Neighborhood Supported Agriculture for South Metro Denver
Neighborhood Supported Agriculture is another name for multi-site urban farming, or backyard farming. The SMUrFs work in south metropolitan Denver, and have all of our current sites within a few blocks of each other in south Littleton. We currently have four sites, and are entering our third season with shares in 2013.
What Happened in the 2012 Season
We had a good year, continuing to learn and rebuild after the herbicide disaster (see below, 2011). We had four sites, but only grew on three, due to extremely compacted, clayey soil on the fourth. We are working on this soil with compost and cover crops. We had eight shares: four homeowners, three working members, and one to sponsor a locavore. (Lauren Blair, Marie Commiskey's daughter, is eating locally for a year, click here for more information on her adventure). We donated a large amount of produce to Karen Martinez's food bank program at Arapahoe County Extension. We had a great year for peppers, cucumbers, kale, chard, summer squash and lettuce. We had a middling year on tomatoes, we had plenty of flower set and fruit, but did not ripen many on the vine. We had a tough year getting enough water to our winter squash, and getting good germination on beets and carrots.
We continue our focus on one of 0ur sites on perennial vegetables, one of which we are able to put in the share, and the rest are still in process. We distributed rhubarb, and will have more next year. Still in process but having been established one season, are Profusion garden sorrel, Good King Henry , walking onions, asparagus, and strawberries.
We are getting some production consulting from Debby Dalrymple of FarmYard CSA. And we have hired our first Education Director, Jen Hansen.
What Happened in the 2011 Season
2011 was extremely challenging for South Metro Urban Farmers. We acquired our four sites, and proceeded to build gardens on three of them (Commiskey Park already being built, though we expanded it). On two of the the other sites, we built sheet mulch gardens on the model promoted in permaculture thinking asssociated with Toby Hemenway, a leader of the permaculture movement who is teaching the first urban permaculture course being taught here in Denver, this year, right now, that I am attending. The sheet mulch technique did not work for us, and in this situation, its drawbacks outweighed its' positives, and we will not use the technique again on a similar scale. This does not mean that the technique is useless or based on faulty principles, it just means I could not make it work, and feel that I am dealing with a set of conditions that make the technique unworkable for me. The more I learned about the sites where it has been successful, the more I saw that I couldn't make it work. We agree with the basic premise of reducing tillage and building soils and suppressing weeds through the addition of large amounts of organic matter.
Our main problem derived only partly from the sheet mulch technique, where the top rooting and growing layer of the sheet mulch "sandwich" or "lasagna" is made almost completely of compost or composted manure. We got horse manure from two suppliers that had been effectively composted, and we also used it in a third garden that was not based on the sheet mulch technique. Turns out that this horse manure was heavily affected by persistent herbicides. This had been a serious problem in recent years for those who attempt to use animal manure in horticulture/composting since this class of herbicides was introduced to the market. I had heard of another local grower having this problem, but I ignored it because I was in the head-over-heels phase of falling in love with sheet mulching. The herbicides are applied to the hay the animals eat, make it through the animal, make it through the composting process, and still are active when the manure is applied, leading to a very complicated set of growing problems. Because the herbicides are selective, they affect different classes of plants differently. There are some "canary in the coal mine" vegetables that give the most direct indication of persistent herbicide toxicity, and we had serious problems with those species in the three gardens that had this manure applied.
For more on the issue, and the herbicides involved:
What this meant for us is that we had to pay to remove the three sites that were affected, and cancel the rest of the season. We did manage to give out three more shares, but this was a pale reflection of what we had planned and on the way had we not experienced this setback.Our members to a person were supportive and forgiving, and we thank them for their understanding. One benefit of the sheet mulch was that it was relatively easy to remove everything, cardboard and all, if you can get over the pain of undoing work that involved many hours of hard labor by many people, believing that they were helping create something good.
Underneath that cardboard we found some awesome specimens of bindweed, affirming my perception that the sheet mulch technique works great deterring seed-bearing annual weeds, but is ineffective against a spectacular perennial weed like field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), that it actually gives the bindweed an ideal milieu in which to outcompete other weeds, and that we have to find some other way to inhibit it. The Eger's lawn has now become our test field for long-term, chemical-free control of bindweed.
We are hoping that we got most of the herbicide when we removed the the sheet mulch, and that not too much rinsed down in to the lower layers of existing soil. In the in-ground garden at the Clark's, we removed the top six inches of soil and replaced it with compost. We will plant all of these areas with squash, which was not affected, and with corn, a crop I usually don't grow, because it takes up a bunch of space, attracts pests, and is not worth marketing. In this case, corn is a grass, so it will not be affected by these herbicides designed to attack broadleaf weeds, and folks do like fresh corn, even if it has the limitations listed for the small grower.
So what doesn't kill us will make us stronger. We will continue doing South Metro Urban Farmers, though we find ourselves in a re-building year, rather than the expansion we were hoping for. The Egers are going to let us open up more space on the way to doing their entire front yard, we should be able to meet shares for our homeowners, our two paying members of 2011, and some working members. We will not sell any more shares, because we don't want to overpromise, and because we are exploring a new marketing channel.
If you are interested in a working membership or volunteering (for 2012 and beyond), or have any questions please contact Papa Smurf (Eric Belsey) at info(at-symbol)southmetrourbanfarmers.com or (719)207-0069