Farm life grows in cityscape

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Just down the street from a Starbucks coffee shop, and neighboring an apartment complex and an elementary school, sit 13 acres that are alive with activity that might seem unusual for the middle of Wheat Ridge.

Veggies are growing, bees buzzing and chickens clucking at a place called the Five Fridges Farm on West 38th Avenue.

“Most people’s association with urban farms is small backyard plots,” Steve Cochenour, who grows vegetables at the farm, said. “To be able to have this kind of production in the city I think really does surprise a lot of people. Like, ‘Wait this comes from right here? This comes from right down the street?’”

It’s urban agriculture that’s being overseen by a city girl who picked up a hoe as a challenge.

“I lived in the (Denver) Highlands for 12 years, and I never thought once about raising chickens,” said Amanda Weaver, a geography and environmental science instructor at the University of Colorado at Denver, who purchased the property three years ago. “Farming was not my background. When the opportunity came up, it was just one of those things where I thought, ‘Sure, I’m gonna sell my house in the Highlands and buy this old farm in Wheat Ridge.’”

The property has been operating as a farm since the early 1900s. It become known as the Williams Wildlife Preserve, named after the land’s former longtime owner, Ernestine Williams.

Before her death in 1991, Williams sought protection for her property. She was able to do that by putting the land in a conservation easement.

“Basically, this land cannot be subdivided or developed for purposes other than urban agriculture or nature preservation,” said Weaver, who is also a member of the city’s Planning Commission.

Under Weaver’s management, Five Fridges offers fertile farming ground for independent business owners who lease different areas of the property. Among them is Kdubbs Agriculture, which operates a hops farm on Weaver’s land, supplying hops to home brewers and Colorado microbreweries.

Cochenour grows organic table vegetables at the farm as part of his Clear Creek Organics business, a family-owned, first-generation farming group that specializes in community-supported agriculture – where folks purchase memberships and pick up their shares of vegetables each week throughout the growing season.

“Its a really ideal growing area,” Cochenour said. “We’re 10 minutes from downtown Denver, so that puts us in access of a large amount of potential customers. But, at the same time, we have the opportunity to really focus on Wheat Ridge, with the majority of our customers being local.”

There’s also garlic growing at Five Fridges, grapes that will be harvested for wine, and goats that will produce dairy or be sheared to produce wool for sweaters.

“I want to create a model of how viable businesses can become on an urban farm,” Weaver said. “The traditional model of a mom and pop and six kids doesn’t exist any more. And farm land is too expensive for the average first-generation farmer.”

Weaver’s farm also serves as a field research station for CU-Denver students who are taking classes as part of the university’s Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture program.

“The program focuses on how growing things interfaces with the urban environment,” said Weaver, who helped to create CU-Denver’s urban agriculture certificate. “People are asking for graduates who have experiences in writing ordinances for chickens and goats and bees. And that’s new.”

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