U. graduate turning S.L. backyards into urban farms

Published: Thursday, March 24 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

Sharon Leopardi of the community-supported agriculture business BUG Farms walks delicately through a garden of newly planted radishes and spinach in the backyard of a Salt Lake City home on Thursday, March 24, 2011.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The rain stopped falling long enough Thursday afternoon for Sharon Leopardi to pull a few weeds from her backyard garden.

It's not actually her backyard. And it's not her only garden.

In this particular backyard on Logan Avenue, the 24-year-old is growing radishes, carrots and spinach. Elsewhere in her collection of backyard gardens around the city, Leopardi grows beets, onions, squash and 40 varieties of tomatoes.

And in the back room of Mountain Valley Seed at 455 W. 1700 South, she grows micro-greens such as basil and cilantro.

Leopardi is the owner of Backyard Urban Garden Farms, a community-supported agriculture business that uses Salt Lake residents' backyards as places to grow, tend and harvest fresh produce to sell to consumers.

Her goal in starting the business a little more than a year ago was to prove that people can make a living growing food — even in the city.

She's a farmer whose "farm" is spread out among eight backyards — all within about five miles of her Avenues apartment.

In all, Leopardi farms about 1 acre, growing enough crops to meet the weekly produce needs of roughly 100 customers — including local restaurants.

"We need way more farmers than we have now in this country," said Leopardi, who decided to become an urban farmer after graduating from the University of Utah in 2008.

"I couldn't think of anything more important (as a career) than to grow healthy food in a sustainable way," she said. "I wanted to be involved in changing the way food is produced in this country."

BUG Farms is the type of enterprise Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker hopes to encourage through his "sustainable city" initiative.

Becker has proposed a series of zoning regulations intended to encourage sustainable living practices throughout the city. The proposed changes, to be considered in the coming months by the City Council, encourage local food production and use of renewable energy systems.

Existing city ordinances make it difficult on ventures such as Leopardi's BUG Farms. In fact, she could get in trouble for the way her business is structured — if the city were enforcing those ordinances.

Removing those barriers will encourage others to follow Leopardi's lead, opening doors to "new, innovative and sustainable practices in many areas, including urban farming," Becker said.

"We're pleased to hear our local entrepreneurs are already thinking about how to explore new potential," the mayor said.

BUG Farms is now in its second year of operation. Leopardi farmed four backyards — totaling about one-eighth of an acre — in her first year.

And she did it all by herself.

On a typical day in July, Leopardi would wake at 4:30 a.m. to start harvesting before the weather got too hot. During the afternoon, she'd respond to emails from members and market her business in hopes of adding to that pool.

In late afternoons, she would deliver produce to her customers, until it cooled down enough for more harvesting. After dark, she would go back to her apartment and get her deliveries ready for the next day — a task that often kept her up past midnight.

"It was insane," Leopardi said. "And I didn't have a day off from May through September."

This year, BUG Farms has secured enough regular customers for Leopardi to hire two employees to help her full time throughout the growing season. She also has a year under her belt from an organizational standpoint.

"The first year had a lot of learning curves in figuring out how to be more efficient," Leopardi said.

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