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Flying the Coop

Feature: Araucana Hens in Mill Creek. Eight-foot tomato plants in Rose Park. How Plucky Can Urban Farmers Get?


The view of the Wasatch mountains from Jonathan Krausert’s small Rose Park back yard is obscured by breathtaking growth. Not untamed, wild or weedy, but purposeful and productive—cultivated with love for the past 21 years. It’s a garden with seven varieties of fruit trees, grapevines, strawberries, rhubarbs, potatoes, peppers, onions, corn, beans, beets, carrots, squash, tomatoes and almost every other kind of vegetable you can grow, as well as seven chickens, a beehive and herbs growing in the park strip. It’s a garden without compromise; every inch of land on Krausert’s verdant eighth-acre bears edible produce. The docile bees from the hive float around the garden as if a part of the summer air and, once in a while, the chickens leave their coop to till and fertilize the soil. Soon Krausert hopes to start crops growing in containers on the roof.

“When I first got here, this yard was just grass, a few Pyracanthas, lilac bushes and one poor apple tree in the back yard that I took down a couple of years ago that never produced anything,” Krausert says. Most people would have left that yard alone, the typical American yard in the typical American neighborhood. The lilac bushes undoubtedly looked pretty swell set against a well-manicured and plush-green lawn.

But now, that sort of yard seems like a wasteland—a remnant of the days of DDT-dusting and bomb shelters. Mini-farms like Krausert’s scattered around the Salt Lake Valley are, according to present-day futurists dealing in words like “organic,” “local” and “sustainability,” a glimpse of the post-industrial urban landscape. When gas and food prices become intolerably high, our hopes apparently lie in getting food locally grown—ideally from organic and sustainable producers, community gardens or, even better, from our own back yards.

{::INSERTAD::}This is what old-time industrial cities like Detroit are experiencing. Dramatic urban collapse has sent the population steadily into the suburbs, and the resulting decayed buildings and empty lots are becoming open gardening spaces thanks to heavy-hitting and volunteer-based organizations like The Greening of Detroit ( and Earth Works Garden (, which work to promote urban farming plots, the sale of local produce and urban reforestation.

It seems odd to ask Salt Lake City to skip over the development-focused “bustling metropolis” stage to a post-industrial urban return to the land, but cultural and consumer tastes are shifting in that direction. The marketability of locally grown, organic produce and the “you are what you eat” phenomena dissected in recent bestsellers like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma signal the turning. But are people ready to pay the increased price for food that urban artisan producers would need to ask? Or are people actually going to get their hands dirty and spend time uprooting their roses and making crop beds, even in high temperatures and with high initial costs? It seems like a pipe dream, but it’s one that’s becoming a reality. Slowly. >>

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Chicken Savvy
Allow chickens to roam outside the coop within a fenced area. They will be healthier and the coop will stay cleaner. Be sure the fence is at least 4 feet high (and possibly electrified and deep in the ground) to keep away likely predators such as dogs and raccoons. The coop itself should be easy to clean with good drainage, ventilation (but no drafts), lights (natural and artificial) and protection from wind, sun, cold, rodents, wild birds and predators. Give chickens nests, perches and bedding on the floor.

Make sure the coop is big enough, about 2 to 4 square feet per bird if it’s an open coop. As far as looks are concerned, anything goes, just as long as it’s clean and secure, and the chickens can live in it without hurting themselves. It’s a good family construction project.
For food, the easiest solution is to buy premixed feed for each specific breed of chicken. Mix this feed from scratch (a mix of grains) and increase the feed ration during cold-weather months. If chickens are molting, they needs more protein. If eggshells are very thin, the chicken needs calcium supplements. Avoid feeding them raw potato peels, spoiled food or strongly flavored foods like onions or fish.
nThe Urban Sustainability Coop d’Etat

It’s mid-July, and a long line has formed in the community Grateful Tomato Garden on 600 East and 800 South in Salt Lake’s Central City neighborhood. People from surrounding neighborhoods await their Wasatch Community Gardens Tour de Coop guidebook, a treasure map to urban chicken coops in select back yards around the valley. It’s a stiflingly hot, bright morning, and the WCG volunteers didn’t expect a turnout this strong and ran short of guidebooks, holding up a growing line of impatient chicken-coop tourists while they fetched more copies.

