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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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First Generation Urban Farm Looks to Provide Local Organic Options to Denver Metro Area

January 22, 2013 |

Photo Credit: Clear Creek Organics.

While interest in local and organic food was once dismissed as a passing trend, it seems that consumer demand is only steadily increasing, to the point where demand for organic food is now growing faster than the domestic supply. Luckily, we are also seeing a burgeoning movement for sustainable agriculture, including in urban areas where local access to such foods can be scarce. Clear Creek Organics, a first generation urban farm located in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is one example of this growing movement. Stephen and Lauren Cochenour began Clear Creek Organics out of a desire to provide local and organic food for their surrounding community.

Neither Stephen nor Lauren come from farming backgrounds. When asked about what initially sparked his interest in farming, Stephen laughed, saying, “It’s a bit ironic, as I grew up in Wisconsin and it wasn’t until I moved to Colorado that I realized I wanted to grow food for people. It’s so strange, I came from a place with lots of land for growing to a rather arid desert.” Stephen recalls his years preparing food in the restaurant industry, his interest in the natural sciences, and his wife’s support and encouragement as the crucial factors that encouraged him to go back to school several years ago with the intent of eventually running an organic farm. He enrolled at Colorado State University to study horticulture, with a focus on organic food production, and obtained hands-on experience through an internship at the university’s organic farm project.

When Stephen and Lauren felt ready to embark on their own farming venture, the Denver metro area struck them as an ideal location for their farm because it lacks an already established local organic food industry while having a large population nearby in desire of it. Their farm lies about fifteen minutes from downtown Denver, allowing them to provide local food to an urban area while still having enough space for future growth. They are currently planning for their first growing season and will be using the popular community supported agriculture (CSA) model to distribute their crops.

For Stephen, the CSA model allows for more economic sustainability and support for the farmer. Customers pay for an entire season’s produce in advance, which allows for more financial security throughout the growing season and also helps make a living wage possible for the farmer. Stephen says, “My policy is to sell as much of the produce as we can before I’ve even put the seeds in the ground.” Another key benefit to the CSA model that Stephen sees is that “you’re creating a more long-term relationship with your customer…and it means that you have a shared risk with the customer in producing food and they know that.”

Though the farm is still in the preparation stage for its first growing season, the Cochenours are also looking towards the future with other exciting plans. As they are passionate about providing a diverse range of produce to their CSA members, they have ordered seeds for 147 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers for their first growing season. They are also currently working towards their organic certification, which they hope to receive later this year.

The Cochenours also see themselves as ecological stewards of the land and are therefore working to make an overall positive impact on the area by utilizing methods to attract beneficial insects, increase biodiversity, and help prevent soil erosion, as well as using cover crops and green manure to nourish the soil. Stephen is also putting his academic background to use by teaching a course titled “Urban Farm Management” at a local community college, and he hopes to bring on some of his students as interns to learn the practical techniques of farm management in the future.

For their first year, the Cochenours plan to produce enough food for 60 CSA members. They would like to increase both that number and the number of weeks that they provide food in the coming years. Another plan that reveals their commitment to providing numerous options to their community is what Stephen calls the “fuller diet” option. Though the farm will distribute primarily vegetables in the first year, the Cochenours also have a small herd of dairy goats that they hope to use in the future for goat cheese production. Goat cheese, and perhaps other animal products in the future, will provide more varied and substantial food options for their CSA members. Stephen explains the benefit of producing multiple food groups on his farm: “it’s great to give people an option to opt out of the supermarket and out of a system that doesn’t think of people as people but as a consumer for whatever they’re selling…being able to give that option is a really intriguing idea for me and something I’m exploring more.”

Though they are making strong headway in preparation for their first growing season, Stephen acknowledges the potential challenges that lay ahead. Their farm is located in a desert region, which makes water usage a potential issue. Though they currently have enough water sources for their farm, Stephen recalls that last year there was a significant drought in many parts of Colorado, which served as a frightening reminder of the unpredictable and changing climate. However, he is optimistic and has several plans underway to protect his crops. “It takes fine tuning to mitigate these kinds of extreme weather, so along with the greenhouses, we’ll have a few other unheated hoop houses that are protected. Utilizing those will help us protect crops against any physical damage from hail or snow but also, even though they’re unheated, they’re creating a micro-climate.”

The environmental and economic challenges to smalltime organic farming, along with the daily labor, can be daunting. Stephen admits that farming is exhausting work, yet the joy he derives from it is obvious in his voice. “It’s just so rewarding to offer people products that are grown specifically for them, their family, and their friends.”

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