The last thing I expected when I moved into my condo complex in the city was to hear the crow of a rooster each morning.. But this comes with the territory when living in a place that borders a farm, along with a unique sense of community. I quickly became friends with the owners of the farm and found myself scheduling my weekends around farm stand time so I could pick up my fresh veggies for the week.
Only using organic and regenerative practices, Anica Wong and Ivan Soto are the urban farmers behind SoCliff Farm. The farm is a labor of love for Wong and Soto, who both also have full- time jobs. The farm, which they run during their free time, fulfills a vision to utilize the land in a meaningful way and to build a broader community.
Over dinner and a bonfire, I sat down with them and discussed urban farming.
Can you tell us a good schedule of when certain crops grow in Colorado?
Wong: Usually your greens grow at the beginning of the season because they can withstand and even like some cooler temperatures. You usually start to plant your root veggies like radishes and carrots at the beginning of the season. All of the things that require some heat come after that, like tomatoes and peppers. All of those get started inside. You can start those by seed. Those get started in March-ish or early spring. They’re started inside because they have such a long growing season, and they’re very susceptible to cold. They need a lot of tender love and care until you take them outside, which usually doesn’t happen until the end of May.
Soto: Plants started inside are very much at risk for those weird days in sSpring in Colorado that you have major temperature fluctuations and the possibility of frost all the way through Mother’s Day and end of May. People choose to risk it sometimes, and it’s a gamble when you go early, like the Mother’s Day deadline that everybody has heard about.
W: This past year we were going to plant all the tomatoes on a weekend that it snowed. We could have put them in the ground early and risked it. We had looked at the forecast and saw that there was something weird going on, so we decided to hold off for a week. We know that waiting wasn’t going to make a huge difference, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about them as much. After the sensitive things go into the ground you can start to plant beans, sweet peas, cucumbers, squash (both winter and summer), and pumpkins.
W: As the season goes on, you’ll have different successions. When your first planting of arugula is done, you can go back in and plant more because it has such a short “days to maturity.” For example, arugula has 21 days to maturity. From the time you put the seed in the ground, 21 days later you will be able to harvest it. Very few things come into maturity that fast. Plants like radishes have 25 days to maturity. When the days start to get shorter after the equinox, it’s not 25 days to maturity anymore. It’s 25 days plus a week because the days are getting shorter. You can continue to plant. We try to count backwards from the beginning of October that historically, and by historically I mean the last two years, has been when we have ended our season because we get a hard frost.
W: There will be things that are less susceptible to that cold, that will push through. Some crops will be immediately done with a frost, whereas kale will survive a couple frosts, and almost thrive sometimes. It’s really cool to watch that. Spinach will also survive a frost. Some root vegetables like radishes and carrots will survive. Kale is hardy. You can plant it pretty early, you can plant it pretty late. It survives well.
Are there ways to outsmart the arid Colorado environment?
S: Are there ways to make up for the arid climate, yes. When and how you water are important things. According to the studies we’re following, the reason we’re doing the drip system versus other options is so that we don’t lose water to evaporation, and so that the water gets to the ground directly and absorbed immediately versus giving it a chance to evaporate.
W: Unless there are dire circumstances, I will probably never water before 7 p.m., just because it’s too hot. We want to give the plants and the water as much chance as possible to be really effective. Water timing and how you utilize it, it’s not an “outsmart,” but it’s a strategic work around to the heat.
S: Soil health is massive. Mulching is very important for moisture retention. Soil quality and soil health are very important for moisture retention. Soil consistency and amendments helps your soil not be so porous that water just runs through, not giving time for the plants to use that moisture when it is there. Covering crops helps them not get completely baked by the sun and helps them retain some of that moisture. Some of the fabrics we use have multiple purposes like weed dampening and some moisture retention, but there’s no magic solution to it.
Can you compost in a space as small as a dorm?
S: You can definitely compost in reduced spaces or spaces that don’t have an outdoor option. Composting has a lot to do with the right mixture of things, the right ratio of the materials. If you do it the right way, the smells can be reduced significantly to where they’re not a massive concern. You can dump everything in a blender. It chops it up, and then it’s going to break down faster. It’s not going to have as much of an opportunity to get stinky. When mixed with the right amount of carbon material so that it breaks down faster, it won’t be a problem with the smells. You do want a designated space. You want to have some mental preparedness for fruit flies and what you can do about them.
S: There’s absolutely zero question that we should be prioritizing composting.The amount of waste that could be diverted from the landfill in honor of composting is massive. More and more, there’s options for compost collection services, which I think can be cost prohibitive for people. I’m the type of person who would prioritize composting, but having to pay somebody to pick it up on a regular basis might be a challenge because I know that it’s not a super-cheap option. The big players in refuse or trash collection have massive problems with the composting side of it, to the point where they’ve tried it but it’s not financially viable for them to run composting because one of their priorities is financial stability, and it’s a very expensive thing to carry out.
