(Photo: Jason Bahr/Getty Images)

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How a Young Couple Transformed an Empty Suburban Lot Into a Fantastical Food Oasis

Ensuring a green future for the last open prairie in Lakewood, Colo., won't be easy.
Jul 24, 2014· 15 MIN READ
Melanie Warner has worked as a reporter at The New York Times and a senior writer at Fortune, and a blogger for CBSNews.com. Her book on processed food, Pandora's Lunchbox, was published last year by Scribner.

If you head west out of Denver along the six lanes of Alameda Avenue, after passing about 15 fast-food joints, nine auto repair shops, seven check-cashing spots, two Walgreens, and a handful of cannabis clubs, you’ll come to a curious patch of land in the busy suburb of Lakewood. It’s an expansive green splash of trees and open fields that invites inquisitiveness as you drive by: What is this place? How has it resisted the relentless onslaught of strip malls, gas stations, and office parks? Have we landed in Vermont?

What it is, is a privately owned property that’s been in the same family since 1876. Boxed in by a housing development on one side and a small shopping plaza with a 7-Eleven and a Thai-Chinese restaurant on another, the eight-acre lot is the last remaining sliver of what was once a vast holding of 1,280 acres (two square miles). It was homesteaded by John Edward Everitt, a hardheaded cattle rancher from Ohio, just as Colorado was becoming a state and at a time when the U.S. government, in an effort to populate wild terrains of nothingness west of the Mississippi, was in the habit of giving away land for almost nothing. Portions of the property, among the Denver area’s early settlements, have been sold off over the decades, leaving just those eight acres, one of the few remaining family-owned homesteaded properties in Colorado.

Now Everitt’s great-great-granddaughter is working to save it. Kamise Mullen and her husband, Derek, have started a produce farm on the property that they hope to expand into what they are ambitiously calling a “food-based historic town center,” giving the postwar suburban sprawl of Lakewood a version of the downtown it’s never had. The site has the distinction of being zoned for both agriculture and mixed-use retail, meaning the Mullens can do just about anything they want on it. With that in mind, they’re dreaming big: Plans call for erecting a collection of buildings and an outdoor pavilion, with apartments above, that Everitt Farms would lease to perhaps a brew pub, a restaurant, a cheese shop, a kitchen where people can bring tomatoes for canning and berries for making jam, and a butcher and a baker (but no candlestick maker). Both in their early 30s and new to full-time farming, Kamise and Derek have given their lives over to Everitt Farms, living with their six children in a pair of two-story brick houses situated strangely close to each other on the property. One is the house Kamise grew up in; her mother, Terol, aunt Trudy, uncle Stephen, and grandmother Betty share the modest space.

Just the farm part would be a big gamble. The average small or mid-size farmer pulls in an unsettlingly low $2,800 a year from farming—not enough to put food on the table for a family. “A lot of farmers are getting squeezed out. They’re working like dogs, but it’s still not enough cash flow to pay for health insurance or support a family living,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and a former farmer and rancher. Kamise and Derek have set out to prove to themselves, to Kamise’s family, and to Big Agriculture that they can farm profitably. Farming isn’t any easier when you’re new to it, as the Mullens are. They may have hit on a clever way to make it work, with minimal land costs and by opening related businesses that have their own revenue streams, but that only makes the task before them more challenging.

Developers hoping to build everything from a supermarket and self-storage units to condos and a shopping center have been eyeing the property for years. In 1986, Kamise’s grandmother Betty Shelley, who at 91 still holds the deed, was ready to sell to make way for a retirement complex for $1 million. The developer didn’t get the expected financing, though, and the deal fell through.

If the Mullens succeed, a slice of the increasingly scarce Old West will remain insulated from the persistent advance of suburbia, and the open space will be re-devoted to agriculture. “Our plan is to develop the land in a way that’s tasteful and sustainable,” says Derek, tall and slim with a handsome narrow face and, like his wife, possessed of a quiet charm. “Our world is changing and…in order to combat climate change [and] break the modern slavery created by the banking system and our consumption-based lifestyles…we must shift to a local production based model.”

