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Why a Denver Suburb Has Gone All-In for Farming

Want to start an urban farm without permitting hassles? Dreaming of dwarf goats in your yard? Move to Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

Just another day in Wheat Ridge (5 Fridges Farm)

Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is experiencing an agricultural renaissance. Once known informally as Carnation City, the Denver suburb built its economy on a foundation of flower nurseries, apple orchards, and assorted vegetable crops. But by the time Wheat Ridge incorporated in 1969, residential and commercial development had eaten up much of the town's farmland.

Five decades later, when city leaders sat down to rewrite the community's comprehensive plan, they identified urban agriculture as a focal point. "We wanted to move the city forward and encourage investment, but we didn't want to lose its unique charm, which is largely based on our agricultural history," says Ken Johnstone, director of community development for Wheat Ridge.

"On top of that, we're not blind," Johnstone adds. "We weren't the only city getting grassroots interest in local farming and food production. We saw it as an opportunity to brand ourselves."

Located just five miles west-northwest of downtown Denver, Wheat Ridge, population 31,000, has long held a permissive attitude toward small-animal husbandry, including beekeeping and backyard chicken coops. In 2011, following recommendations made during an evaluation of the comprehensive plan, the city further opened its gates to small-scale agriculture, revamping both the zoning codes and city regulations.

The changes, which went into effect in July 2011, allow urban gardens (including for-profit farms operated by either the homeowner or a contractor) in all zoning districts. Farmer's markets and produce stands are likewise authorized throughout Wheat Ridge. The city has streamlined the process as much as possible, eliminating the need for urban-garden permits. (Building permits are required prior to erecting signage or structures within an urban garden, and farmers selling at markets or produce stands must hold business licenses.)

Interestingly, the city's embrace of urban farming isn't a measure to keep development at bay, and neither does it reflect "planned shrinkage" (as in some parts of Detroit, for instance). Wheat Ridge is booming: New home construction is brisk, and commercial and retail vacancy rates are exceptionally low. Agriculture is part of what's making Wheat Ridge attractive to newcomers. "Anecdotally, people I've had conversations with are moving here because of [the agricultural] environment," says Johnstone.

One of those people is Dan Graeve, who with his wife Christa and two friends, Adam Slack and Shannon Dils, started True Roots Farm on a roughly two-thirds-acre lot in downtown Wheat Ridge in 2013. The Graeves moved from Denver several years ago in part because of their interest in urban farming.

"We contacted the city as a place to start," says Graeve. "At that point we didn't even have a model per se." The two met with a city planner. "It was really cool, because she was willing to just sit down with us and talk about whether there was any city-owned property, or other space [for a farm]," he recalls. Eventually they located a property owner willing to lease her land in exchange for a one-time fee and landscaping work.

True Roots Farm (True Roots Farm)

The four friends funded True Roots out of pocket. In 2013 they sold produce at a small local farmer's market as well as from an on-site produce stand; last year they cut back hours at the stand but moved to a busier farmer's market. City officials helped Graeve navigate setback and parking requirements. "It was certainly helpful for me because I do a lot of the administrative work, and it's all new—I didn't even really have much business experience," he says.

True Roots is preparing to move to a different property in advance of the 2015 growing season. Its initial lease agreement, always understood to be temporary, is expiring as the owner prepares her land for development. "That's one of the perils of urban agriculture," says Graeve. "But it was a nice start for us. The woman who owned the land was interested in allowing us to establish ourselves, even though we both knew it was a short-term thing."

38th Avenue in Wheat Ridge (pictured in 2009), where a number of farms are located (emeraldimp/Flickr)

With a couple of years of experience under their belts, the Graeves and Slack (Dils recently parted ways with the farm) are negotiating a more conventional rental contract with a nearby landowner. In the interim, they remain active within the local urban agriculture community, meeting monthly with other small-scale producers in the Denver area and exploring membership in the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, to increase the representation of urban farmers in it.

Wheat Ridge, meanwhile, continues to prioritize urban farming. With help from Sundari Kraft, a Denver-based public affairs consultant who also runs Heirloom Gardens—a CSA and apprenticeship program in which Christa Graeve trained—the city recently adopted regulations allowing homeowners to keep dwarf goats on smaller properties. Johnstone says he has met regional representatives who are impressed by the amount of chatter the city's ongoing urban agriculture initiative has generated. He doesn't recall there being any public opposition to it, either.

"We've gotten a lot of attention for it, which is a good thing," he said. "I don't know if it's a fad or not, but it [works for Wheat Ridge.]"

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