Urbavore's Dilemma: Class is in session at Denver's new urban farming school

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Joel Warner
Kenzie Davison and James Bertini
Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.

While Denver's urban homesteading community has of late been growing by leaps and bounds, with tomato vines reaching up garage walls and hens taking over dog runs, there hasn't been much in the way of a central hub. Aside from online forums and educational workshops put on by local organizations or meet-up groups, folks have mostly been left up to their own devices to learn about how to navigate city chicken laws, where to go for raw milk and what to do with that unruly squash plant now that they finally got that sucker to grow.

That, however, will soon change -- courtesy of the Denver Urban Homesteading Local Market and Reskilling Center, a facility set to open later this month at 200 Santa Fe Drive that will feature farming classes, a super-local farmers market, an agricultural swap meet and other urban farming-focused activities.

"I began to understand that there aren't enough options for urban dwellers to know where their food is coming from, control their food supply and reduce their dependence on Big Agriculture," says James Bertini, the founder and owner of Denver Urban Homesteading. "This facility will help teach people how to become more independent and provide a marketplace for producers of local food supplies to distribute them to the public with less use of energy, fuel and pollution."

Bertini, a retired lawyer who dabbles in real estate and also owns a nearby doggie daycare and boarding facility, found the perfect spot for his labor of local-food love when he purchased an 8,000 square-foot commercial-industrial building on Santa Fe Drive, the location of a former door store. The nearly empty, cavernous space still sports remnants of its previous occupant, since each interior doorway features a different, fancy door design, but soon Bertini promises the facility will be bustling.

The office space in the front half of the building will be reserved for classes on subjects like how to keep urban chickens, start a backyard fish farm, make cheese, use worms for composting, grow herbs suited to Colorado's climate, make cleaning products using natural products like essential oils -- even how to start your own inner-city goat farm. "You really have to care for goats. They know how to roughhouse," says Kenzie Davison, a permaculture expert who's helping Bertini manage the education operations. "You have to know what you are getting yourself into."

The rest of the facility - a warehouse space in back - will comprise a daily farmers market where venders will sell locally grown organic produce, chicken coops, organic chicken feed and pastries baked by Beet Box, a local vegan catering service, in a commercial kitchen Bertini plans on building in the facility. Rental space will be available for swap-meet activities in which people can trade herbs and vegetable plants, and dairy farmers will be on hand so people can acquire raw milk from them by buying "shares" of their herds (in Colorado it's illegal to sell raw milk outright).

Bertini's been busy getting everything ready lately - soliciting for teachers, tracking down vendors, checking with the city that his plan meets rules and regulations. And he has no illusions about the challenge of making a for-profit business like this work. "I hope it becomes profitable, but I don't expect it will do so immediately," he says.

He's not to worried about getting through the lean fall and winter months, when there won't be much local produce to sell. "We will probably have more classes," he says. "People who want to start farming for the first time need to prepare during the winter." Plus he has other bold ideas for the facility, like an ongoing community cannery, an agricultural business incubator, a conference center that can be rented for fundraisers, events and parties, even opportunities for green localvore weddings.

Has Bertini bitten off more than he can chew? Davison, for one, doesn't think so. "James has magic powers," she says with a laugh.

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