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The Future of the City

Urban Cowboy

Sara Rubin

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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.

How do you think urban homesteading can change the landscape or culture of the city, much of which is oriented around speed and convenience?

If there are enough people who care about raising and growing their own food, it will inevitably encourage people to cook more and spend more time on food preparation. And consequently, people will lead healthier lives and have healthier bodies.

There are certainly people who don't have the time and aren't interested, and that's fine. We're not telling people that they ought to choose any particular lifestyle. We are providing the information about growing and raising your own food and getting in touch with the soil and with cooking.

Animals can be great for individuals, great for families, and even for a neighborhood. Many of the people who have chickens in Denver tell me that neighbors come from doors down, sometimes blocks down, to visit them just because they want to see the chickens or let their kids play with the chickens.

You are running a for-profit business, while also encouraging people develop alternatives to consumerism. How do the economics of urban homesteading work out?

One thing that can't be measured is the convenience and the quality we can get from producing our own food. Many of our fruits and vegetables are bred specifically for ability to travel, and often what we lose are quality and taste. And there are other non-monetary benefits--the psychic benefits, the pleasure people get from being a little bit self-sufficient, knowing that to at least some degree they're controlling the food that they're putting into their bodies.

And the amount of money people can save is related to the amount of space they have to grow vegetables and animals. Meanwhile, we have more customers and vendors at our farmers' market.

Do you see other high-end farmers' markets in the city as competitors, or are they running boutique markets for a different audience?

Well, I'd say that I'm the boutique one and that they are more mainstream. And the more farmers' markets there are, the more people will become interested in farmers' markets. People distinguish us from other markets because we're open all year.

All the consumers can't possibly go to all the farms where their food comes from and see and observe the farm and learn about their practices to make sure that they meet with the standards that they'd like them to meet. However, we do that, and we get to know all of the farmers personally.

Does the idea of urban homesteading work best in the West, which was settled relatively recently by homesteaders, or could this type of structured self-sufficiency succeed anywhere?

Any urban environment would be conducive to the kind of thing we're doing. I've found that people who like good food are not connected with any particular cause or political party. The people who come here are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and independents--they have all kinds of political beliefs. We don't promote any political views here. We don't denigrate big agriculture or any particular companies; we just get together under the banner of local, high quality foods.

Image credit: Jula Julz/Flickr

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