I asked Michael O’Malley of MInibelly’s Farm if the controversy and legal wrangling made him regret investing himself and his family in the tomato greenhouses in Black Forest. His answer sticks with me.
“I believe the Lord wanted me to build it, so I built it,” he said, simply.
Maybe faith and the struggle to do something meaningful underlie all of the articles I write for this blog, but it is particularly salient in this one. You see, the two families who run Minibelly’s set out with the excitement and hope typical of entrepreneurs. They wanted to produce organic tomatoes for Colorado Springs and bring us another option for locally grown food. It’s a noble enough goal, but since the county granted their permit, they’ve been under siege by some of its neighbors.
The greenhouse did not provide a clue when I drove past the farm on my way to the interview. I didn’t see it!
I can’t say I know the whole story. You can read a well-written and balanced account on the Right to Thrive blog, but I’m too biased in favor of farming to be truly fair. I can’t blame residents for fearing change around what is often a family’s biggest investment, their home, but I also can’t condone what amounts to harassment. Minibelly’s followed the rules, the county approved their permit and they’ve won every lawsuit; but the group continues to raise money to take them to court yet again.
Rows and rows of tomatoes populate the greenhouse.
I asked Michael what made him want to start this business.
“I really found memories of my grandpa,” he said of his grandfather who had continued to farm in Chicago despite encroaching residential development. “He was in the middle of the city raising ducks and chickens and horses.” He also told me of a desire to share his work with his wife, Nicole, and their children; something that wasn’t possible when he was a military intelligence officer.
Michael and his business partner, Ben Honken, had been working together at Summit Ministries when they discovered a common goal. They wanted to be producers. They wanted to build something and contribute something tangible to our community.
They settled on farming, but the journey towards this goal was a long one. Neither had much experience with agriculture as a business. Michael had been in the Army until 2010 and was able to use the G.I. Bill to complete a Veterans to Farmers program to learn how to farm. They had to find a way to finance the venture and that required a commitment of savings on the part of both families and they took out loans too. Both men were longtime residents of Colorado Springs and they wanted to stay, but as anyone paying attention to agriculture in the Mountain West knows, farming isn’t easy out here. Water rights, soil deficiencies and unpredictable weather make it difficult to start a new farm or keep an established one.
As often happens in our modern world, technology offered assistance. Ben and Michael discovered controlled agricultural greenhouses. A greenhouse hydroponic system allows the farmer to control some of the growing conditions. It uses less than a third of the water of traditional farming, nothing to sneeze at in a region where the seniority of your water rights can be the difference between growing food or a fallow field.
They decided to pursue it. It would require intensive education in both agriculture and law, but would likely provide a more stable living for their families.
Families? Make no mistake, this is a story about two families, not just two entrepreneurs. Each family lives in its own house on the farm’s property where Nicole O’Malley and Lydia Honken homeschool their respective children. Those nine children have as much to lose as the adults.
“We’ve invested everything we have into making this successful,” Michael said of the partner families.
Today, the greenhouse is a reality. I joined a tour and we walked around inside, breathing the humidified air and inspecting the soil-less plants. I was surprised to feel a light rain during a discussion of pollination. Michael explained that the humidification system detects when the air is too dry and adds moisture by “raining”. Later, we heard a humming sound and panels at the top separated, making a long window. The sun heats the space through the panels, like all greenhouses, but opens up when it gets too hot.
I was also surprised to see bees! They pollinate the plants, just like they do outside.
The first crop of tomatoes is growing nicely and soon Minibelly’s tomatoes will be available at local grocery stores. You can also buy them through Hunt or Gather’s Buying Club. Minibelly’s offers tours of the greenhouse, but you must contact them to schedule one. Like all farmers, they are very, very busy.
Minibelly’s keeps a few chickens, but they are not allowed in the greenhouse.
I wish this didn’t have to be an article about local politics. I’d rather have spent more words on the amazing technology or the way these families strengthen their relationships through shared work, but the attempts to put them out of business overwhelmed all of this. If you’d like to help out, visit Minibelly’s GoFundMe site. You can help by writing letters of support, donating to the fund or sharing the campaign site.
“I believe the Lord wanted me to build it, so I built it,” Michael said, an expression of faith in the face of adversity and impending disaster that I find to be stunning, beautiful and inspiring. If we want local food, we need local farms. If we want farmers to invest in our community, we need to support their right to grow unmolested. If we want small businesses in our world, we need to buy from them.
If we don’t want to see farms disappearing, like Michael’s grandfather’s farm did after his death, we need to stand up for the ones we have.
©Hungry Chicken Homestead 2015
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