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Denver Post Article on GrowHaus

posted Mar 2, 2010, 11:12 AM by JD Sawyer   [ updated Mar 2, 2010, 2:11 PM ]

A dilapidated greenhouse in Denver's Elyria-Swansea neighborhood could soon sprout one of the nation's newest trends: inner-city farming using state-of-the-art technology to grow crops and fish in a single symbiotic system that mimics nature's water cycle.

This would solve a problem for the neighborhood, which lacks a full-service grocery store — if the Denver City Council can hammer out a zoning variance to allow Urban Organics to set up its greenhouse- to-table operation at East 47th Avenue and York Street, north of Interstate 70.

"This neighborhood is a food desert," said Paul Garcia, who lives in the neighborhood and is deputy director of the Cross Community Coalition.

"There's no access to fresh produce — no nearby grocery store. The idea of being able to grow and distribute fresh produce in this particular part of town is so encouraging for the residents."

Urban Organics is the idea of real estate developer and broker Paul Tamburello and local food activists, including Ashara Ekundayo, a principal at Blue and Yellow Logic, a Denver startup focused on diversifying the green economy to include all races and income levels.

Ekundayo, founder of the Pan African Arts Society and a longtime social activist, became interested in the food-justice movement during a year-long fellowship at Green for All, a national organization that trains leaders in low-income communities or communities of color to bring the green economy to their neighborhoods.

During the fellowship, she learned of the work of Will Allen, a sharecropper's son and former basketball star who won a 2008 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for his Growing Power, a nonprofit urban farm in Milwaukee.

His concept is rooted in the belief that the unhealthy diets of low-income, urban people — linked to diabetes and obesity — can be tracked to lack of access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.

His inner-city farm produces organic food and also offers workshops, where its neighbors can learn to grow healthy food and how to create similar farming models in other urban areas.

A key element in the program is aquaponics, a system that resembles the water purification that occurs naturally in streams: plants and bacteria clean water for the fish, and fish waste fertilizes the plants.

Zoning creates hurdle

Farms modeled after Growing Power's operation have begun to pop up around the U.S. Adding Denver to that elite list would put the city "at the cutting edge of one of the only growing industries in our challenged economy," said Councilwoman Judy Montero, who supports the project, which is in her district.

There's just one problem with Urban Organics' plan: The aquaponics.

The greenhouse is in an area zoned for residential uses. Built before Denver's zoning code was written, it operated for more than 80 years, recently with an exemption for business uses.

Urban Organics had hoped to continue on with that exemption, but aquaponics is a new technology that is not covered by the city code.

The City Council is considering legislation to allow the new technology to be used.

When the Swansea greenhouse came up for sale, Ekundayo talked about it with Tamburello, who had always supported her work.

"He's one of the few people I know who have the financial savvy" to do something like this, she said.

"He's interested in empowering humanity," Ekundayo said of Tamburello, a team leader with International Medical Relief, who has facilitated eight medical and dental missions to Burma, Senegal, Ethiopia and Kenya. "It wasn't a hard sell."

Just days after his exploratory trip to Growing Power, Tamburello bought the Denver greenhouse. So far, eight 35-foot Dumpsters full of junk have been hauled away.

On a recent afternoon, he stood in the entrance, envisioning the future.

"This front part here will be the market," he said, sweeping his arm toward the door.

The neighbors are already having their say about what the market should sell.

"People said they'd love to have eggs, milk, some basic staples," said Tamburello. "In the long term, I'd love to have a small barista coffee shop in here with sandwiches and vegetables we make, so the local people can come over and enjoy it."

There will be a place for composting with worms to create rich planting beds, and also fish. Tamburello estimates the aquaponics system can grow as many as 45,000 fish a year.

"We'll sell the fish locally here," Tamburello said. "It will go out on ice, no fish processing. If a family wants to come over, their kids can come fish for their dinner."

Neighborhood emphasis

With a focus on community development, they plan to hire workers from the neighborhood, offer cooking and nutrition workshops to people like the students at nearby Swansea Elementary School, and celebrate special events, such as the International Day of Climate Action on Saturday, when they will host an open house 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

"There will be workshops on global warming in our community, and how to reduce your carbon footprint even in the 'hood," Ekundayo said.

They plan to distribute energy-efficient lightbulbs and low-flow water adaptors for faucets, and hip-hop artists will paint a large food-justice mural on the greenhouse.

"When you look at Denver and the City Council within the last year, we've passed an amendment to allow for people to have bees, and to promote healthy living and sustainability," Montero said. "I believe Denver is on the leading edge of this Growing Power trend in the United States. If we're not ahead of the curve, we're pretty darn close."

Colleen O'Connor: 303-954-1083 or