Burgeoning Business in Backyard Gardens 

Sharon Leopardi is living off the land in Salt Lake City.

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Backyard gardeners who fantasize about quitting their day job and growing food for a living can look to local farmers who made the leap, even if they lack start-up capital for today’s monoculture megafarms. Sharon Leopardi is one of those farmers who made it her business to grow food for a living, and though she’s worked on farms before as an employee, she’s learning that farm life is even harder when it’s your own business.

Leopardi, 24, a military brat originally of Texas and a University of Utah graduate, also loves being close to the land and close to food. A former vegan, Leopardi now eats animal products, but only from her boyfriend’s family ranch in Lehi or her own chickens, ducks and bees she keeps in a backyard near Trolley Square. The former resident of Boing House, an anarchist/community-service collective, is passionate about environmentalism, social justice and food security.

She’s farming an eighth of an acre spread between three backyards—owned by people who are compensated with veggies—and one community garden plot, all on Salt Lake City’s east side. She has 80 beds of 25 feet by two feet in which she grows 160 tomato plants of 20 varieties, about 20 varieties of carrots, 50 varieties of greens and 40 unique species overall. She often works 16-hour days, has cramps in her body that she’s never had before, and estimates that currently she’s earning about $2 per hour, which doesn’t include the months of prep work. She’s not complaining, though; she’s hopeful the coming years will get easier.

“The first year is always supposed to be the hardest … but I should be able to pay my rent,” she says with a smile. “You have to be really motivated to get up at 4:30 in the morning and work your ass off.”

She’s off to a good start. She’s sold produce to local restaurants Pago, Lugano and Stoneground Pizza, and collects food waste from Coffee Garden, Sage’s Cafe, Vertical Diner and Cali’s Natural Foods to keep her compost heap fed. She sells at the downtown and Sugar House farmers markets. She says about 60 percent of her work is in the garden, 40 percent doing business things like marketing and sales.

Leopardi uses a farming method known as SPIN, or small-plot intensive farming, a high-yield, organic, urban-farming strategy developed by a pair of Canadians about 20 years ago. SPINFarming.com, where farmers can congregate to share tips with fellow SPIN farmers, says first-generation farmers, like Leopardi, are attracted to SPIN because it “removes the two big barriers to entry—land and capital.”

Well, the barriers are lessened, but not eliminated. Leopardi used about $7,000 to get started, some provided by Slow Food Utah as a grant, some borrowed from the bank.

Leopardi’s learning to loosen up. For example, initially she worked diligently to cut spinach stems—sometimes 30 pounds at a time—so that they were relatively uniform in length. Now, she lops off the stems with gusto—uniformity be damned. “Everyday I’m learning to be more efficient and make it less work,” she says.

She distributes crops to shareholders weekly through a community-supported agriculture project that she started after learning she had way too much food to sell at farmers markets alone. She now has 40 people subscribed to her food-share program, with food for dozens more.

She’s also stretching the palates of the local restaurant-goers. While many farmers-market attendees seem to buy more pastries than vegetables, she says, the restaurants she sells to enjoy an adventure. “Pago wanted to buy my craziest green, and they loved it!” That spicy green, which has a hot-pink stem, was hong vit, a member of the radish family.

It’s been only six years since Leopardi first put spade to soil as an amateur gardener; since then, she worked with Wasatch Community Gardens and a Mesa Farm Market in Cainville. But she’s never worked harder than she is right now.

While her tone and mannerisms still seem upbeat and positive, she’s honest about occasional discouragement. “I’m back and forth all the time on whether it’s worth it,” she says. “I think it is. I have to get idealistic about it again.”

To do that, the environmental-studies and geography graduate reminds herself that the industrial food system is “pretty much the biggest contributor of greenhouse gasses and environmental degradation,” and that all of her shareholders live within five to 10 miles of her gardens. She also accepts food stamps as payment, so she’s providing fresh, healthy food to lower-income individuals who often have less access to it. “I see this as a way of improving our local food security. … [And] it’s rewarding to be so connected to the seasons.”

For more information, go to BackyardUrbanGardens.com.

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