June 24, 2018

Urban agriculture thrives on west side

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GLENDALE — Behind a little bungalow on Cheyenne Street you’ll find a scene that would belong in rural Utah. Nestled among green vegetable plants and fruit trees are chickens, rabbits, beehives, and arched greenhouses.

This productive half-acre lot, owned and worked by Celia and Kevin Bell over the past 14 years, is one of several urban homesteads on the west side, clustered in Glendale. The Bells are surrounded by others working the land and eating or selling what they grow or raise.

Between 2009 and 2011, Salt Lake City relaxed ordinances around beekeeping, residential chicken coops and accessory structures, reducing restrictions on urban agriculture production and opening up opportunities for more residents to use their land productively.

Urban agriculture encompasses farming, community gardening, or homesteading in an urban environment.

Farms are considered a commercial enterprise by the US Census, producing and selling at least $1,000 worth of agricultural products. Community gardens, on the other hand, are collaborative agriculture projects on shared open spaces.

The definition of homesteading is a little harder to pin down, but the concept centers on self-sufficiency and sustainable practices. And here on the west side, some consider it a solution to feeding an ever-growing population and to ethical and sustainability concerns within the food industry.

Amy Jordan, of Glendale, grows food for her family on a “postage stamp” sized property. To do so, Jordan extended what was once her grandparents’ vegetable garden, tore out the lawn and rose bushes, and raised a chicken coop where sheds once sat.

“I couldn’t give up the land that I turned and that my mother turned before me,” Jordan said. “... One of the things [my grandmother] taught me was that you’ll never go hungry if you have a garden.”

Jordan spreads that message, helping to establish gardens at the Dual Immersion Academy and the Sorenson Unity Center. She currently supports the gardens at Mountain View Elementary, where her 13-year-old son has a plot of his own.

“We have to be able to provide food for ourselves, and learning how to grow our own food should be an essential part of our education,” Jordan said. “It should be the most important thing that we learn in school. So that’s why I’ve worked so hard with school gardening programs and getting those going.”

Jordan sees her work at home, too, as an opportunity to educate. She’s conscientious of how her front yard may be perceived by neighbors and makes it beautiful as well as productive. The best way she’s found to ingratiate an unconventional front yard with neighbors?

“An easy way to keep your neighbors happy is to offer them the food you grow,” Jordan said. “As soon as I got chickens, I gave [neighbors] eggs. Now they like the chickens.”

The Bells, too, have dedicated much of their life to spreading the good word about urban agriculture. After living and working on a Missouri community farm for six years, they came back to Utah and started their homestead, bringing some of the country to the city.

In addition to growing and preserving all their own produce, keeping bees and chickens, and raising meat rabbits, the Bells use their professional skills to help others get their hands dirty.

Celia Bell works as a teacher at Volunteers for America in its gardens and greenhouses. She also teaches a class on raising chickens and leads an organic gardening apprenticeship through the University of Utah Continuing Education program.

As a geographic information systems coordinator for the city, Kevin Bell has worked on projects like the SLCgreen Food Mapping project, which helps residents identify gardening opportunities on their properties through digital mapping.

They’re both passionate about what Kevin Bell called the “agrihood”—several adjacent and nearby properties that are used for personal or commercial food production, like the BUG Farms CSA. Members of the west side urban homesteading community work with one another on big projects, swap tips, and even help newcomers secure land in the area.

“It’s nice to know that you have neighbors that are keeping track of what you’re doing,” Celia Bell said. “But it’s not all easy-breezy. We have our fights and arguments. It’s not Shangri-La over here. But that comes with community too; not everyone’s on board. It’s a little bit like herding cats. We all have our own personal freedom.”

At a recent backyard square dance hosted by the Bells, though, friends and neighbors danced, ate, and drank together. Kids petted the bunnies and Kevin Bell offered tours of the agrihood.

Over the music of the Bueno Avenue String Band, Alexandra Parvaz, a resident of the Wasatch Commons Cohousing Association on Utah Street, shared her experience raising chickens and selling eggs there.

“Because this is such a supportive neighborhood for urban agriculture, it makes it easy to bring to reality,” she said. “It’s exceptional and so unique. Supportive neighbors will lend out trucks to haul, say, 1,000 pounds of chicken feed. There’s a lot of amazing social capital for people to take advantage of.”

Parvaz has worked with Wasatch Community Gardens and supervised two gardens on the U. of U. campus for her master’s thesis. She’s adamant that anyone can grow food in whatever space they’ve got – she started in an apartment with just a couple containers of mint and snapdragons. And she says the community is eager to share its knowledge with others.

“It’s definitely not an isolated or insulated place,” she said. “We want people to learn more and be able to implement for themselves.”

If you’re interested in seeing more of the west side’s urban agriculture, check out the Wasatch Community Gardens’ Urban Garden and Farm Tour on Saturday, June 23 from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Buy tickets online at https://wasatchgardens.org/news-and-events/events/item/7-urban-garden-farm-tour. You can also find out the growing potential of your yard at slcgreen.com/food-mapping. If you don’t have space of your own, visit WasatchGardens.org and see how you can get a garden space next summer.