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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Educating Community One Plot at a Time: Denver Urban Gardens, Denver, CO

August 28, 2013 |

The Fairmont School Garden, a part of the Denver Urban Garden network. Photo Credit: Denver Urban Garden

The Fairmont School Garden, a part of the Denver Urban Garden network. Photo Credit: Denver Urban Garden

“ …because what it does is it makes fresh healthy produce and makes the experience of gardening available to communities that might not ordinarily have them. So it’s about health and food security, it’s about community building and creating spaces where a community can gather to plant and eat and really work together on a community project.” Abbie Harris Denver Urban Gardens

Urban gardening finds its modern roots in the victory garden movement of World War II. During the conflict, allies on the home front were encouraged to plant a vegetable garden to supplement the local food source and offset the restrictions of the rationing system. Urban gardens not only provided a sense of food security during a time of global conflict, but they also helped city dwellers connect with their food source. During the 1970s Denver, Colorado enjoyed a resurgence in the community garden movement and by the mid-1980s the concept of growing within the city limits was well established. In 1985, Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), an independent nonprofit began as a volunteer organization to support the urban agriculture movement. Today, the folks over at DUG manage over 130 community gardens spreading food security, education and a sense of community across the mile high city.

“Of the 130 sites we own about ten of them and the rest we have lease agreements or use agreements where we don’t pay anything for the land through mostly public agencies and partner nonprofits. Typically a community would come to us first and have a space in mind whether it be located in a school, at a library, in a derelict plot owned by the city or in their neighborhood then we will work with them to turn that space into a community garden. We offer that free of charge to the community. We ask that they help fund raise along with us and get the people in the community to garden the space which would typically be divided into plots, into individual families or classrooms which they can weed, water and harvest from,” explains Abbie Harris of Denver Urban Gardens.

The community gardens punctuate the city landscape providing talking points, gathering places and outdoor classrooms for the people of Denver. Supported through individual donations, private foundations, low interest loans and grants, DUG manages to provide its community garden growers with the tools necessary to maintain the plots through organic gardening methods and curriculum based support materials.

One of the main goals of the Denver Urban Gardens group is to promote healthy eating in low income neighborhoods. Using their experience with agriculture and perspective on community outreach, DUG added an organic farm to their list of programs, improving their educational efforts while improving food security. The DeLaney Community Farm began in 1997 and is located in Aurora, CO. The farm sits on several acres of donated land and grows a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers for the surrounding community.

Operating three different types of CSA programs, including a volunteer program for area WIC recipients, Delaney Farm is run collaboratively by paid staff, interns and community volunteers. The WIC CSA program allows young mothers to bring their children to the farm, work for an hour and take home a CSA share of healthy produce for their family. The WIC CSA supports 400 individuals and the traditional CSA offers 90 shares. The farm also offers a third CSA program called a community partner share. The community partner shares are paid for by generous donors and given to community partners doing good in the community particularly food banks and helper organizations.

Like most sustainable agriculture projects, the folks at DeLaney Farm practice traditional growing techniques including crop rotation, compost production, companion planting, cover crops and drip irrigation. Unlike the gardens, the farm does provide a revenue stream through low price produce sales, event ticket sales and farm tours. This income helps to cover the cost of seed purchase, administration and equipment maintenance. The farm does not currently make a profit because as Harris states, it’s hard to be efficient in cost when the focus is community education.

As well as the usual need for funding most nonprofit organizations experience, Harris explains that understanding is a major challenge to continued support for Denver Urban Gardens. “One of the biggest challenges that I have experienced and that our organization has to face is recognition from the broader community that urban agriculture, whether it be a community garden or a community farm, is a viable entity for food security in a community,” shares Harris. “We’ve seen it; we have the numbers that show that investing in urban agriculture really does pay off when it comes to community food security of a particular city or neighborhood or region. I think people are starting to recognize that more and more but it continues to be a hurdle.”

Surprisingly the usual regulatory and ordinance hurdles that for-profit urban farms and community plots face aren’t an issue for DUG. “The city of Denver has actually been pretty wonderful to work with. We have a seat on a sustainable policy council and on the mayor’s task force specifically for sustainable agriculture so the city has really been pretty receptive to it. These days I think cities and government officials and community leaders really see the message that a community garden or a community farm can bring to a community and want to help eradicate or overcome those hurdles,” says Harris. Harris feels a future issue could be the right of individuals to legally sell the produce they grow on their own property within the city limits.

Community gardens and organic farm space have provided Denver Urban Gardens with focus points for community education. Harris views the urban food movement as integral to fixing the American food system. “What urban agriculture does is put people in urban communities who have been so disconnected and shows them the value in either growing their own food, in purchasing their food as directly from the farmer as possible, and maybe paying a little more for produce because it’s going to be of higher quality and you know that the farmer will be receiving a greater benefit from that. Really, there are numerable benefits to having agriculture right in front of our face even if it’s only producing a small amount of our food each year,” concludes Harris.

Denver Urban Gardens grows by ten gardens annually and this year Delaney Farm grew to just over 4.5 acres. Continual, sustainable expansion, community education and social outreach are the future of this Colorado based organization and the future is looking bright.

Although DUG is Denver based they provide technical assistance to communities across the nation. Check out the DUG website to download a free guide to setting up a community garden.

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