On the tour, coop owner Kris Justesen gives a concise explanation as to why she chooses to raise chickens in her east Salt Lake City back yard. “I started buying eggs at Wild Oats at $3 or more a dozen. I realized they’re one of the best sources of protein there is, and I wanted to start eating more of them, but I didn’t want the cheaper eggs with all the pesticides in them that taste so totally different. It was just that simple.”

Like many others, Justesen gives great importance to knowing where her food comes from. It’s a rekindled passion for a connection with food, a refusal to assume that all the stuff in the grocery store—sold relatively inexpensively and imported from far-off lands—will provide the same nutrition and spiritual nourishment as the corn, tomato or egg you’ve helped create. It’s inciting eco-conscious people around the country to grow large and impressive urban gardens. For the less intrepid, it means getting seasonal food from local producers and farmers’ markets—a geographic and possibly social connector with the food and the guy who grew it.

It’s the birth of the “localvore,” a creature whose diet consists of food with limited “food mileage” (how far the crop traveled from producer to plate) and with restrictions on eating food out of its natural growing season. A memoir-cum-instruction-guide of the localvore challenge called The 100-Mile Diet (2007) by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon is just one source of inspiration.

Salt Lake City is no exception. Some residents have created the Eat Local Challenge that started August 18, a one-, two- or four-week period of obtaining food grown within a 250- or 100-mile radius. Luckily, this isn’t January, because buying grapes from Chile or mealy tomatoes from who-knows-where certainly would be cheating. >>
Localvores’ Revenge
“You can’t get any more local than growing your own food,” says Emily Aagaard, the executive director of the Wasatch Community Gardens. She is referring to the Choose Local! bandwagon large retailers such as Wild Oats and smaller, neighborhood merchants are jumping on to win the business of localvores. “You know where the food comes from, and you know what went into it. A community garden, a back yard or even a smaller farm can be sustainable, a cycle. That’s where the chicken-coop tour came from; it’s another step in that direction,” says Aagaard.

Along with the idea of sustainability (which means limiting the use of extraneous natural resources, like letting chickens eat pest insects in a garden instead of spraying pesticide or using the chicken’s manure as fertilizer or compost), eating food with low food mileage also saves gasoline, reducing the carbon footprint made by the black boot of eco-senseless food importing.

Localvorism even has implications for foods with the “organic” label. “You’re talking about how the organic product got here; it certainly wasn’t biked here,” says Aagaard. “‘Organic’ has become such a popular term, but people have forgotten that it started because there was something wrong with what [Big Agribusiness] was doing. It was a reaction. But now, large companies have taken the word because it has market power. It’s like buying your way to sainthood.” Organic food is now a staple for food enthusiasts—those who can afford it—so big retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kroger are starting to import cheap organic produce from around the world. It’s the signal for the localvore and backyard agriculture enthusiast to strike back.

Slow Foods Utah, an organization devoted to the promotion and sale of “good, fair and clean” food, works to get locally grown food to the people by informing consumers, bringing producers together and encouraging restaurants and grocers to carry low-mileage foods. This and the preponderance of farmers’ markets as well as other organizations like Crossroads Urban Center’s Food Co-op are evidence of increasing demand for good, local food.

Seth Winterton is the coordinator of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food’s organic-food program. He also is deputy director of Utah’s Own, an organization that promotes locally grown food and offers grants to producers. Winterton sees importance in the eat-local movement, but he’s realistic about the extent to which localvores will go.

“We have to get away from that concept of cheap food,” he says. “If you want nutritious and delicious locally grown foods, you have to be willing to pay a premium for that great food that tastes better. It’s a mindset. There has to be an investment.” >>
Me, My Garden and Costco
Many Salt Lake City urban “farmers” know one another. Whether that’s because they help the Wasatch Community Gardens from time to time, share the same basic feelings about what people should do to help the planet or that they crave an honest tomato, it’s unclear. Near the intersection of California Avenue and Redwood Road, Celia Bell has cultivated a fertile half-acre for more than three years after learning to farm in an “old-time hippie commune” in the Missouri Ozarks. “I have a lot of respect for the Amish,” she says. Bell was selling her produce in Utah to various outlets, including her neighbors the Wasatch Commons Co-housing, but when she found her best sellers were mainly salad greens, she decided to devote her produce to her family and friends.

