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Urban Farming Highlight: The Village Co-Op

by SLCgreen outreach coordinator Stephan Sveshnikov

One of the many ways SLCgreen furthers our sustainability goals is through supporting our local food system. Salt Lake City is committed to providing and facilitating funding for local food programs to enhance access to fresh, healthy, and sustainable food. In recent years, we’ve worked to relax ordinances to allow for backyard chickens and beekeeping, expanded the number of community gardens in the city, and contracted with Green Urban Lunchbox to run the SLC Fruitshare program.

Have you ever wondered how much food you could grow in your yard if you took the time to garden? We produced a Food Map that helps you find an estimate of your yard’s food production potential and provides resources that will educate and empower you to grow more food.

Many Salt Lake City locals are already growing thriving gardens. We recently sat down with one of Salt Lake’s urban farmers, Darin Mann, to talk about his garden, water reduction efforts, and food justice advocacy.

Growing Community

Darin Mann calls his neighborhood the “Venice of Salt Lake.” The garden of cabbages, kale, tomatoes, and everything in between, known officially as the “Village Co-op,” is nestled between  Fairpark and Rose Park, in one of the most ethnically diverse places in the state of Utah. On the other side of his farm stands a mosque and, next to it, a Buddhist temple. Just down the street is the Virgin of Guadalupe Catholic Church. An oasis of green in a crossroads of cultures.

Darin knows the neighborhood well. His farm isn’t called the Village Co-op for nothing: “Every single day I have at least 30 neighbors coming and talking to me about my garden,” he says. Add to that number the 200 families signed up to receive produce box alerts and upwards of 300 volunteers this season alone, and you start to see the sort of impact a small urban farm can have on the surrounding community.

Photo of Darin Mann's Village Co-Op Garden.

Driving through the neighborhood, you notice that more people than not have something growing, sometimes flowers, or lettuce in big pots, or other vegetables. At 25-miles an hour it’s easy to blow past the little farm; it doesn’t look too different from the rest. Not at first glance. There’s no sign, but if you’re watching closely you’ll notice the park strip is planted with cabbages, the backyard is in row crops, the front yard is mounded with compost, and then it hits you – this is a working farm!

Darin’s been farming this third of an acre for three years, and has three other plots in the neighborhood. From the beginning he envisioned it as a collective, a way to build community through food. “That’s what we’re missing,” he says, “we’re separated by all these fences and big roads.” Sometimes he misses living in an apartment building. But here, “all my neighbors are watching the garden. It’s a beautiful thing to look at, they like to see the crops growing…”

Saving Water

All that growing takes hard work – and, of course, water. Darin has more incentive than most farmers to be creative with his water use – farming in the city means he pays the residential price for water (“If we had more access to greywater,” he says longingly, “that would be amazing, but there’s no real infrastructure for that”). “Here in Utah, Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’” he comments dryly, quoting Mark Twain. But he gets creative.

“That’s the name of the game, right, is we need to catch that water. That’s why we have these rain barrels,” he says, gesturing behind him, “also the surface area of all these rooftops for catching all of that water and redistributing it.”

But there’s something even more exciting here than rain barrels — a few low mounds in the front yard that hide something remarkable: Hugel Mounds.

Hugel Mounds, or Hugelkultur, are water conserving compost mounds. They’re made by digging a three-foot hole, and filling it with logs, twigs, and compost. The mounds are covered with soil and perennials. “Basically, you have a giant compost mound,” says Darin, “and then you soak it, and you create a little pot of water. And if you cut it to contour, as the rain falls, it naturally pools up in the Hugel mounds.” The wood and compost in the bottom acts like a sponge, and keeps rainwater from draining off. For a high desert climate, this can mean the difference between life and death for many plants.

Example of Hugelkultur mound.

The Urban Farming Future

Darin believes that Salt Lake is uniquely positioned to grow more food:

“It’s all centered around reducing our dependence on the current food systems. Especially with COVID, we’ve seen that our supply chains can be messed with. And so if we can build more resilience in our urban areas, if we can make our cities more in tune and connected with nature – especially here in Utah we’re primed to be the example, especially in Salt Lake, because our plots are so big. We’re not New Jersey. We’re Salt Lake and we have really big plots where we can at least have grow spaces. People would be amazed if they just spent 5 hours a week on their garden: they can grow quite a bit of food.”

He’s starting small. Fifteen boxes a week to paying members, 15 a week to low and medium income families in the neighborhood. But his vision is to replicate the model across the city, with more and more urban farms serving a 3-block radius.

And Darin believes that growing more food on land is a better use of water. “Instead of Kentucky bluegrass, which is a super water intensive thing, let’s grow food, let’s grow indigenous plants that are more water-wise, and if we’re going to use water, let’s use it for life giving nourishment, you know?”

He doesn’t think that everyone should grow food. But more urban farms is better for everyone. “Not everybody wants to garden, but they want the benefits of having that food.” And, he says, growing food is a win-win for the whole community, both as an ethical use of the land and water, “but also using it to grow food, producing plants and then we can more equitably feed people who are experience hardship.”

In the big picture, he believes that having more urban farming will entice more people to come to Salt Lake City and improve the quality of life overall.

“People want to live more consciously, you know, that’s the big push that we’re seeing, they really care about where their food is coming from, they really care about what’s happening around them,” he says.

“I’ve watched the wildlife come to the ‘Village,’ and there’s so much vibrant life here. If we can introduce more of that, we’re increasing the quality of life of our planet and our people.”

__________________

You can sign up to volunteer at the Village Co-Op here. Visit their website at: https://www.villagecooperativefarm.org/

To learn more about local food and urban agriculture in Salt Lake City visit: https://www.slc.gov/sustainability/local-food/

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