During her keynote speech at the Grow Food Symposium, Oakland farmer Novella Carpenter made a joke about living next to vegans while raising “edible pets.” It was one of many laugh-out-loud moments that evening. She told stories of cruising the dumpsters of Chinatown for scraps to feed her pigs and ordering turkey poults online: “They looked stunned” when she took them out of the box and put them in their new home in the parking lot she turned into a farm.
Carpenter noted that growing vegetables was much less lucrative than growing pot and then asked, “What plant do you want to commune with?” Jokes aside, the topic of making urban farming profitable came up again and again at the symposium. “It’s a hustle,” Carpenter said, and she wasn’t just talking about her own farm. She wants her neighbors in Oakland to make a living as well.
I had no idea that many people consider urban farming to be a cute hobby or that some urban farmers consider the nonprofit farm model to be a problem. Amanda Weaver of Five Fridges Farm and Derek Mullen of Everitt Farms think that the best way to get people to value locally grown food is to charge a fair price for it. She stresses that farmers are business owners.
Although many attendees do make money from their farms, and although Lisa Rogers of Feed Denver, which hosted the symposium, said it’s possible to earn $20,000 from a quarter-acre farm, no one was pretending urban farming was a get-rich-quick scheme. Weaver, for example, teaches geography at CU–Denver in addition to farming, and Mullen said that he and his wife Khamise made more money from selling Christmas trees in 2014 than from selling produce.
Diversifying is the key to success in more ways than one. Urban farmers don’t grow monocultures; they plant a variety of vegetables and herbs close to each other, making it more difficult for weeds to flourish and for one insect to wipe out an entire crop. They may sell cottage foods and eggs as well as produce. All of them are trying to build community in some way, but most of all, they want to rebuild local and regional food infrastructure.
And that, I think, may be where many of the future jobs in urban farming lie. Feed Denver’s website states that there are about 300 farms in Colorado that produce vegetables. Lisa Rogers wants that number to grow to a million small farms producing food for local consumption.
So Colorado needs a lot of farmers, yes, but it also needs people to train them, to help improve the soil, to pickle the vegetables, to slaughter the chickens when they are too old to lay anymore. It needs people to set up local versions of the High Plains Food Coop and a labor cooperative to funnel workers to farmers when they most need help—during planting and harvest.
What else do urban farmers need? Candice Orlando of Urbiculture Community Farms stressed that access to land is problematic now in Denver, with its soaring real estate values. Urbiculture is a nonprofit multi-plot farm that grows food in yards and other spaces throughout Denver. One of their locations was recently sold for $3 million. Dan Graeve of True Roots Farm told a similar story. His farm has recently moved to a new location on the border between Golden and Arvada, and the old location will be developed.
Until urban farms are valued as highly as parks, for example, people will continue to sell their land to developers rather than leasing it to farmers. Sundari Kraft of Heirloom Gardens suggested convincing city officials to provide a tax deduction to people leasing their yards to urban farmers.
Chris Sramek of High Plains Food Coop spoke of bridging the urban-rural divide by telling people in rural areas what they want to hear. They want young people to return to rural areas, so if you can show that young people are interested in starting small farms, you will be able to convince politicians to value urban farming more.
The most important idea I took from this symposium was that of abundance—that there is room and to spare for Denverites to produce more of their own food, in small farms, in gardens, on roofs, and in greenhouses. And not only that: many homeowners are open to the idea of someone leasing their land. One attendee said he uses Google Maps to find land for farming. He claimed there is a lot of land people don’t want to take care of and they will line up to get someone to garden it.