S: A big concern is contamination of a compost pile. One plastic bag can basically ruin a truckload of compost. People bring compost over to the farm, and I’m stuck peeling stickers off of things. You’re contaminating the compost that we’re eventually going to be putting on the food that we are trying to grow without any contamination of plastics, PFA chemicals, and microplastics breaking down. Even at our tiny scale, it takes literally everybody to be super conscious of it, and we all know life gets in the way of that. We all have to reprioritize it, so that it actually works. Otherwise I’m spending hours and hours picking avocado stickers out of the compost pile. Why are these stickers even in here in the first place? Can we not come up with another option for this?
S: Can you do it in an apartment setting? Absolutely. Are there options for not having to do it yourself, having it picked up? Absolutely. It may not always be a super-financially viable option for everybody, but more and more people are trying to make that available, us included.
How can people get involved in farming without dedicating their lives to it?
S: There’s definitely options to be involved not just on the labor side but observation, learning, participation, engagement, and spreading the word.
W: I think most people who might be interested in farming, or in agriculture in general, hopefully will also find value in purchasing from local farmers, so that’s always the number one thing. Plugging in how you can: that might mean a once-a-week volunteer role. That might mean buying a Community-supported agriculture share. That might mean coming to as many farm stands as you can. It might mean coming to one volunteer day and really seeing what that looks like. Most farmers that are our scale are completely open to all of those things. All of those things provide support for the larger mission and the larger goal: education, local produce, community involvement, and awareness. Whatever you can do will be beneficial. I think people don’t necessarily understand that those smaller things can be really big things. For us, we value anybody reaching out.
S: You don’t have to go full force into growing on a quarter of an acre or weeding for eight hours. Spreading the word, letting people know that there’s options versus the standard going to the grocery store to get your veggies, that’s massive. That’s really what keeps it going.
What direction is urban farming taking in Colorado?
W: Farming is hard. Farming is not brain surgery. It does require a certain level of aptitude, organization, and perseverance, but people can do it. I think that there’s also a resurgence in the concept of community, especially after Covid when we all of a sudden realized that we do actually like connecting with people who live around us and have similar thoughts to us. I think that also is part of why people farm is to build that community around them. We’re all looking for that at this point.
S: There’s more of an awareness of food supply chains and their potential failures. There’s awareness of the value of direct consumer approach. That’s been clear to us since the beginning, and it was part of our driving force. There’s awareness of food deserts and how directly a food desert can be affected by even just one property in the middle of it when maximizing the use of a certain space. An urban farm can make great strides in addressing that food desert and making food accessible for people. There are so many challenges that work against any kind of farming, there’s a concern for the longevity and sustainability of it. At the very least there’s many people that are very interested in trying to make a change toward prioritizing the use of space with the production of something more valuable.
S: There’s many, many people who are on the same page about the potential use of space for the production of food — which is a necessity for all of us — and how much more valuable that is versus using resources, time, energy, and fossil fuels on the growing of a lawn, which does feel good on your bare feet, but doesn’t ultimately weigh the balance for a beneficial set up for the use of that space. I think more and more people are realizing the value of the use of space for clean food production.
How does climate change affect farming?
W: It has made things unpredictable. We get weird snow storms after it was 90 degrees the day before. That has happened two years in a row. I remember being out here in September sweating as we’re trying to cover all these plants because it’s just so hot. Your mind couldn’t even process that you were preparing the farm for the fact that it was going to snow the next day. It also takes a toll on us as people physically on how much work we can do. Yes, if it is 95 degrees for a full month straight, we’re not going to be able to potentially get as much stuff done because we need to take care of ourselves. We need to take care of the people working for us. We’re not getting afternoon thunderstorms. Four years ago we were still getting regular summer afternoon thunderstorms that not only provided us with “free water” but also cooled things off, made things a little more bearable, gave things a little more recovery time from the heat of the day.
S: It feels like there’s absolutely change in the weather patterns, and it definitely feels more extreme, and more extreme obviously requires more management and more awareness and more work.
Why do you farm?
W: Farming is not fun. Farming is often intrusive in that you have to take care of something when it needs to be taken care of regardless of whether you have brunch plans or whether it’s snowing or raining or 97 degrees outside. The intrusive aspect is also a good aspect. We are intruding into our community, and that community has responded back to us. The community aspect is important. For me it’s one of the most rewarding parts of this. Yes, pulling up a carrot out of the ground that you grew is very rewarding, but being able to hand that carrot to a woman who has been coming to the farm stand every single week for the past two-and-a-half years is even more rewarding because she has now trusted you. She now understands the benefits of locally sourced produce. That intrusive nature works both ways in my mind. That’s the really rewarding part. We often don’t get to build a larger community outside of ourselves, beyond our friends and our family and our smaller network. To be surrounded by this larger group of people we see every week or every couple weeks is a really cool aspect of it.
S: There’s multiple reasons. I farm because it is the most direct way to know how the food that I’m eating is grown. I farm because whether it’s a mind game or not, the food that I grow tastes better to me than the food that I can buy at the store. I farm because farming, to a degree, is in my roots. My childhood always had me exposed to some type of farming or ranching. I farm because of the personal satisfaction of knowing that we are doing something that, in my book, is of much greater value than any number of things I could be doing with my time, energy, and love.
From bringing food to urban food deserts to efficiently using the land, more solutions to modern problems are being answered by the urban farming movement. With increased interest and momentum in urban gardening after the pandemic, both farms and individuals are tapping into the power of growing one’s own food on the land.