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U. graduate turning backyards into urban farms
3/25/2011 | Sheryl McGlochlin
March 24th, 2011 @ 7:23pm
SALT LAKE CITY — The rain stopped falling long enough Thursday afternoon for Sharon Leopardi to pull a few weeds from her backyard garden.
It's not actually her backyard. And it's not her only garden.
In this particular backyard on Logan Avenue, the 24-year-old is growing radishes, carrots and spinach. Elsewhere in her collection of backyard gardens around the city, Leopardi grows beets, onions, squash and 40 varieties of tomatoes.
And in the back room of Mountain Valley Seed at 455 W. 1700 South, she grows micro-greens such as basil and cilantro.
Leopardi is the owner of Backyard Urban Garden (BUG) Farms, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) business that uses Salt Lake City residents' backyards as places to grow, tend and harvest fresh produce to sell to consumers.
Her goal in starting the business a little more than a year ago was to prove that people can make a living growing food — even in the city.
She's a farmer whose "farm" is spread out among eight backyards — all within about five miles of her Avenues apartment.
In all, Leopardi farms about 1 acre, growing enough crops to meet the weekly produce needs of roughly 100 customers — including local restaurants.
"We need way more farmers than we have now in this country," said Leopardi, who decided to become an urban farmer after graduating from the University of Utah in 2008.
"I couldn't think of anything more important (as a career) than to grow healthy food in a sustainable way," she said. "I wanted to be involved in changing the way food is produced in this country."
BUG Farms is the type of enterprise Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker hopes to encourage through his "sustainable city" initiative.
Becker has proposed a series of zoning regulations intended to encourage sustainable living practices throughout the city. The proposed changes, to be considered in the coming months by the City Council, encourage local food production and use of renewable energy systems.
Existing city ordinances make it difficult on ventures such as Leopardi's BUG Farms. In fact, she could get in trouble for the way her business is structured — if the city were enforcing those ordinances.
Removing those barriers will encourage others to follow Leopardi's lead, opening doors to "new, innovative and sustainable practices in many areas, including urban farming," Becker said.
"We're pleased to hear our local entrepreneurs are already thinking about how to explore new potential," the mayor said.
BUG Farms is now in its second year of operation. Leopardi farmed four backyards — totaling about one-eighth of an acre — in her first year.
And she did it all by herself.
On a typical day in July, Leopardi would wake at 4:30 a.m. to start harvesting before the weather got too hot. During the afternoon, she'd respond to emails from members of her CSA and market her business in hopes of adding to that pool.
In late afternoons, she would deliver produce to her customers, until it cooled down enough for more harvesting. After dark, she would go back to her apartment and get her deliveries ready for the next day — a task that often kept her up past midnight.
"It was insane," Leopardi said. "And I didn't have a day off from May through September."
This year, BUG Farms has secured enough regular customers for Leopardi to hire two employees to help her full time throughout the growing season. She also has a year under her belt from an organizational standpoint.
"The first year had a lot of learning curves in figuring out how to be more efficient," Leopardi said.
She's also upgraded her equipment — owning a tiller instead of renting one, and purchasing a truck for deliveries — that will make her business run more smoothly, she said.
Leopardi began her farming career immediately after graduating from the U., starting as a farmhand at Mesa Farm Market in the southern Utah town of Caineville.
"It's a really beautiful place, but a really hard place to grow food," she said. "I learned a lot about hard work and the difference between gardening and actually farming — trying to produce as much as you can so you can make a living."
Leopardi then spent four months working on organic farms in New Zealand through the international program World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
"I had a guidebook that showed me all the farms willing to take on temporary, part-time workers," she said, "and I basically worked a half-day in exchange for food and a place to stay."
Leopardi also has worked locally with Wasatch Community Gardens, an opportunity that connected her with people in the community involved in food production and provided her with the confidence that she could start her own business.
BUG Farms uses a method of farming called Small Plant Intensive, which is basically a business model for growing crops in urban spaces. The model includes planting crops that grow quickly, don't take up much space and typically sell well at farmers markets.
"You can't be a hay farmer in the middle of the city, but you can be a real intensive vegetable farmer," Leopardi said.
And farming in the city makes sense, she said.
"There are so many places in the city that are great (for urban farming)," Leopardi said. "They're fenced, there's easy water access, and there are no big animals coming in an eating stuff because you're in the city.
"And the people are here."
Members of BUG Farms' CSA pay between $300 and $600 for a weekly share of the harvest, depending on the amount of produce they want and when they sign up.
For more information about BUG Farms, visit www.backyardurbangardens.com.
To learn more about Salt Lake City's "sustainable city" initiative, visit www.slcgov.com/opencityhall.