So far things are going OK: There are vegetables on one acre, pumpkins on two acres, and on an adjoining 18 acres sold by a great-aunt that the family leases, the Mullens grow hay, which last year netted $10,000 (split into equal shares among Kamise’s family). “We are trying to do something before the strip mall moves in.”

If they fail, Betty Shelley or her descendants may decide to sell. Local real estate agents put the value of the property at around $15 million.

It was a humid, overcast May day when Everitt Farms’ farm stand had its official opening. Sitting at a table Derek hauled out of the garage early that morning, Kamise painted a sign that read “Plant Starts and Pastries.” She was dressed much like a character from Little House on the Prairie—long wool bodice dress, blond hair funneled into two long braids under a wide-brimmed straw hat. Slowly and carefully she dipped a paintbrush into a small tub of olive green paint and filled in the large, curvy letters. She seemed completely unstressed that this was the first day of retail operations for the business she hopes will put her kids through college; she moved so calmly I wondered whether she realized customers would be showing up soon.

When they did arrive—and arrive, and arrive, consistently throughout the morning—Kamise and Derek took turns chatting with them and holding their beaming, platinum-haired, 18-month-old son, Beathan. Joan Seivert drove from Edgewater, a neighboring suburb, to meet the couple. “I’m one of your Kickstarters,” she announced, bouncing out of her car and barely able to contain her enthusiasm. Wearing a hot pink visor and matching sports watch, Seivert assessed the offerings: two folding tables holding a little colony of green shoots that if tended would bear tomatoes, strawberries, peas, eggplant, peppers, kale, and broccoli; a structure made to look like an old wagon that displayed a rainbow array of potted flowers; and a selection of homemade croissants from a bakery a mile away called Taste of Denmark. Her 20-something son, who came along with her, bought a handful of plant starts for his garden.

Nobody seemed disappointed that green shoots were all there was—nothing to take home for dinner or even make a salad with—never mind that outdoor pavilion or pints of on-site microbrew. “I would rather give money to Derek and Kamise than to Whole Foods,” Seivert told me. “These are people I’ve met and who are trying to do something interesting. If I shop at Whole Foods, I’m just supporting another big corporation, or that guy in Texas.” I started to think the Mullens could have put out some old wooden spoons and pots of dirt and garnered the same reaction.

Derek Mullen sold garage doors before turning to farming. (Photo: Jason Bahr/Getty Images)

The suburbs are not what they used to be. Beginning in the early part of the last century, and expanding hugely in the postwar years, neatly groomed pockets of tract houses were held up as a desirable alternative for urbanites wishing to escape density and noise in favor of space and comfort. Yet there is a growing sense that this life, with its quiet isolation from everything else, is not all that it was cracked up to be: In 2011, for the first time since the invention of the automobile, the rate of people moving to cities outpaced that of people moving to suburbs. Nearly everyone in Lakewood—the adjoining home owners association, city officials, business development groups, residents—seems to be cheering for Kamise and Derek, even before they’ve yanked one head of broccoli out of the ground. Everitt Farms may be everyone’s panacea for a life more interwoven with the neighbors’ and with the surroundings and less subdivided into culs-de-sac of ranch houses and mock Tudors. Farms—rather unlike ranch houses—hold the promise of connections: to the land we forgot was important, the people growing our food, the community we’ve chosen to live in.

Last year, Lakewood city officials acknowledged that some sort of Jungian longing for kinship had stirred deep in the suburban consciousness. The city’s zoning laws were overhauled for the first time in three decades, allowing all new residential development to include retail and offices (called “mixed-use”) and adding a use category called “horticulture,” which enables neighborhoods to create community gardens. Another category allows single-family homes to have backyard farms that can include up to four chickens, three dwarf goats, and one beehive per 6,000 square feet. The overhaul of city land-use regulations allowed the Mullens to imagine their grand plans for Everitt Farms. Before the change, the property was zoned only for what’s known as planned development—apartment buildings or the retirement complex that nearly engulfed the land in the ’80s.

A lot of farmers are getting squeezed out. They’re working like dogs, but it’s still not enough cash flow to pay for health insurance or support a family living.