“We still show up at Costco,” she admits without hesitation. “I’m not totally self reliant, but we try our darndest.”

Her friend and neighbor, Cari Pinkowski, moved into the area two years ago, onto a one-acre plot. She’s just starting out, only finding time between taking care of her two small children, soil building (for truly organic produce) and constructing a hen house to start a few crop beds and small selection of fruit trees. But she and her husband are working hard to ready a large plot that will sustain their family and perhaps garner them a little money on the side. “I’m interested in lots and lots of people growing their own food and having their own farms,” she says. That’s why she moved to the city’s west side from Sugar House: to find the land she needed.

But Jonathan Krausert’s operation makes even these impressive gardens look meek. He didn’t have to increase his land space to fit his passion. Not only has he managed to cram more edible vegetation in his comparably tiny eighth-acre, but with thousands of gallons of rain water (about 30 barrels) for gardening and use in the house, a solar oven and chickens to fertilize the soil and keep bugs away, he’s like a Sustainable Saint.

“I compared my water bill to my neighbor’s just now. I was shocked because mine was the highest it’s ever been, but his was twice as much, and his is all grass,” Krausert says. “I’m using less water and producing, which to me is a key, important thing.”

Krausert grew up in rural Michigan. His father’s impressive gardening skills fed his and his uncle’s large families. Gardening is in his blood, Krausert says; it was only natural when he began the kind of garden that could give his father’s a run for his money.

“Once you get started early, you’re hooked. That’s it; you’re through. You can’t do anything else,” he says. “I could not live without a garden. If I were in a condo, I would have to have a balcony with big pots on it.”

This kind of gardening is not for the timid, however. One has to have a real passion for it. And although Pinkowski has seen more families make the same move, from Sugar House onto larger plots on the west side to have a go at sustainable living, if consumers continue to demand cheap food, it may not be cost-effective for the average small producer to devote the time, energy and money into a backyard mega-garden.

There are several organic farms in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas that serve the palates of urban localvores. Some of them started out with plots no larger than Bell’s, receiving grants and selling enough produce to expand the business. Even though there seems to be a market for artisan food in Utah, making the transition away from food importing and commodity agriculture to eating sustainably and locally appears to be a long way off in the post-industrial future. >>
But Does The Good Stuff Sell?
“We started at the [downtown] Farmers’ Market, but it didn’t seem like the right fit. It wasn’t quite profitable enough,” says David Bell, owner of Bell Organic Farms in Draper. “You have to start at 4 a.m. if you’re really serious, and that’s for producers like us that live here locally. There’s no refrigeration; the lettuce is wilting and the squash doesn’t look so fresh and, by the time [the market] is done, there’s no way you can keep a marketable product. Our very best day at the market was around $500. It’s not really a business.”

Bell started with a half-acre garden nine years ago. After a few unsuccessful months at the Farmers’ Market, he found a way to sell his crops that worked—to restaurants and small grocers in the Salt Lake City area. He now has five acres of garden, with clients including Liberty Heights Fresh and Squatters pub. He still keeps a day job selling real estate.

Yet Penny Trinca, of First Frost Farms in northern Utah’s Cache Valley, has been selling the crops from her five-acre farm at the Cache Valley Gardeners’ Market for about nine years. She says the garden brings in about a third of her income, probably because she doesn’t go through a third-party distributor.
Utah State University College of Agriculture professor Ruby Ward wishes more consumers would be willing to pay artisan prices for food they can have a connection with, food grown locally.

“Sometimes, when people start selling at a farmers’ market, they really underprice what they have,” she says. “It’s not to say they want to put a high price on it, but it’s a crop of really high quality with a different food experience. You really should be charged what it costs to make it.” Especially with organic and backyard growers, a lot of soil preparation, sustainability methods and other costly measures and sacrifices must be carried out to feed the localvore. Plus, small producers don’t get any of the government subsidies that enable big farms to sell their crop under cost. The localvore will pay the artisan prices. But in a future where some foresee a food shortage, everyone would have to be willing to fork over $5 for a dozen eggs from free-range, organically raised chickens.

