Supply chain anxiety leads to interest in community 'microfarm' program

Boundless Landscapes was founded to build a community "microfarm" food system, but what was once deemed a luxury seems more like a necessity in the era of COVID-19.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

May 7, 2020

6 Min Read
boundless landscapes microfarming
Boundless Landscapes

When Boulder-based Boundless Landscapes launched last year with the mission of encouraging people to replace their lawns with “microfarms” and supporting hyper-local food systems, nobody was panic-buying toliet paper and packets of vegetable seeds weren’t yet sold out at garden stores. But the COVID-19 epidemic has consumers thinking differently about the food supply chain, in addition to bonding with their fellow neighbors, both of which have sparked an unprecedented level of interest in the organization’s model. 

We talked to co-founder Mara Rose about what the next steps are for Boundless Landscapes, and how this model could impact the way people view the food system. 

New Hope Network: How would you describe the mission of boundless landscapes? And how has the pandemic changed that mission?

Mara Rose: We convert underutilized space into thriving food gardens, front yards, backyards, churchyards, things like that. And, really, the mission hasn’t changed, because in many ways we created Boundless with an awareness of the need for local resilience, the need for hyper-local food and the need for people to be connected to the process of growing food. And so I think COVID-19’s impact is that only a few weeks ago people thought what we are doing was just sort of a cool idea, and in the last three weeks alone we've seen lightbulbs go off for people as they realize that it's not just nice to have. It's a really important part of the food system.

People are using the term “victory garden” to describe your operation. How do you feel about that? [Editors note: Victory gardens were vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted at private residences and public parks during World War II.]

I know the history is a bit controversial, but to the degree that those gardens were created to address food security issues, to build community resilience, to boost morale and to connect people to nature, then they align perfectly with everything that we're doing. 

There is talk of a reset in the way the general public views the food system and how people gain access to their food. Is that overly ambitious?

My sense is that there is just this opening and increased awareness and this visceral understanding that people haven't had before that things aren't available in the same way. They are understanding things like supply chains in a fundamental way for the first time, because so many of us have never even had to think about that before. I also think that the joy that people get from growing their food is so significant that once you learn it and experience it and taste it it's hard to completely go back.

So, I do think there are resets happening, and even if there's some sort of a boomerang and we go back to the way things were to some degree, I can't imagine we will go all the way back. And the nice thing is there's all these people buying seeds and building gardens, or engaging with people like us to do that. And now they're going to have gardens in their yards whether they like it or not. 

 What percentage of the people you're hearing from have had experience growing their own food?

I think a lot of the people who come to us are our sort of aspirational consumers, people who want to be part of the solution, who are concerned with climate change, who have young children at home and want to do something positive and productive. But they don't necessarily have experience growing food. We actually talk about what we're doing as a gateway drug. Maybe 25% to 30% currently garden or have in the past, but they just want to increase how much food they’re growing or they're really excited about the sort of collectivist mission of Boundless, which is to use your private land, not just to grow food for yourself, but also for the community.

And you're going to employ and engage teenagers who are going to do this work and learn these skills and take that into their lives and be these agents of change. So, I think part of what we're seeing is about growing food and part of it is about being part of an inspired, hopeful mission around what we can do when we come together as a community and think differently about how to use our land.

Everybody is talking about social distancing, but it sounds like there is a big social element to this movement.

I think farming that happens in rural spaces probably is inherently well-positioned for social distancing, but part of our mission is to bring food into everybody's daily life. That means when people are walking down the block in their neighborhood they actually get to watch the cycles, they get to watch, you know, the tomato go from seed to fruit. And so for us there's a huge social component to it. We actually see these gardens as tools for building more resilient and connected communities and neighborhoods. And I think during COVID-19 we're seeing neighbors getting to know each other and helping each other and being available—that's really, really important. Just as important as the social distancing aspects are. 

We're going to have to change what the farm stands look like this year, but these farm stands are a place where we’ve seen neighbors who hadn't spoken to each other in 20 years connecting for the first time. We think of teenagers as sullen and bad communicators, but these teenagers were the ones selling food to their neighbors, telling them how it was grown, what different varieties taste like and how to cook them. This kind of intergenerational connection that can happen is very meaningful. We put these yard signs in everyone's yard that say "I'm growing food for this community." That message is also powerful and can start to build a sense of shared destiny.

What part do local governments and other organizations need to play in this “back to the lawn” movement?

We actually have a group of four grad students from the University of Colorado Boulder who are working with us on a year long capstone project. One of the things they're really looking at is what sort of policies can best support this kind of a movement. I would love to see the city or the county offer a rebate program just like they do for solar. If you install a microfarm in your yard, you’d receive some sort of a rebate for that, because we're doing everything from sinking carbon to producing pollinator forage, to employing teens.

We’re also feeding the community and shrinking the foodprint for the community by making sure people's food travels less far. So I think a rebate program would be a really amazing thing and we've been trying to start conversations around that. We also need to have regulations around where we can put farmstands that don't get in the way of what we're doing. And then the other challenge is just getting the word out. So I'm hopeful that even state or county governments can partner with groups like us to make people aware of us as a resource.

You’re piloting this in Boulder. Can this concept translate to other communities?

I hope so. I mean, everyone has to eat. And again, everyone is experiencing these supply chain disruptions. I think everyone wants to have some sort of sense of hope and some sort of sense of control over their own destiny. The same group that we're working with from CU Boulder is also helping us choose our second state, and understanding what conditions are going to support it in terms of the demographics and  the policy environments. Our goal really is to test and build a model here that can go somewhere else, something that we can scale and that is replicable elsewhere but that can be adapted to fit each community. I think there's a lot of cool partnerships with existing institutions that would help this model flourish in cities everywhere.

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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