John Hansen, president, Nebraska Farmers Union

“The zoning codes from 50 years ago were all about separation,” explained Travis Parker, Lakewood’s planning director. “You had homes in one part, stores in another, and offices in another, and farms few and far between. And what we’re finding is, that’s not producing the best places to live.” Nearby cities such as Denver, Colorado Springs, Broomfield, and the massive McMansion district know as Highlands Ranch also have provisions for backyard farms.

Except for a few expressions of dissent from older residents who weren’t so crazy about the idea of living next to chicken coops, the changes have been met with a chorus of praise. I asked one goat-and-chicken-tending Lakewood resident what her neighbors thought of her backyard farm, which is in spitting distance of two apartment buildings. “They like it,” she said. “They tell me they enjoy hearing the clucking and other farm noises in the morning. It’s much nicer to hear that than all that traffic on the street.”

There’s suddenly so much enthusiasm in Lakewood for all things agrarian that at times it seems to overwhelm Kamise and Derek. Not long ago, they went to a meeting of a local business development group at which a representative from a large nearby shopping and housing development called Belmar informed them that it was considering shutting down its weekly farmers market and directing everyone to Everitt Farms, busing them over. “They get, like, 1,000 people coming through there a week. This is just us,” said Derek as he described the plans to me. Gesturing to the two dozen rows of still-growing vegetables on the Mullens’ eight-acre plot, he looked a little terrified. (Belmar decided to continue running the market.)

The foray into organic farming is a sharp U-turn from Kamise’s and Derek’s previous lives. Both had fairly conventional careers, Kamise running, with her first husband, a foreclosure business that thrived on sending people eviction notices and changing the locks on their houses if they failed to respond. There was no shortage of business after the real estate bubble burst, but she didn’t find it all that satisfying. “I’d drive by these houses and see a mom out there playing with her kid in the yard, and I was coming to take their house away,” she said. “As you go through life you learn things about yourself, and I learned that I’d rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable.”

While Kamise was tearing down families’ little patches of suburbia, Derek was helping build them up: He worked for his dad’s garage door business, installing doors and fixing openers that always seemed to break down.

The couple met one day at Clear Creek, known historically as a lucrative spot during the Colorado gold rush of 1859, just as both of their marriages were falling apart. Kamise was there with her kids; Derek was tubing. Within a year, they were married, and they and their children (Kamise had three; Derek, two) moved in together, Brady Bunch style. A year and a half later, Kamise gave birth to Beathan.

Changes to zoning laws in Lakewood, Colo., enabled the Mullens to conceive a greener future for land that's been in the family since 1876. (Photo: Jason Bahr/Getty Images)

Kamise and Derek’s decision in 2012 to become farmers didn’t come out of nowhere. They already knew a few things about growing plants. Just after they got together, the couple started producing marijuana in the basement of the house they shared at the time, riding a lucrative wave of medical marijuana production in Colorado. Business was great, but it was starting to feel like the agricultural equivalent of driving a Hummer. The perpetually whirring ventilation fans and constantly beaming lights gobbled up massive amounts of electricity. After harvest, the soil had to be discarded and new stuff purchased. The repeated planting of the same crop seemed to invite pests. “I was bleaching the place twice a month, going through gallons and gallons,“ says Kamise.

They shut down the operation and transitioned to growing non-psychoactive plants, harvesting three varieties of tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini, potatoes, two kinds of cucumbers, carrots, leeks, onions, eggplant, spinach, and four types of beans in their backyard. No longer with a steady source of income, they cut costs by eliminating all electricity use. As if atoning for their profligate consumption during their weed-growing days, they operated by candlelight, oil lamps, and a wood-burning stove. “It was amazing how well it would heat the house,” marvels Derek. The whole family—an 11-year-old, a 10-year-old, a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a four-year-old—also became vegan, eating, they say, at least half their meals from the garden.

One day while out yanking weeds, both without a job or much income to speak of, Kamise and Derek started thinking about all that prime land over on the corner of Alameda Avenue and Garrison Street. Just sitting there, save for a few grazing horses Kamise’s aunt and mother still kept. The zoning changes were already in the works, so it seemed likely they could augment their income selling their crops at a roadside stand on the property, and potentially much more. But did they really want to be full-time, get-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn farmers? “I looked at Kamise and I said, ‘We have this unique spot to try and prove that urban farming works. If we ignore it, how can we expect other people, with lesser opportunity, to change the broken food system for us?’ ” Derek recalls.

