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Backyard Farming Boom: Denver Urban Homesteading

James Bertini stands in his backyard in the Baker neighborhood.

A woman holds a chicken at the Denver Urban Homestead's livestock exchange.

The livestock exchange is the first Saturday of every month.

One of Bertini's Angora rabbits.

James Bertini poses with one of his chickens.

Chickens ready for sale by one vendor at the livestock exchange.

Customers try some goat cheese at Denver Urban Homesteading's farmers market.

Local food is sold at the farmers market.

Denver Urban Homesteading, a year-round farmers market and livestock exchange, is taking root in central Denver. The facility from James and Irina Bertini also offers classes on everything from beekeeping to gardening to beer brewing.
The area around Santa Fe Drive and Second Avenue is a gritty mix of commercial, industrial and residential sights and sounds: railcars, warehouses, storefronts and rowhouses. It's also the unlikely sight of an agricultural oasis: Denver Urban Homesteading.
 
That's what James Bertini has dubbed it -- an oasis.  Four years ago the attorney and property investor bought a foreclosed door store on Second Avenue and Santa Fe and converted the 8,000-square-foot building into Denver's only year-round farmers market.
 
Denver Urban Homesteading, owned and operated by Bertini and his wife, Irina, offers locally grown foods, heirloom vegetable seeds, raw honey, herbal teas, organic pickles, "cow shares" (a way of getting around laws prohibiting raw-milk sales by enabling consumers to become part-owners of the cow) and dozens of other foodstuffs. There's also a commercial kitchen, a honey processor for area beekeepers and beekeeping equipment for sale.
 
Education is another component of Denver Urban Homesteading's mission. There are classes on such topics as raising goats for fiber and dairy, gardening and canning, beekeeping, furniture-refinishing, beer brewing and chicken rearing.

A woman holds a chicken at the Denver Urban Homestead's livestock exchange.Swapping chickens and goats
 
The Bertinis haven't stopped with the farmers market. The first Saturday of each month, they host a livestock exchange in the parking lot of the dog-daycare center they own a few blocks from the farmers market, on Kalamath and Fourth Avenue. Vendors on hand the first Saturday in April packed the lot with chickens, ducks, rabbits in cages on the backs of pickup trucks and a pair of goats in a portable pen.
 
"It's become an institution," says Bertini, 58. "People have a need to buy and sell backyard farm animals all year. I told my wife we've been identified as a community resource. We have to live up to it."
 
On that first Saturday in April, two female goats -- one three weeks old, the other four weeks old -- were up for sale for $75 each. "They start out seven pounds, all legs, and they grow fast," says their owner, Rebecca Volz. "They'll be about 125 pounds full-grown."
 
Volz raises the goats in a pen with a six-foot fence on her half-acre property in Lakewood that includes chickens she raises for meat and eggs, a vegetable garden and fruit trees. She says the goats merely need to "visit" a billy goat three weeks out of the year to become milk-producers. At their peak, each goat will produce a gallon of milk per day. Two to three gallons of milk will yield one pound of cheese, Volz said. The Volzes also make ice cream and yogurt from the milk.
 
Volz says she learned about Denver Urban Homesteading and the livestock exchange from Craigslist. "It's the best one," she says. "This is a great thing James has organized."

Consume less, re-use more and plant, plant, plantJames Bertini stands in his backyard in the Baker neighborhood.
 
The impetus for the farmers market  -- which Bertini describes as "part of the do-it-yourself movement and a social meeting hub" – stemmed from two forces: Michael Pollan's sweeping critique of the U.S. food industry detailed in The Omnivore's Dilemma, and wife Irena's dissatisfaction with the preponderance of processed foods she found upon her arrival in the U.S. from Turkmenistan almost eight years ago.
 
Irina Bertini is a former chemical engineer who says she realized during her work in the oil and gas industry "how environmentally unfriendly we are. I think we need to consume less.  I know any time I don't buy something, I decrease production. Instead of production of goods, now I produce services." Among those services is a class she teaches on how to restore old furniture and thus "save a tree," an oft-overlooked aspect of sustainability. Her mantra: "Consume less, re-use more and plant, plant, plant."
 
The Bertinis' backyard on Fourth Avenue and Kalamath -- or backyards, as it were, since they own a string of four properties on the west side of the street  -- is a testament to their immersion in sustainability. There's a garden plot, a giant compost pile, chickens, rabbits, and a barrel full of rabbit manure, which Bertini says is better than chicken manure because it won't burn the crops.
 
The Bertinis also harvest, for making into fabric, the hair of their Angora rabbits by brushing them, and Bertini says he plans to put a couple of beehives on his roof.
 
"Once you start, you'll never stop, because bees are fascinating," he says.

Hurdles, challenges and opportunities
 
Though it's not yet profitable, Denver Urban Homesteading is a for-profit operation, generating revenue from rent paid by farmers at the market, the company's own product sales and tuition for classes. For now, Bertini says the enterprise is subsidized by his dog-daycare business, EarthDog Denver. The monthly livestock exchange is free for vendors.
 
Bertini says he expected Denver Urban Homesteading to be profitable by now but was dealt a blow when another organization -- an outfit in California incorporated as a church called the Dervaes Institute  -- claimed trademark rights to the term "urban homesteading," and convinced Facebook to shut down Denver Urban Homesteading's Facebook page, causing thousands of contacts to be lost and eliminating Denver Urban Homesteading's primary means of disseminating information about events and offerings. Bertini, still an attorney when the need has arisen, has been locked in a two-year legal battle and in April filed a federal lawsuit demanding cancellation of the "urban homesteading" trademark and restoration of Denver Urban Homesteading's Facebook page.
 
Bertini has put his legal knowledge to work on behalf of urban agriculture before. He was a driving force in the successful effort to overhaul the tedious and costly permitting process required for residents to raise chickens and other animals in Denver. Before 2011, residents had to complete a permit process requiring them to notify neighbors of their intent to own the animals and pay a one-time $100 permit fee and an annual $50 fee for chickens, and $100 a year for livestock, such as goats.
 
One of Bertini's Angora rabbits.Bertini figures those excessive restrictions stem from Denver's efforts years ago to shed its "cow town" image. He set about generating support to ease the barriers to owning chickens. That included his production of a YouTube video featuring testimonials of urban chicken owners and his tongue-in-cheek assertion that, "We don't refer to them as illegal chickens; we call them undocumented chickens." At the height of the debate Bertini showed up for a city council meeting in a chicken suit.
 
Ultimately Denver's city council voted seven to three to ease the restrictions. Denver residents can now own up to eight chickens and/or two goats and pay only a one-time $25 fee.
 
That's as it should be, Irina Bertini figures. "When I came to this country I was used to fresh meat … and what do you mean chickens are illegal? It's illegal to get fresh eggs?"
 
Not anymore, as evidenced by the activity on Fourth Avenue and Kalamath the first Saturday of each month.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
Mike Taylor

Read more articles by Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor is a freelance writer in Denver. He is the Editor of ColoradoBiz magazine and previously wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Anchorage Times.
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