Chef Chris Starkus of Urban Farmer Denver leads the restaurant industry by example in more ways than one. While the restaurant has a number of sustainable practices in place, Starkus is reinventing what it means to be an urban farmer at Lost Creek Micro-farm — a fourth acre plot on his own side yard — in Lakewood. The micro-farm has plans to partner with the city to accept SNAP food stamps this year and will be offering local produce not only for use on the menu at Urban Farmer Denver but for the benefit of the neighborhood community.
“We started the farm with the intention of feeding the family. It developed into a kind of lemonade stand last year for the kids to sell and trade with the neighbors. This year we plan to bring more to the restaurant and eventually open a farm stand,” said Starkus
Lost Creek Microfarm is manned by Starkus, his wife and his two kids. The farm is currently in its second seasonal year of operation and is sprouting a more diverse crop than one might see on a commercial-sized farm up north.
The farm has taken on crops that grow and thrive in the mile-high environment. The soil is currently sprouting carrots, beans (cannellini and soy), cucumbers, tomatoes, edible flowers, pumpkins, and a range of peppers. Amongst some of the abnormal things popping up around the property are luffa plants, sunflowers and even snow leopard melons. It is perfectly reasonable to expect any of these items to appear on the menu at Urban Farmer Denver — except for the luffa’s of course, those will be going directly to the Oxford Hotel for use in the spa.
The property also has a micro-sized greenhouse which is looped into a drip system that waters the entire property from an on-site well. The greenhouse is sprouting dill, mint, basil and even mango trees. This is Colorado greenery grown on Denver well water and mile high sunshine.
Starkus was also able to shed some light on foraging in the Denver area. We followed him to a field near the micro-farm to search for edible wildflowers. and stumbled on bachelor buttons. These purple edible wildflowers have a very mild bitter taste but make a beautiful addition to any dish. You can see these flowers used for the spring menu at Urban Farmer on the foie gras ($20) dish and the halibut ($34) dish. According to Starkus, mushroom foraging in the Rockies is coming to an end, but one can forage for edible flowers well into October in this climate.
“Just move slow, like tai chi and they won’t really mind you,” said Starkus as he pulls frames of soon-to-be comb from his Lost Creek hive. Starkus will achieve Journeyman beekeeper status this year and is working his way towards a goal of becoming a Master Beekeeper by 2020. In order to become a Journeyman level beekeeper, one must have held a certification for a year with two years total of beekeeping experience. To reach the master certification, a journeyman must hold bees for a total of three years, participate in beeswax and honey competitions. A master level beekeeper is also proficient in things like rearing a queen bee and treating bee and insect allergic reactions amongst a long list of other qualifications depending on the state you file for certification in.
The bees on the property at Lost Creek Micro-farm were caught as part of a wild swarm this year and the colony has already begun cranking out wax and honey for the season. To catch a wild swarm Starkus plants bee attractants around the property. Greens such as borage, basil, sunflowers, and Tansies act as bee bait and help to attract a swarm to the property and keep them there. Starkus also keeps bees on the roof of Urban Farmer which he uses and displays in the restaurant for customers to taste and examine comb.
Starkus plans to use the bees at Lost Creek to make dog paw balm, chapstick, and even a yogurt honey face mask. Although pricing is not yet available, these items are all expected to be sold and/or traded at the farm stand over the summer.
Lost Creek is also home to its own chicken coops and will offer eggs for patrons at the farm stand when it opens for operation next month. Starkus has taken the opportunity to grow several different heritage breeds of chicken on the property including Rhode Island Reds, Black Australorps and Ameraucanas. Each laying hen produces about one egg a day — at a total of eight birds on the property the farm is cranking out somewhere around 56 eggs each week — with plans to bring in another set of eight hens over the summer.
The hens at Lost Creek are fed a truly Colorado diet, which is just another element of this farm in accordance with the sustainable practices put in place throughout the property. A partnership with Epic brewing allows Starkus to feed his flock Epic Brewing grains which have them eating healthy and living large. Being that the hens come from different heritage backgrounds so the eggs laid are adorned with different speckle patterns and come in different colors and sizes. Each egg that comes out of the coop here is 100 percent unique, hormone-free and raised on Colorado grain.
Keep an eye out for Lost Creek Micro-farms produce on the menu at Urban Farmer Denver, but also keep an ear out to find out when chef plans to open his farm stand for the summer. Starkus is leading the restaurant industry by example and represents sustainable dining practices at his restaurant, in the kitchen and remarkably at his home.
To find out more about Starkus and Lost Creek Micro-farm follow on Instagram here.
All Photography by Emma Pion-Berlin