When they presented the idea to Grandma Betty and the rest of Kamise’s family who live on the property, the reaction was warm. Everyone liked the prospect of doing something productive with the land and wanted to see Kamise do something she seemed unusually passionate about. “My family is weird,” Kamise says, grinning. “They all really like each other and get along.”

Farming has never been for the lighthearted. In John Everitt’s day, it was often a daily battle with the elements, armed with little more than rickety, horse-drawn machinery. Everitt endured blizzards, a good share of cow thieves, and searing heat. Technology has made farming a lot easier on the body, but not on the soul. The number of farms and farmers in America has been steadily dwindling since 1935: Today 0.4 percent of the adult population, or 1 million people, identify as farmers. Despite the trend of young people from non-farming families taking up the profession, the average age of the American farmer continues to rise, from 57.0 in 2007 to 58.3 in 2012.

The Mullens' daughters show off eggs from Everitt Farms' hens. (Photo: Jason Bahr/Getty Images)

Those who turn to farming or choose to stay on the family farm clearly aren’t doing it for the money. The only way farmers have a shot at making ends meet is to either get really big and highly mechanized (or employ teams of low-wage immigrant workers) or get a job off the farm, as 91 percent of farm households.

Local food represents a glimmer of hope for the future of farming. By selling directly to CSAs, farmers markets, restaurants, or schools, farmers can get higher prices. When the products are value-added ones—such as cheese, ice cream, or marinara sauce—the margins are even more attractive. While it’s still just a needle in conventional, commoditized farming’s chemically sprayed, GMO haystack, local food—just 1.2 percent of total U.S. farm sales—is farming’s wager that it can be a financially viable profession.

It’s not a safe bet. The successful farms follow a tightly woven path of creativity and operational discipline. I am not convinced that Kamise and Derek have the ability to run their ship this tightly. When I ask them how much money they need to sustain the farm and their family, they shrug, appearing not to have sat down and done these calculations. Is there a business plan? Not yet, says Derek.

I wonder how Kamise and Derek, who have no real estate development experience, will be able to pull off the whole town center concept if they’re feeling overwhelmed by just selling vegetables. Because of what they call their “views on the international banking system,” the couple have decided against getting loans with which they could hire staff or buy equipment. They’ve opted instead to stick with volunteer labor, of which they seem to have no shortage of, along with the $10,000 they raised on Kickstarter from people like Joan Seivert. “If you have too much money, you cut corners,” Kamise says. “You spend it with less thought.”

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That strategy didn’t resonate with an upscale farm-to-table restaurant in Denver called the Squeaky Bean that Kamise and Derek had planned to partner with. In return for the Mullens’ vegetables, the restaurant was going to give Everitt its full-time farmer. But they parted ways after it was clear that the Mullens didn’t want to ramp up as quickly as the restaurant needed them to. Also, the Squeaky Bean wanted exotic produce, such as beet shoots and fava beans, with which it could dazzle diners. Kamise and Derek were interested in basics such as broccoli and spinach and cabbage—things, as Derek puts it, that they could “sell to a single mother on food stamps.” Though established as a for-profit company, Everitt Farms’ prices will be a good deal less than those of many farmers markets, some of which have a way of making Whole Foods look like a bargain.

The zoning codes were all about separation. And what we’re finding is, that’s not producing the best places to live.

Travis Parker, planning director, Lakewood, Colo.

The two are determined to build their dream the old-fashioned way—slowly, one piece at a time, not unlike Laura Ingalls’ parents did. It’s a more principled approach than most people are used to—growth and expansion will be an outcome of their efforts, not the goal—and, while refreshing, it could equally be described as showing a naive lack of planning. On the other hand, if creating an alternative way of living turns you into what you’re trying to escape, that would kind of be missing the point.

By relying on low overhead and a small army of eager volunteers, Everitt Farms doesn’t need a ton of revenue to make the business work. Last year Kamise and Derek made $6,500 selling Christmas trees, and they’ll do it again, along with pumpkins this year. “If we’re successful with the farm stand and another Kickstarter campaign, then that could lend itself within two years to building a mixed-use building and an outdoor pavilion. If that’s successful, then two more buildings that we could put a bakery and restaurant into,” says Derek.

