Urban Cowboy


In this era of farmers' markets and slow food, city dwellers are turning to the Internet to learn about old-timey self-reliance--how to butcher chickens, milk goats, or dye fabrics. But a new re-skilling center, Denver Urban Homesteading, offers hands-on classes on topics from cooking to fish farming. The center also provides heirloom seeds, chicken coops, and mini-greenhouses and sells its own canned and dried goods at a year-round market. James Bertini, founder of Denver Urban Homesteading, spoke with The Atlantic about how big city folk can live off the land.

How did you originally become interested in backyard agriculture in Denver?

I've been a backyard gardener since I was 10 years old. Then just over a year ago, my wife and I, who have large gardens at our house in Denver, decided that we wanted to have chickens for eggs and goats for milk. I found that in Denver, one can get a permit to raise livestock. However, the permitting process is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. It's almost like getting a liquor license. I decided it was time to change that law, that it didn't meet the needs and realities of people living in Denver.

So I started a campaign to change the law. Because of my advocacy, I began meeting many people who have chickens for which they don't have permits. We don't refer to those chickens as illegal chickens; we refer to them as undocumented chickens.

How many chickens are in the city today?

A year ago, I calculated 80 permitted chickens, and as many as 800 unpermitted chickens. That number would be significantly greater if the law were altered, which I think we will be able to do.

What encouraged you to expand your gardening hobby into a larger urban homesteading effort?

I began listening to my wife's complaints about the quality of the food in the U.S. She had immigrated here five years earlier from Turkmenistan, and she claims that poor people there eat better than the average American. Then we had the opportunity to buy an 8000 square-foot building, and I decided to make it into a center to promote urban agriculture.

We have several classes here at Denver Urban Homesteading. We teach Vegetable Gardens 101, how to raise backyard chickens and goats, how to butcher a chicken, and the first-ever class on backyard fish farming in Denver.

Is food the most significant part of urban homesteading? What about other self-sufficiency skills?

We're primarily about promoting food and agricultural products. But we have a core mission of helping people lead sustainable lives, so we also include things like refinishing wood. One class is called How to Refinish your Old Wood Furniture and Save a Tree.

Along with teaching self-sufficiency, do you encourage people to work on projects as a community?

We have community projects. Our wine project now has 57 members who are planting vines this month. In two or three years when those vines produce grapes, we're going to gather the grapes and take them to a local winery that has agreed to make the wine. This community activity around food will yield a product from backyards that people may not be able to create themselves--wine.

Sara Rubin is an intern at The Atlantic.

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