ColoradoVoice: Coloradans Get Free Veggies For Letting Farmer Plant Crops On Lawns
By Alicia Brooks Waltman
Sean Conway is growing healthy produce one backyard at a time.
Conway is the 2014 founder and self-proclaimed “chief executive farmer” of Micro Farms Colorado, which sells produce grown where lawns might go otherwise.
Here’s how it works. Homeowners in the western suburbs of Denver allow Conway and his workers to use their yards as mini-farms. The owners supply the land and water. Conway and his employees do the work, planting, maintaining and harvesting fresh vegetables without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. In return, each homeowner — Conway has 22 homes under contract — receives a portion of the harvest, vegetables valued at $40 to $50 per week, over a 20-week growing season. The rest of the harvest is sold as shares to other consumers and restaurants.
Conway and his crew of about a half-dozen workers start planting in the beginning of April, weather permitting, and harvest from June to October. A typical late summer share could include several pounds of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, collard greens, chard, kale, okra and smaller amounts of other crops.
Homeowners sign five-year contracts, and the average farm is about 2,000 square feet. They are part of what’s called community supported agriculture. In CSAs, consumers support farmers by paying for a share of the season’s produce upfront, and they get the food as it’s harvested. In the case of Micro Farms Colorado, a share costs $750 with a $100 fee for delivery for about a 20-week growing season; a half-share is $400; and a micro-share is $250. (Buyers who pick up their produce pay no delivery fee.)
A Seed Is Planted
The idea for Micro Farms took root, appropriately, in Conway’s own backyard. Growing up in the Colorado city of Lakewood, Conway, like most suburban kids, was surrounded by homes with lawns. He went off to study fine arts at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, but never forgot about all that unused land.
“I remember [thinking of] all these lawns, all this underutilized space,” said Conway, who now lives in the Denver suburb of Arvada. “I thought, it takes a lot of resources to maintain grassy areas in urban and suburban areas, and owners don’t get anything out of it. People use all these chemicals on their lawns and don’t have time to maintain it naturally. They like the idea of having a garden, but they often don’t have the time to keep it up and grow their own produce.”
Conway first got his hands dirty as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 2010 to 2012. There, he worked in a tiny rural village of 20 families who did subsistence farming. To help, he arranged for them to get a corn cleaning machine, which stripped the kernels from corn cobs. The families sold some corn and fed their livestock with the rest.
When Conway returned to the United States, he worked at a nonprofit in Wyoming that focused on developing community gardens and using locally grown CSA produce to feed the needy. In 2014, Conway started Micro Farms Colorado after researching the industry and finding only one other Denver-area micro farming company, Front Yard Farms Colorado, that operated as a for-profit business.
No Lawnmower Needed
Although Conway’s food is certainly homegrown, it is not certified organic. (The certification process currently is too expensive, he said.) But the produce is grown without chemicals, an accomplishment that Lakewood acknowledged this year by handing Conway its annual Community Sustainability Award. And if Conway can provide homeowners with chemical-free produce while simultaneously eliminating the need to mow and tend a lawn, what’s not to like?
“It’s a small business, and there is a lot of capital we need to make back,” said Conway, noting that he’s optimistic that his “big experiment” will continue to grow. “I’m putting everything I have into it.”
Alicia Brooks Waltman is a communications specialist and freelance writer who lives in Hopewell, New Jersey. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including People and the Washington Post.