How a Denver-based urban farm is turning lawns into lettuce
Two summers ago, Maddy Torraca Jones and Grace Burnham were harvesting radishes at Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado when they decided they wanted to turn lawns into small vegetable farms. Initially it wasn’t part of any grand scheme—the two were discussing what they planned to do after the farming season.
“I asked Maddy if she wanted to move into my house and turn the lawn into a vegetable garden with me,” says Burnham, “and she said yes.”
Both women say they are driven by a desire to feed and build their community by creating a more self-reliant and sustainable food system. They knew that lawns suck up resources better spent elsewhere—and how.
Lawns cover more than 23 million acres of land and their maintenance requires more than 800 million gallons of fuel each year in the United States, according to Heather Jo Flores, founder of Food Not Lawns. This costs lawn owners a little more than $500 each year. The water used to maintain American lawns each week—270 billion gallons—is enough to water 81 million acres of organic vegetables through the summer. This accounts for a third of all residential water consumption.
Not only do lawns require exorbitant water and fuel usage, they are also covered in pesticides. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, homeowners covered lawns with approximately 59 million pounds of pesticides in 2012. Pesticides used on lawns leach into waterways, causing potentially harmful or unknown side effects for children and animals.
Midway through their discussion on what comes next, the two friends paused to Google “how to start a business,” and haven’t stopped since. The Veg Yard officially launched in the spring of 2018. It’s an urban farm network located in Denver that boasts a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a cut flower share, and a lawn-to-vegetable transformation program.
Through their “lawns to veggies” program, Burnham and Torraca Jones help people turn grassy yards into vegetable-producing operations, which are then maintained by the property owners. In other cases, the women build, maintain, harvest, and profit from donated land. Property owners pay for water use, and in return, receive a CSA share. In its first year, Veg Yard fed 20 families through its CSA program. It hopes to double that number in its second season.
The Veg Yard shares the field with plenty of other urban farm efforts, also known as foodscaping. Food Not Lawns, which laid down roots two decades ago, is among the largest, with operations in multiple cities across the United States, Australia, and Canada. Other micro-farms include small businesses like Lawn Island Farms, and volunteer organizations like Farm-a-Yard and Fleet Farming. In a related effort, many cities, Philadelphia and Chicago among them, are supporting urban farmers who want to make over vacant lots. And there’s room for plenty more companies like their own, says Burnham. “The wonderful thing about farming is that it’s not a competition,” she says. “We’re all on the same team.”
Both Veg Yard founders have been gratified by the community’s response to their program. While not profitable (yet), the business isn’t losing money either.
I recently sat down with the ladies of The Veg Yard to get their take on owning a small business, and helping to restructure their local food system.
On what they’re excited for in their second season
We’re really looking forward to expanding our community. This year we’re launching our “neighborhood share” program. We’re going to discount or donate several shares to members of our community who maybe can’t afford our full share price but live within the zip codes of our various farm sites. We also have a lot more land to work with, which means more farming and more people to feed. We love doing markets because you get to hang out with fellow farmers and just interact with more people in general. -Torraca Jones
On the hardest part of starting The Veg Yard
I would say staying motivated. We both have other jobs in addition to The Veg Yard, so sometimes we’re tired. When most people hang out and watch Netflix, we’re usually doing The Veg Yard. It’s the classic farmer problem too—just finding people to eat your vegetables. People don’t really know who we are yet. -Burnham
On their advice for people wishing to pursue a similar model in their own communities
Do it, talk about it, make it happen. If you want to do it, you can do it. Fundraising helps. Start small. Go learn from someone who knows how to farm first. Try volunteering at a farm near you to gain some skills and knowledge, and figure out what your community needs, because every community is different. -Torraca Jones
On what this means for the planet
This is a sustainable model because we are reallocating wasted water resources and land and nutrients by building a healthier ecosystem. We’re feeding people better, fresher food that’s locally grown. It’s decreasing our consumers’ footprint. It builds community and allows people to see how food happens—it reconnects them with their food, it connects them to their neighbors, and it opens up discussion about eating healthy. And I think it empowers them—they see that they can grow their own food, and they’re less reliant on grocery stores.
There are really no benefits to watering a lawn just to cut it down. It’s much more sustainable to use the land and water to feed your community instead. -Torraca Jones
Katie Ketchum is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow based in Denver, Colorado.