UrbiCulture Community Farms: Mile-High Life-Changing Urban Farming

17 Mar, 2013

Candice Orlando became a vegetarian due to health issues, and after doing so, she discovered the wonder of growing her own food. That journey has led her to create a remarkable sustainable multi-plot urban farm, called UrbiCulture Community Farms, in the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado.

Off the Ground

“About 10 years ago I became a vegetarian because meat was making me sick,” Candice told Organic Connections. “I had grown up on processed food and TV dinners and that kind of stuff, and obviously had to do something different with my diet.

“I started learning about where food came from and about growing food,” Candice continued. “I rented a house up in Idaho and there was this huge backyard that was full of weeds, and I decided to just start growing food and see what happened. I transformed that whole backyard and put in a garden, and it basically changed my life. Eating fresh food from your garden is much better than buying anything from the store.”

Candice’s discoveries motivated her to share this newfound knowledge with others. “At that point I knew I really needed to know how to grow food, and to educate people about where food comes from. So I studied horticulture and environmental justice in school, and my thesis project was starting a multi-plot urban farm in Denver, Colorado. I was going to school in Boulder and I moved up to Denver. I transformed four people’s front yards and backyards into gardens, and they had six community supported agriculture (CSA) members. It was the start of this amazing activity.”

That thesis project was the launch of Candice’s career. Five years later, she’s still doing it, but on a considerably larger scale. UrbiCulture now consists of 15 lots being utilized throughout Denver for growing, with very satisfied CSA subscribers—so satisfied, in fact, they can’t accommodate them all. The waiting list is upward of 80 people.

For the Community

But Candice’s work only begins with the CSAs. Within the main city area of Denver, UrbiCulture took over a piece of land on which they grow produce for low-income residents.

“In downtown Denver we have a 6,500 square-foot dirt lot that we took over and beautified and then put in this extraordinary garden,” Candice said. “We farm it; we garden it. We have the community come out and they’re a part of planning, planting and weeding. We harvest it so that people who maybe work and don’t have the time to garden, or maybe they don’t want to garden or they don’t have access to land to garden, can still come and access fresh vegetables.”

Produce from the garden, as well as from other plots, is also sold at UrbiCulture’s rather unique farmstand. “We have what we call a pay-what-you-can farmstand,” Candice explained. “People come there and they either pay the suggested donation price, or they pay more, or they pay what they can, which is usually not very much.

“Something that’s always been close to my heart as a person who grew up in a low-income household is, how do we get this good, fresh local food into the hands of the people that need it and can’t necessarily afford it? This conflict of food justice and food access is something I really wanted to focus on.”

For the Children

Part of the operation of UrbiCulture’s downtown plot involves education. “We do a lot of children’s programs there,” Candice added. “We hired two high school students last year who really helped a lot with the farm. We’re going to expand that program this year.”

Candice has seen to another garden in a place that really needs it. “We also have a school garden that we grow food on,” she said. “It’s a school in which 95 percent of the students are on reduced-rate lunch, so it’s a very low-income school. We put the garden there and they’ve taken it as their own—they grow the food and sell it at the market. The food goes into the cafeteria as well during the spring and the fall.”

From the Dirt

It hasn’t been easy. There are numerous challenges to growing in UrbiCulture’s particular area.

“We’re in high desert, and it’s definitely rough soil up here,” Candice said. “It’s just kind of clay and sand. We can’t simply throw a seed down and watch it grow, so we are constantly fixing the soil. You have to have good soil and good micronutrients—otherwise you’re not going to be able to grow the food in a sustainable method.

“Another thing that’s kind of pushing against us is we have a short growing season. We start planting in April and begin harvesting in June. Usually our first frost day is the middle of October. It’s kind of like go-go-go-go-go!”

Candice is mostly self-taught in learning to care for this soil—but learn she has. “We grow all of our food sustainably,” she said. “We don’t use pesticides, herbicides or anything toxic. We’re growing a lot of food in small spaces, so we try to rotate at least three crops through a plot per season. We start with our spring crops, and as soon as those are done we pull them and throw in our summer crops. Then as summer crops are dwindling, we pull those and put in our fall crops.”

The Passion

It is obvious Candice is fulfilling a passionate purpose for herself, which is made most manifest in watching others learn. “I love it when people see where their food comes from,” she concluded. “I think that’s still my main key: the fact that when kids are walking through their school garden they’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s a carrot that I eat in my lunch—I can just pull it up and here it is.’ Then finding out that they can grow all kinds of different tomatoes—not just the tomatoes that are in the store that are red and perfect; there are purple ones and green ones that you can eat that are just so extraordinary.

“I also love the education of how we need to start changing the way our food is grown, stop using genetically modified seeds and stop using herbicides and pesticides. They start thinking about organic, about local and sustainable growing. When I see that light go on in that little brain and they start connecting the dots, as a farmer that gives me a lot of pride and it makes me very excited.”

For more information, please visit www.urbiculturecommunityfarms.org.

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