Consumers in this state, as Ward points out and the 2002 U.S. Agricultural Census concurs, have larger families and are somewhat dependent on cheap, mass-produced food. Organic purchases are often outside the budget. The answer would seem to be to follow Kris Justesen’s lead for urban dwellers to construct their own coops for their own free-range organic eggs. Creating a number of large-scale urban community gardens could provide greater food security for Utah’s poor in ways cheap food never has, an impressive goal of the Wasatch Community Gardens and Slow Food Utah. But, as agriculture expert Seth Winterton admits, it’s a tall order. Starting a large garden or a chicken coop isn’t cost effective, and it takes time and effort.

Jeffrey LaFrance, an agricultural and resource economics professor at University of California-Berkeley, agrees that you have to take the total cost of food supply into account. “That’s the question society needs to address: Of course it’s expensive from the standpoint of energy use, importing pineapples from Hawaii, but it’s probably the cheapest way to get pineapples.” His wife tends a small garden through which they try to be sustainable.

Forget the pineapples. For Krausert, Justesen, Celia Bell, Pinkowski and others, that’s a nonissue. They don’t count the hours spent kneeling in the soil or building chicken coops and food dehydrators from scavenged scrap materials. When asked how much money they’ve put into their efforts, they shrug it off as if nothing matters less. Gardening is deeply rooted in their soul and, perhaps someday, the masses will catch on. Maybe in the post-industrial semi-doom, they’ll be forced to.

Neither LaFrance nor Ruby Ward puts stock in a looming food shortage predicted by futurists and urban food-sustainability die-hards. “I think that a lot of people overstate a lot of those things,” Ward says. “Food will become higher priced, but we’ve already seen that a little bit. It may make local foods a little less expensive.” As a society, we’ll absorb the increased food costs grudgingly but without fail, just as we’ve done with oil. >>
Turn, Turn, Turn
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Join the Flock
Want to have chickens of your very own? Here’s the law:

• In Salt Lake City, domestic fowl licenses must be obtained from Salt Lake County Office of Animal Services (phone 269-7499). The fees run $5 per chicken but no more than $40 total.
• You can keep up to 25 chickens. More than that requires a special license.
n Chickens must remain at least 50 feet away from any building containing humans.
• The chicken coop must be whitewashed or sprayed with disinfectant in March, July and October.
• Droppings under roosts must be cleaned out every two weeks.
• Coops, runways and surroundings must be kept in a clean and sanitary condition.
• The full text of the ordinance can be found at, click on “Government,” then “Laws and City Ordinances,” then search “livestock.”
On the Tour de Coop, while visiting Jonathan Krausert’s lush back yard and his coop built from scrap materials he found on his part-time construction job, Gisela Gunderson is impressed. She has just moved to Salt Lake City from Portland and is looking to do something similar in her new, large back yard. She’s studied self-sustainability and is convinced it will help with the problems many believe await us in the future. “In such a small space, it just takes a little imagination,” she says, admiring Krausert’s fishpond and squash plants. “This is the way society needs to go.”

Regardless of social imperatives, there is something to be said for the warmth of the first tomato of the season freshly picked or the comfort in an omelet made from the blue-shelled eggs of Joann, your araucana chicken.

“Throw a few tomato plants in your yard, watch ’em grow. They’ll taste so good, the next thing, you’ll be growing corn, then lettuce. It just snowballs,” Krausert says with the authority of experience. “I don’t expect people to get on [my] scale. I mean, this is very labor-intensive, but it’s something to shoot at. It isn’t that hard to grow lettuce and potatoes. You could even do it in a planter.”

Krausert has never won the Rose Park Lawn of the Week award given to his neighbors up until about a year ago. It hasn’t bothered him much. Despite receiving praise from fellow large-scale gardeners, the Wasatch Community Gardens, friends, family and complete strangers, the lawn committee has never recognized Krausert’s obvious skill and devotion to his garden.

Maybe the civic-beauty police haven’t gotten around to him, or maybe it’s a subtle snub in favor of the well-manicured lawns and tame pink rose bushes of his neighbors—a testament to the staying power of old ideals no matter how many new eco-fads pop up. Because, if there’s one thing Krausert doesn’t have in his eighth-acre mini-farm, it’s grass.