Urban Agriculture Provides Research Opportunities

December 22, 2020

If you equate farming with country life, think again. As the population increases, city density also grows. This means urban agriculture is more important than ever. Amanda Weaver, PhD, senior instructor in the Department of Geography & Environmental Sciences (GES) at CU Denver, knows firsthand that you can equate farming with city life—and that you can do it sustainably.

5 Fridges Farm mudroom
The mudroom at 5 Fridges Farm in Wheat Ridge shows the exterior wall of the historic farm house.

How to Grow in the City

How Weaver came to own 5 Fridges Farm in Wheat Ridge is a long story (read about her transformation from doctoral student to novice farmer here). In a nutshell: she stopped at a roadside farm to buy eggs and bought the farm instead.

One of her goals was to connect her farming to her teaching. Associate Professor Brian Page, PhD, who served as GES chair when Weaver purchased the 13-acre property, worked with her to create the Sustainable Urban Agriculture Certificate. “The niche for this program was not to address ‘how to grow,” but how to grow in the city,” Weaver said. Urban farming poses its own challenges, Weaver explained, including poor soil quality, land/water access, distribution bottlenecks, and food insecurity. As CU in the City, CU Denver is the ideal university to house an urban farming program.

Local Program, Global Agriculture

In a way, the idea for the certificate program came directly from GES students. “Brian Page and I realized that our students not only had no idea where their food came from, but also no knowledge of the current system of global agriculture,” Weaver said. “Students were coming to class announcing eating habits as vegetarian, vegan, paleo, non-grain, etc. based on the argument that it was more environmentally sustainable, without understanding the basics of geography and environmental science.”

The certificate program puts their lives and their geography in a much greater context. “I call it both a global and local program, because it connects issues of ‘global food’ with those of ‘local food,” Weaver said. The four-course curriculum includes courses and field research exploring topics such as urban agriculture in theory and practice, models of food production and distribution, and economic factors of modern agricultural food systems. The certificate is not just about how to grow food in the city. Its emphasis is on sustainability. In other words, how to grow food in the city—in a way that maintains a healthy environment.

Peter Anthamatten, PhD, chair of the GES Department, explained how the farm supports faculty and student projects: “Urban agriculture is a part of a movement to rethink the use of urban spaces and to explore ways of using land in a sustainable and positive way, and so the farm serves as an important teaching and research ‘laboratory’ for our students and faculty. Having access to this space provides us with immediate, secure, and well supported access to a field site.”

plan for urban farm
Image of Najdovski’s plan for a sustainable agriculture project, which he developed after conducting research at 5 Fridges Farm.

Brandon Najdovski ’20, who recently earned his BA in Urban Geography and Planning and works for the Colorado Department of Transportation, completed the Sustainable Urban Agriculture Certificate. “I have always been interested in the urban environment, planning applications, sustainability, and our food system, so combining these topics and the unique challenges that comes from them was something that instantly grabbed my attention,” he said.

Najdovski appreciates how the field study courses worked synergistically with the research and technical skills he learned in class. The certificate program enabled him to develop a project on student accessibility to public transit, as well as a business plan for his own restoration agriculture project. “Overall, the university’s association to 5 Fridges Farm makes for an incredibly valuable and unique hands-on experience for students to participate and engage with agriculture while applying theory to practice,” he said.

Does an Urban Farm Combat Climate Change?

It isn’t just the students who benefit from CU Denver’s collaboration with Weaver’s farm. Other professors and their students can conduct research at 5 Fridges Farm, located 6 miles from campus. Associate Professor Frederick Chambers, PhD, used the farm as part of his Colorado Climates course in order to investigate micro-climate variation across the 13 acres of the farm.

With his students, he set up two weather stations at either end of the farm, along with eight self-contained logging sensors that measured temperature and relative humidity. “We wanted to detect small differences in the meteorological variables across the farm, and we found them,” he said. “In essence, we were able to demonstrate our own miniature version of an ‘urban heat island’ in and along some of the peripheral areas of the farm.”

Other field research involves Assistant Professor Kathy Kelsey, PhD, and her students, who have set up testing stations on site to study carbon sequestration and grazing. “Five Fridges Farm is a great place to investigate ecological questions—specifically, how ecological processes function in an urban environment,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey’s on-site research seeks to help answer various questions. “How does an urban farm function to combat climate change, by creating a landscape for carbon to be stored in soil and plants? Do practices like grazing goats help the landscape to store more carbon?”

Weaver milking goat
Senior Instructor Amanda Weaver milks one of the goats at 5 Fridges Farm.

Kelsey brings up an interesting facet of Weaver’s farm that gets a lot of attention—goats! Weaver keeps female goats at the farm, primarily for milk production. But she also has a herd of male goats. They have been trained to eat weeds, and Weaver rents them to Wheat Ridge Parks & Recreation for weed control at local parks. Weaver started the program because the parks department could not mow in a particular area due to uneven and water-soaked ground. But “the boys” were able to eat their way through the property.

What’s the Problem with Weeds?

“Weeds are weeds to the eye of the beholder,” Weaver said. There are, however, some weeds that many people would like to eliminate: “Some weeds are considered noxious or invasive because they take over other communities of plants, such as native plants. Some weeds can kill production animals (larkspur in cattle). Invasives are often amazing at reproduction (which is why they are invasive).” As ruminants, goats have several stomachs, enabling them to eat many weeds that horses cannot. Goats can also eat more weeds than other ruminants like cows and sheep.

The weed-control goats at 5 Fridges Farm don’t just help with landscaping. As it turns out, goat grazing provides other sustainable benefits. “They poop a ‘clean’ (completely digested) fertilizer that does not spread the weed seed, thus giving native plants/grasses (many of which re-seed more slowly) a fighting chance,” Weaver said.

Female goats provide milk and male goats eat weeds at local parks.

Goats vs. Lawn Mowers

Lawn mowing? Check. Weed control? Check. And the benefits of the munching goats keep going. “Added to weed control is the larger potential of soil development (or redevelopment) and carbon sequestration with managed grazing,” Weaver explains.

How do goats help the soil exactly? Weaver sums it up: “There are many studies that suggest that hoof movement aerates the soil, the ‘clean’ poop adds organic matter, and moving animals before they graze to the ground promotes increased water retention and longer root systems (which helps prevent erosion). Finally, these more drought-tolerant plants/grasses can sequester more carbon via photosynthesis.”

The goats of 5 Fridges Farm also promote community involvement and improve happiness. Wherever they replace gas-powered lawn mowers, Weaver’s goats become little ambassadors for sustainable urban farming. “Less noise pollution, less fossil fuel use, and the goats are aerating and fertilizing,” Weaver said. “No offense to the Wheat Ridge maintenance crew, but the goats are a lot more popular.”