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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Bertini Strives To Take Back the Menu For Local Agriculture | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

When Denver Urban Homesteading director James Bertini first experienced the pleasures of vegetable gardening as a child growing up in Cortland, New York, he had no idea he would one day spearhead a movement to make backyard agriculture accessible to Denver urbanites.

“My grandfather, who emigrated from Italy, taught me how to raise vegetables, and I did that for my family,” he says. “After that, gardening was always a passion.”

A business and real estate lawyer by training, Bertini spent time in Japan in the early 1990s, following a real estate recession in the Northeast. “I decided I could stay and struggle, or do something completely different. I thought I could get involved in some kind of U.S./Japan trade, so I studied their language, history, economics and culture. But when I finished, nobody was hiring – so I moved back to the U.S. and settled in Denver.”

About eight years ago, Bertini once again reinvented himself when he began renovating homes, largely in Denver’s Baker historic neighborhood (located west of Broadway and south of 6th Ave.). “I’ve completely restored more than a dozen historical residential buildings here, and during the course of it, stopped practicing law.”

He also became active in the Baker Historic Neighborhood Association, serving on the board and the zoning committee. And he became involved in a group called Green City Project. “It got school kids involved in real-life environmental projects and is now part of the Earth Force organization. I’ve done other small nonprofit work, so it eventually seemed natural for me to get involved in the campaign to change Denver’s livestock laws.”

That campaign evolved from Bertini and his wife’s desire to begin raising chickens and goats in their Kalamath Street yard for the eggs and milk. “When I researched the city law, I found out that in Denver, one can get a permit for these animals. However, the process is cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. Probably the law was made 50 years ago, when Denver was trying to become a big city and wanted to squeeze out agriculture uses.”

But times may be changing, albeit slowly. Reaching out to other groups interested in creating opportunities to raise and distribute sustainable local food, such as Transition Colorado, Denver Urban Gardens, Grow Local and several community supported agriculture organizations (CSAs), Bertini approached City Council with the idea of revamping the city’s livestock zoning laws.

Efforts to date have met with limited success. Although the Zoning Code Task Force recommended in early fall that up to six chickens be allowed as a use-by-right in all zone districts, City Council declined to take up the issue at a mid-month briefing. Regarding Bertini’s effort, City Council Legislative Analyst Gretchen Williams noted, “The general consensus of council members was that the ZCTF’s recommendation regarding chickens was too large a departure from existing conditions. Many of them said the chicken issues – indeed, the whole urban agriculture movement issue – could be taken up after the new code has completed its approval process.”

Council did then mystify the pro-chicken lobby by adopting a strong proclamation supporting urban agriculture on Sept. 21. (To view the proclamation, go to http://www.denvergov.org, click on “Minutes” for 9/21/09.)

Notes Bertini, “While we have received excellent support on changing the archaic food-producing animal laws from councilmembers Chris Nevitt and Carla Madison, we are not sure how the rest of the city council feels. We really need more citizens to make their voices heard with their city councilmembers, including the two at-large representatives. We are hopeful that after the council is no longer distracted with the adoption of the new zoning code early next year, we can ask the members to focus their attention on reforming this law that will help make Denver a more sustainable city and one where citizens can easily own pets other than dogs and cats.”

In spite of frustrations, for Bertini the zoning campaign sparked a reawakening to the burgeoning possibilities of urban agriculture. “Americans have become accustomed to purchasing convenience food – and in many cases, have lost touch with ways to produce healthy, delicious foods from original ingredients.” He hopes the opening of Denver Urban Homesteading, Local Market and Reskilling Center – housed in a large commercial-industrial building at 200 Santa Fe Dr. – will offer people interested in finding a better way, a place to learn, share, produce, sell and connect.

Beginning this fall, the center will promote sustainable agricultural activities including opportunities for growing and raising quality food, improving food security and accessibility, and decreasing dependence on transported, energy-dependent food sources. It will help educate the public through classes in urban agriculture, food and sustainability; help people reconnect with local food production, gardens and the kitchen; sell high-quality local food and agricultural products; and provide meeting space for food- and agriculture-centered activities.

“One of the focuses of Denver Urban Homesteading will be to help people get in touch with these agricultural connections again. Another focus will be to teach them how to care for and raise food-producing animals such as chickens and goats. Our farmers’ market will exclusively promote food products as locally produced as possible, and eventually help streamline the distribution process for locally grown foods. We have classes scheduled so far on how to raise backyard chickens and goats, fish farming, and raising herbs and mushrooms. We are working with a representative of a Native American community who teaches at an ecological center and hope to build a connection between our center and Native American teachings on sustainability. We are also working to bring in children’s cooking classes.”

Bertini believes we have reached a point in our culture where people are ready and inspired to take back control of their food sources. “I have come to believe we’re at the beginning of a new level of consciousness,” he says. “There are so many different people who seem to be developing a consciousness about food and agriculture at the same time. There are people promoting backyard greenhouses, people promoting the Slow Food movement. For me, the consciousness-raising occurred this year through my involvement with the zoning campaign, and from reading works by people such as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

But Bertini also credits his personal life with shifting his perception over a period of time. “It also came from being married to a woman who grew up in Central Asia – and since she arrived in this country has been complaining about the quality of the food. I wasn’t able to comprehend her objections at first, having grown up eating the American diet. But as I became aware of the difference in foods lovingly prepared from scratch by my wife, I gradually understood we needed more healthy alternatives.”

Although his vision for the center has only begun, Bertini has already reaped great personal rewards for his time and effort. “Getting involved with the food chain is exciting. I get to find out about the many different food opportunities in the metropolitan area I didn’t even know existed. My wife and I now drink raw goat’s milk we obtained by meeting people who have small goat farms. But in addition, it’s really about meeting so many people as enthusiastic about food and agriculture as I am, sharing information, and creating a place where people can meet to exchange goods and ideas.”

(Editor’s note: For information, visit www.denverurbanhomesteading.com or call Bertini, 303-572-3122.)

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