooler and a sorting table, and this season, they're selling greens (including arugula, mustard and microgreens), radishes, carrots, turnips and tomatoes at the Cherry Creek and City Park farmers' markets.
9400 West Alameda Avenue, Lakewood
Derek and Kamise Mullen's farming endeavor started seven years ago, when they were trying to feed their family of six kids a vegan, organic diet. Strapped with untenable bills, they decided to plant their yard. Three years in, they were feeding themselves year-round with produce to spare, and they decided they were ready for something larger. Four years ago, they moved back to the family farm and started Everitt Farms.
Kamise's family is one of the original homesteading families in Lakewood, and one of the only homesteading families still living on a slice of their original land. The property was established 150 years ago, and at its largest encompassed 1,200 acres. It's since been whittled down to seven acres, on which the Mullens are slowly growing their operation. Part of their land holds a market garden, from which they supply restaurants like Cart-Driver, as well as the Denver Federal Center farmers' market, Wheat Ridge's Four Seasons Market and a CSA for neighbors, boxing up seasonal produce like cabbage, beets, tomatoes, radish and fava beans as well as honey and soap.
They also encourage visitors to stroll through this part of their operation to see what's growing. Other parts of the farm are used for hay-baling and boarding horses; the horses will ride from Golden to South Dakota later this year on a sponsored trip benefiting the Lakota Sioux.
ACRES at Warren Tech
13300 West Second Place, Lakewood
Josh Olsen was a chef, "and then I fell in love with vegetables," he says, eventually transitioning to full-time farming. Olsen ran the Squeaky Bean's small Lakewood farm for a while, and then the property that now holds ACRES at Warren Tech called and asked if the Bean would be interested in reviving the three-acre plot. "It was five feet of thistle when we got there," says Olsen, even though it had been used for a horticultural program in the Jefferson County School District until the mid-2000s. In three growing seasons, he and a team of high school juniors and seniors enrolled in Warren Tech, JeffCo's technical high school, have reclaimed the soil and turned the farm into an agricultural powerhouse.
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ACRES currently turns out a vast supply of produce, including many kinds of squash, tomatoes, carrots, beets, fava beans, peas, eggplants, hot and sweet peppers, onions and potatoes. Students learn about planting, harvesting, greenhouse production, organic pest management and how to attract beneficial bugs to the garden, and the fruits of their labor are sold to many of this city's chefs and consumers via the Union Station Farmers' Market.
Olsen has many plans for the property, including reclaiming more land, supplying Jefferson County schools with produce and building out a Freight Farm, a hydroponic operation that'll be the first of its kind approved by a school district in the nation. He hopes to use it to supply lunchrooms with greens.