Who knows, maybe a foodie MBA whose grandparents were dairy farmers will find them and help them write a business plan. People seem drawn to their sense of purpose and serenity. In addition to the two Mormon missionaries who show up to work in the fields once a week, there is the woman who has taken it upon herself to run the farm stand on Saturdays so the Mullens don’t have to. The daughter of a pig farmer, she often arrives an hour or more before it opens. A former wheat farmer from Montana offered to help them haul a barn from Kansas that they intend to make the cornerstone of their market buildings, and a guy on Craigslist, from whom Derek bought a piece of equipment, offered to throw in a deepwater well pump for free. Kamise’s family also gets involved. Her sister has created brochures and other mailings. Aunt Trudy somehow enjoys weeding.

Grandma Betty, however, remains a bit perplexed. A sturdy, lively woman who helped her now-deceased husband build the house she has lived in since 1950, she doesn’t understand why people would want to buy their vegetables from Everitt when the fully stocked, air-conditioned King Soopers, Whole Foods, and Vitamin Cottage are all just a short drive away. She also doesn’t exactly get why her granddaughter wanted to take up a profession like farming. “It just looks like so much work,” Kamise says she told her.

I was curious about whether Betty felt any temptation to sell the land, now that its value has increased by a factor of seven (adjusting for inflation). When I met with the family one afternoon in the narrow, shady corridor between the two houses, I asked Betty about this. She smirked: “I could finally get my red Mercedes coupe.”

I laughed, and she continued: “I don’t want to leave. I’m going to stay here until they take me away.” Kamise’s mom, Terol, and aunt Trudy seem to be of a similar mind-set. “I think this is the perfect timing for this,” enthused Terol.

Kamise and Derek and their six children squeeze into three rooms in one of the houses. Over the last year and a half, they’ve met with city licensing officials, built an irrigation pond and a chicken/turkey/rabbit coop, re-dug irrigation ditches, cut and sold a thousand bales of hay, turned and planted the first full acre of the farm, and bought a barn.

Fittingly, they have an attraction to vintage modes of farming. Most of their seeds are heirloom—older varieties that many in the local food movement feel are worth preserving. While they are not yet applying for organic certification, they are farming according to organic principles. Last summer, when the hay was harvested, one of the family’s horses pulled the double-wheel hoe, in keeping with Derek’s plan to use as much horse-drawn, petroleum-free machinery as possible.

Weeding is done by hand, as I witnessed when I arrived on the farm late one June morning. Kamise was hunched over in the field, her face streaked with dirt and sweat, the tips of her fingernails jet-black. “It kind of sucks being out here in the middle of the day,” she admitted. In the shade near Betty’s house, her two tween daughters entertained their baby brother with an inflatable beach ball.

Despite the rigors, such pastoral simplicity suits the couple, who would probably move to a cabin the middle of nowhere if they could. “I’d much rather be doing this than sitting in an office somewhere or commuting in traffic,” said Derek. Yet the calculus of expectations around Everitt Farms is far from simple. If successful, their venture will be much more than your average urban or suburban farm.

I was reminded of this on that first farm stand day in May. Around noon, Kamise announced to Derek that she’d finally finished the sign she had spent the last two hours painting. “Can you hang it up?” she asked.

“Where?” said Derek.


Carrying Beathan in his arms, Derek went into the house and emerged with a roll of clear packing tape. He walked toward Alameda Avenue and attached Kamise’s poster board to a sign staked in the ground. It read “Majestic Homes Just Ahead”—an attempt to direct drivers around the corner to a ticky-tacky development of nearly identical “dream” homes that some builder would surely also like to build on Kamise’s family’s land.

Kamise smiled in approval at Derek’s location selection. “It’s perfect,” she said.

Corrections [July 28, 2014]: A previous version of this article quoted Derek Mullen as stating that the farmers’ market at the Belmar development had 10,000 people a week. Also, Betty Shelley was misidentified as Betty Prebble (her maiden name was Preble, with one 'b.’)