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Posted: July 01, 2009

Small biz: Backyard experiment has a business purpose

Using a “This Old House” format, this project introduces local entrepreneurs and craftsmen with specialties for solving the problem at hand.

Mike Taylor

Credit – or blame – for the experiment taking shape behind my house goes to a guy named Manny Howard, a freelance writer who set out to subsist for a month on what he could grow himself in his Brooklyn, N.Y., backyard.

Howard’s attempt was only marginally successful: complicated by a tornado, halted for a few days by a stomach bug and compromised by a non-backyard dinner on his birthday. But his account of it in New York magazine in 2007 was hilarious and inspiring, and when the story found its way to me last year, I suppose the seed was planted.

Sometime in the last year I decided I was going to try it, too: live for one month entirely off what I could grow in my Denver backyard. Nutritionally off the grid. Or, as Howard put it: to not only narrow the gap between where my food is produced and where it’s consumed, but erase that gap entirely.

Sure, it would be hard, I thought, but it’s only for a month. Heck, Scott O’Grady, the downed Air Force pilot, lived on nothing but rainwater and bugs for six days.

So I’ve been at it since late winter, growing spinach, squash and pea seedlings in plastic trays with ultraviolet lights, hauling compost-soil mix from Pioneer Sand Co. in my 1984 Nissan/Datsun pickup, building a chicken coop for four hens that haven’t started laying yet, erecting a fence around the garden to keep out squirrels, rabbits and dogs, picking up pointers on growing potatoes from the nursery down the street.

It’s apparent now, mid-June and no crops other than a few peas and some spinach even close to harvestable, that September would have been a better  “execution” month. But I already had plans to meet friends in the barbecue mecca of Memphis in early September, so by default August became the month of reckoning.

I don’t expect this to prove anything. Before World War II thousands of American households were self-sustaining, or close to it. Thousands probably still are but don’t see anything noteworthy about it. I would just like to know how hard it would be to feed myself for a month. I suspect I’ll appreciate farmers more when the experiment is over, if nothing else.

There is a business-journalism purpose to it, too. My plan, as I’ve begun to chronicle this experiment at cobizmag.com in blogs and videos, is to borrow from TV’s “This Old House” format where in the course of renovating a house, Norm and Steve tackle various challenges by introducing local entrepreneurs and craftsmen with specialties for solving the problem at hand.

It was in this context that I arranged an interview with the principals of Colorado Pure Distilling, makers of custom-label vodka. While I’d been blogging about what I was going to eat for a month, privately I was nagged by another question: What am I going to DRINK?

Beer was out. Not enough time (or know-how) to grow hops and barley, let alone time for fermenting. Wine, same story.

On the other hand, potato vodka, with a distilling time as short as five days, seemed like a possibility. I had hoped to get some do-it-yourself pointers from Colorado Pure Distilling principals Pat Karns and Rob Masters, who make custom-label vodka from Colorado sugar beets and Nebraska corn for restaurants, country clubs and other high-end clients around the country.

They gave me a great tour of the place, but they also, in describing the distilling process, pointed out by-products like acetone and methanol that need to be separated out – preferably by someone who knows what he’s doing.

Besides that, Karns said, distilling spirits at home is illegal.

So Karns and Masters weren’t much help. But the opportunity to report on an intriguing local business like theirs was exactly what I hoped this backyard-subsistence project could yield. I plan to consult with more businesses and post updates at cobizmag.com.

Friends have also weighed in with advice, like the other day when I was telling an avid-outdoorsman friend of my concern about the likely blandness of my diet in August.

“Well, you know appetite is the best seasoning,” he said. I figured he came up with that on one of his camping trips. Turns out it’s from Socrates. That’s OK.  I’ll take advice from anybody.

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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