Community Roots' suburban microfarm grows enough food to fuel a CSA, sell at the farmer's market and to donate.
Photography By Michael Shopenn
Through a unique community-supported agriculture program, neighbors in a Boulder, Colorado, subdivision grow fresh, organic food to feed many families. The antithesis of pesticide-laden,
monocrop agribusiness, the produce—grown in suburban yards—requires little or no fossil fuels to get from farm to table.
Walk along a cluster of streets in Boulder’s Martin Acres subdivision and you’ll find front yards filled with rows of zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants, broccoli, onions, lettuce and arugula. You won’t see a red barn or cows, but a working organic farm lies hidden among the ranch-style and tri-level 1950s and 1960s homes.
Thirteen tiny plots scattered throughout neighborhood yards total less than an acre, yet the cobbled-together microfarm feeds about 50 families. This suburban garden is the work of Community Roots, an organization created in 2006 by Kipp Nash, a part-time bus driver. With help from his neighbors and other volunteers, Nash is providing locally grown organic food—and addressing environmental and social issues.
“This program is a beacon of hope that anyone in our neighborhood can access,” Nash says. “People everywhere are aching to connect to their food sources and to each other, but so often next-door neighbors don’t know each others’ names. Community Roots brings it all together.”
Homeowners offer their yards—plots ranging from 600 to 3,500 square feet—and water for irrigation; Community Roots members plant, water, weed and harvest. Every contributor receives a share from the community gardens.
Meet, greet and eat
Nash, a former apprentice at an organic farm, came up with the multiplot urban farm concept in 2005 and took out an ad in the neighborhood newsletter asking for space to garden. “The whole project snowballed when we planted in our next-door neighbors’ front yard,” he says. “Then everyone got curious.”
Nash’s system relies on a few basic principles: Plant vegetables that don’t require much space such as leafy greens, radishes, beets, carrots and potatoes. Then maximize the harvest by growing two or three crops per bed each season. These ideas have been so successful that the group now sells produce at the Boulder County Farmer’s Market.
In 2007, after the gardens were established, Nash created a Community Roots CSA (community-supported agriculture) program in which families or individuals pay in advance for a share of the weekly harvest. Twenty-five families have bought into the CSA.
A farm in the backyard
When Nash started out, he got advice from Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, who had a business growing vegetables from backyard plots in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Satzewich and Philadelphia local-farming advocate Roxanne Christensen have co-authored guides for small-plot intensive farming, or SPIN. Designed for less than an acre of land, SPIN-Farming uses only simple hand tools and can potentially earn $50,000 on just a half-acre.
“Up until now, people didn’t think of yards as serious sources of food, but that’s changing,” Christensen says. “Urban farming can be a viable industry and an asset to cities because it uses vacant or underutilized urban land to supply fresh, local food to residents.”
SPIN sells farming guides and offers consultation and an online support group for microfarmers. “So much farmland is being lost to development, but SPIN-Farming methods actually turn urbanization to the farmer’s advantage,” Christensen says. SPIN-Farming requires minimal land and start-up capital (between $5,000 and $50,000) because it doesn’t involve buying land or heavy equipment such as tractors. Because growers work in town, they can sell directly to farmer’s markets, farm stands and restaurant chefs—with no middleman.
How does a community garden project grow?
Community Roots couldn’t function without the neighborhood’s blessing. A few people on Nash’s block dislike the front-yard farming—especially in winter when the fallow gardens turn into muddy rows—but most neighbors are delighted. Instead of wasting energy mowing and drenching grassy lawns with water, they’re growing food.
Camille Hook, one of Nash’s next-door neighbors, decided to forgo expensive landscaping and grow vegetables after she remodeled her home. “We wanted to be part of Kipp’s soulful, meaningful cause,” Hook says. “Community Roots enhances our relationships with both our community and food.”
It also revolutionizes people’s tastebuds. Hook’s 7-year-old son, Jeremy, was once “challenged in the vegetable-eating department.” Last summer, however, he planted his own patch of edible flowers and invited friends to harvest lettuce and edible flower salads. “Now the kids clamor to eat chard, kale and grilled zucchini for dinner,” Hook says. “That’s working for me!”
Sending up new shoots
In 2008, Community Roots started an outreach program that donates some CSA food shares to low-income families. Kipp also spearheaded the Community Fruits backyard harvest program. Members pick apples, plums, peaches and raspberries that aren’t harvested because homeowners lack time or treetop access, then distribute them through the CSA.
To solve the demand for foods that need larger spaces to grow, Community Roots recently partnered with Father Earth Organic Farm in Lafayette, about 10 miles east of Boulder, where farmer Frank Hodge grows winter squash, melons and corn. The thriving agricultural network also is plotting Urban Hens, which will build chicken coops for homeowners, and potential programs for backyard honey, flowers and herbs.
“My vision is that people start thinking about the food needs of their entire neighborhood, not just their private weekly trip to the grocery store,” Nash says.
Although he’s proud of the fresh organic vegetables he puts on people’s tables, Nash is proudest of how the program connects people. “It’s awesome watching neighbors meet each other as they gather at the CSA pickup stand for their share of the week’s crops,” he says. “That alone makes all the work worthwhile.”
Community Roots Urban Gardens
information on small plot intensive farming, how-to guides for urban and peri-urban farming, consulting
information about local foods and community-supported agriculture (CSA
Inspired by Community Roots’ fruit-harvest program, freelance writer Laurel Kallenbach hopes to organize neighborhood picking days for the apple trees on her cul-de-sac this fall.