A new twist on urban farming that was hailed as a first in the nation withered last year before it could take root in Colorado Springs.

Armed with an unexpected U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, organizers of Pikes Peak Small Farms are back in action and convinced they can prove their idea will change the landscape of "food insecurity" in poor neighborhoods.

Residents living near what's called Prospect Farm at Arcadia Gardens said they can't wait for the project to bear fruit.

"I'm all for people growing their own food, and I'm real anxious to see what they produce," said Julie Seiler, who lives across the street from the farm. "It's got potential, and it can happen. That's what I like."

The USDA last fall awarded Pikes Peak Small Farms a $51,000 grant for a proposal, "The Tiny Farms Project: Finding Food in a Desert."

The concept: Increase access to healthy, locally grown food in a low-income neighborhood by intertwining a small urban farm with an educational program that teaches residents gardening and cooking skills.

"This is one of the biggest opportunities to evaluate the social, economic and health benefits of a tiny farm in urban infill," said Elise Rothman d'Hauthuille, one of the organizers of Pikes Peak Small Farms.

What's missing on the first tiny farm is a tiny house. Last year, Pikes Peak Small Farms had purchased a tiny house - a social movement in which people downsize to live in 100- to 400-square-foot mobile house - and obtained use from the owner of a vacant lot off the busy, commercial East Fillmore Street. They were ready to have a farmer live on the property in the tiny house, start a small farm on the land and involve neighbors in benefiting from the harvest.

But they encountered a $20,000 snag.

The sewage line was crushed, d'Hauthuille said, and the city said the organization would have to pay to fix it.

Pikes Peak Small Farms didn't have $20,000. So the project got scrapped.

Months later, "Surprise, surprise, we got a grant," d'Hauthuille said. "It was an interesting turn of events."

Organizers scrambled to restructure the logistics of the plan.

Two Colorado College graduates, Mercedes Whitman, who's from New Jersey and works as the farmer, and Sophie Javna, who's from Oregon and doing marketing, live in a traditional house that was already there - instead of a tiny house, as per the original concept.

Two roommates, also CC alumni, are helping with the project.

A greenhouse the organization installed on the property last year is bursting with rows of tomato plants, lettuce, peppers, kale and other vegetables.

Miniature goats and chickens are producing milk and eggs.

The two-thirds of an acre is divided into garden space that has root vegetables, herbs and basics that will be sold to neighbors and at stands. There's also community garden plots for neighbors to grow their own produce.

D' Hauthuille said up to 98 percent of food sold in Colorado comes from out of state.

"If the trucks stopped delivering for three days, we'd be out of food at the stores," she said. "That's crazy."

The hope is that the farm will yield 10,000 pounds of food this year, primarily for people living within half a mile.

What makes it different from other farms, d'Hauthuille said, is that while there are many community gardens - individual plots on land belonging to churches, parks and private property owners that multiple gardners tend - people usually don't live on-site.

"Bad things happen in urban infill at night, and community gardens don't solve that problem, but a Tiny Farm does," she said. "It creates a healthy community around food, and no one else is doing this. If we can prove putting one of these farms can positively change the socio-economics of a low-income neighborhood, we'd be hitting gold."

Growing a community

The Tiny Farm project is multi-faceted. Last Friday, Javna and Whitman set up a booth outside Ranch Direct Foods on East Fillmore Street, which is in their neighborhood. They handed out flyers explaining what they're doing and encouraged people to get involved. The farm, at 3403 N. Prospect St., offers three community events. Every Wednesday, anyone can stop by between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. and help work the land. Lunch is provided.

A volunteer who goes by the name of Monk showed up last Wednesday. He grabbed a shovel and started digging, to prepare the ground for planting donated lettuce starts.

"I believe there needs to be one day in your week where you get your hands dirty," he said. "This is good for the environment and for people, so I want to help out."

Shabbat potlucks are held 5-7 p.m. on the second Friday of each month, and "BYOB working happy hours" are from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. the third Friday of each month.

"We want people to come and hang out," Javna said. "We want to be rooted in the community, and we hope the community responds."

The potlucks are not religiously affiliated but based on the idea of a gathering time, she said. All activities are American Disabilities Act accessible and "family friendly."

Seiler, a resident of the nearby Colorado Springs Senior Homes complex, has attended a potluck and also helped plant tomatoes at the farm.

"I enjoy their company," she said. "They're nice to everyone, and I like that they have activities where you work, you eat, you play and you converse."

Seiler has already bought strawberries and rhubarb.

The program accepts food stamps as payment, and Javna, who helped found the CC Food Coalition, an umbrella group for food-related clubs at the college, has set up a double benefit. Customers with the EBT card can get twice the goods for the money they spend.

"Swiping $15 on an EBT card will get them $30 of purchasing power," d'Hauthuille said.

Nonprofit hospitals and other organizations that "care about improved health of the community" will make up the difference, she said.

"Low-income people often buy groceries at convenience stores, so there's not enough healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets, and what they're buying is usually expensive," she said. "This the opposite of that."

The project also will track the impact of a Tiny Farm on property values in the neighborhood, d' Hauthuille said, with the expectation that they will increase.

"This is essentially a food desert, a place where no fresh and vegetables are available," she said. "We're about turning the blight into bright."

Neighbor Shar West said she's looking forward to buying peas, green beans and lettuce.

"We've been hoping for something like this because therapeutically, I think it's very good for people," she said. "I believe we need to get back to the environment type-of-thing because who doesn't love a fresh radish? They taste so different than the ones you get at the grocery store."

Whitman said she and Javna are hoping many people in the neighborhood, which includes a mobile home park, the senior campus and single-family homes, embrace their efforts.

"The concept of local and sustainable agriculture can contribute to solving environmental, social and racial issues," she said. "It provides so many positive results and personal satisfaction."

The grassroots project has garnered the support of the broader local food movement. Pikes Peak Urban Gardens donated seed and plants and set up the community garden area.

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is using a chunk of the grant money to develop The Tiny Farm Nutrition Education Program, to teach neighbors how to prepare and cook the fresh food in their own kitchens. Nanna Meyer, an associate professor of health sciences and one of the grant writers, is leading that part of the program.

"There's a lot of different energy converging with all the players in the local food scene, and it's very welcoming," Javna said.

Setting up a Tiny Farm costs about $75,000, including a tiny home, d' Hauthuille said. Investors get a return on their money, with the farmer paying rent and a cut of the sales.

"The world is still not at the point where socially responsible investment is at the top of everybody's list. Making money is," d' Hauthuille said. "We're hoping this changes people's minds."

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