Farming the city: Urban homesteaders get back to the land

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/12/20

Sundari Kraft grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. But while she fantasized about a self-sufficient life in a little house on the prairie, she lived in a bungalow in Northglenn. “As I got older, I …

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Farming the city: Urban homesteaders get back to the land

Posted

Sundari Kraft grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. But while she fantasized about a self-sufficient life in a little house on the prairie, she lived in a bungalow in Northglenn.

“As I got older, I realized moving to the country wasn’t in the cards, but I’m not one to say that’s that,” Kraft said. “The question became: What’s possible?”

When Kraft and her husband bought a place in northwest Denver, she had big ideas: gardens, a greenhouse, goats and chickens. The only catch? Bureaucracy.

With a can-do pioneer spirit, Kraft became an organizer and driving force behind code changes that eased up on urban livestock, greenhouses and front-yard gardens in Denver and beyond.

As time went by and her urban mini-farm flourished, Kraft found herself at the forefront of a movement to rethink how we live in cities.

“It used to be you either live in the city or the country,” said Kraft, the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading.” “People aren’t buying into that anymore.”

Outside of her busy life as a public affairs consultant and a mom of two young kids, Kraft milks goats, collects eggs from her chickens, preserves her garden harvests and makes her own soap and bread.

“You can be an urban homesteader, even if you don’t have a yard,” Kraft said. “It’s about a mindset and practices to live more sustainably and self-sufficiently. I didn’t grow up on a farm. There’s not some number of boxes you have to check. If I can do it, you can do it.”

Grow what you like

For beginners looking to start growing their own food, the first question is: What do you like?

“Think about what you actually want to eat,” said Michele Hanley, who runs Mile High Urban Farming, which helps design, plan and even maintain gardens around the metro area. “I see a lot of people plant kale because it grows well and it’s good for you, but people don’t like to eat it.”

The cost to start a brand-new garden can add up, Hanley said, but it can pay off.

“Tomatoes are a good return on investment,” she said. “Good tomatoes are, what, $5 to $6 a pound? Well, one good tomato plant can generate 40 pounds. You can even get away with that in a patio pot.”

The biggest misconception Hanley sees is people who think they have a “black thumb.”

“Find groups on social media, ask a friend, and don’t give up,” Hanley said. “It’s not the end of the world if it’s not a success. It’s like Jake said in ‘Adventure Time’: ‘Sucking at something is the first step in being sort of good at something.’”

The scientific method

For those looking to step up their homesteading game, there are few better resources than Colorado State University’s county extension offices. Focused on bringing science-based education and information to the community, the offices employ experts in fruit and vegetable gardening, keeping livestock, and safe canning and preserving — all just a phone call away.

“Colorado can be a challenging place to garden,” said Lisa Mason, the horticulture agent for Arapahoe County’s extension office. “We have a short growing season, a variable climate, and tough soil. But we’re here for the community.”

It’s tough to say how much of a family’s diet can be supplemented with garden produce, Mason said, depending on how much time and energy they want to put into it and how much space they have. Even people in apartments can grow herbs, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers on a balcony.

The extension office’s website is loaded with fact sheets on all sorts of gardening topics, all developed to maximize efficiency in the Denver area’s climate and soil.

“There’s an art to gardening, but there’s also a lot of science you can employ,” Mason said.

In the old days

Colorado’s early homesteaders didn’t have the luxury of county extension agents, but they developed wisdom of their own, said Suellen Winstead, the curator of the Littleton Museum, which features an authentic, functioning 1860s-style homestead.

“Back then, your garden was your life,” Winstead said. “Pioneers had to grow enough during a short growing season to preserve food for winter. This was not a hobby.”

Pioneer families had access to a wide variety of heirloom seeds that were well-suited to local climates, and had keen senses for the intricacies of gardening, developed over lifetimes and generations.

But among their most important resources was community.

“There’s a perception that the Old West was families alone in a cabin miles from the nearest person,” Winstead said. “But what we had here was people settling in communities and relying on each other for support.”

When times got tough, neighbors looked out for one another, Winstead said.

“If my wheat crop failed or my tomatoes died, people pitched in. I think we could learn from that. Gardening and homesteading can bring people together. If you grow more than you can use, find someone in need.”

The frugal mindset of homesteaders carried on into the Great Depression and World War II, Winstead said.

“It was a habitual thing,” she said. “They went through a time of great scarcity. You don’t waste. You eat everything on your plate. You find a use for things.”

‘Success isn’t always easy’

Some urban homesteaders still rely on their skills and hard work to provide for their families.

Operating from the yard of a rental duplex in Adams County, Tess and Jeff Curry make a good chunk of their living from the fruits of their labor. Known as “The Honey People” at north Denver farmers markets, the Currys sell honey from their beehive, eggs from their chickens and more.

Tess said she started producing her own food during the Great Recession, when Jeff, a construction worker, was hurting for work and laid up with an injury.

“It’s hard work. Success isn’t always easy, but one benefit is the food just tastes so much better,” Tess said. “I know what’s in my food. I know where it comes from. My grandkids know a potato comes out of the ground.”

Tess said her work has introduced her to the larger community of local growers, and she enjoys trading plants and produce. And if things take a turn for the worse, she knows she can rely on herself and her friends to stay fed.

“We might have to eat a lot of eggs and beans for a while, but hey, at least we’d be eating.”

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