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Cultivating Wild: The Miracle of Dharma’s Garden!

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Planting the Foundation Tree, centerpiece of hope for future generations. Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden

Through the efforts of the whole community, Dharma’s Garden in Boulder, Colorado, has achieved the impossible: a magical two-hectare parcel of land—a living homestead in the city—is now owned by their nonprofit! Raising the funds to purchase this homestead often seemed like an impossible task. But for almost two years, farmers Tim and Kerry Francis and their neighboring community of more than 600 families just went for it, and now the miracle has happened. After seven years of stewarding the land and two years of fundraising, Dharma’s Garden recently reached their goal of US$4.5 million pledged from community members toward the nonprofit’s purchase of this land. As they expressed it, everyone who contributed was a little piece of the miracle. In addition to the funds raised, a whole team of people has supported this dream: conservation specialists, real estate professionals, seasoned farmers, financial advisors, business consultants, legal experts, the board of directors of the nonprofit, and volunteers of all kinds. Many people continue to give their time, energy, and knowledge to help this endeavor succeed. Just closing on the purchase of this property has been a huge milestone, enabling Dharma’s Garden to continue to model a living homestead while serving the surrounding community. Next they must raise a further US$2 million to pay back the portion of the funding that was received in the form of loans.

A young sponsor’s US$5.02 deposit was the first made toward the land
purchase. This young homesteader decided on his own to invest the
entire contents of his piggy bank in his future.
Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden

I spoke with farmers Tim and Kerry for an insight into this major achievement.

A community working together makes the impossible possible 

Buddhistdoor Global: I’m sure you both feel relieved to have reached this momentous milestone?

Tim Francis: Yes, very relieved. There was a real risk of the land being sold to a developer, which is exactly what is happening all over Boulder, on a massive scale and at an accelerating pace. Honestly, it was something of a miracle that the property held out on the open market for as long as it did—the community has had a lot to do with that. It took us nearly two years to raise the full amount of money that we needed. But along the way, the enthusiasm that people in our community showed for saving this place was really amazing. In the end, it seemed to all come together so quickly, but behind the scenes it took thousands of hours of work over years by some incredibly dedicated people to set the groundwork for this to happen. Honestly, to many of us it seemed like an impossibility, but we also felt like we had to at least give it our best shot. Kerry said something the other day that I think was spot on: when the community comes together, the impossible becomes possible.

BDG: This web of interconnected people shows the power of collective merit—not only their money, time, and energy, but also their hopes and wishes brought this into being. 

Kerry Francis: The key was that we didn’t ask for money up front. We asked for pledges so that no one had to come through until this moment. No one had to give any money until the full funding goal was met. When people didn’t even totally believe this could happen, they could still imagine and envision it, feel inspired by it, and they could promise to give if and only if all the pledges together equaled the total funding goal. No one wants to be the first person to give because it seems merely theoretical. No one wants to do it unless they know it’s going to happen. And now, as it all came together, everyone has been truly inspired by the fact that it has happened! On the energetic, communal-dreaming level, people got to be inspired and then happily surprised.

Kerry and Tim Francis, and farm dogs. Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden

A two-part story

This inspiring story of a community joining together to make the impossible possible means that this parcel of land now has a meaningful chance of being preserved in perpetuity, not as personal property but as a nonprofit-owned model of living in true relationship with land. The second aspect of the story is that it is not yet over: part of the funds raised are in the form of loans and the nonprofit now has to raise almost US$2 million to pay back these loans. 

TF: We are continuing our fundraising campaign in order to permanently protect this place. The fact that we got it off the market is the first real achievement. And we did so mostly through charitable gifts to the nonprofit, but also through loans. To be clear, I don’t think this in any way dampens the excitement for what the community has achieved, because the nonprofit was willing to take on the entire amount as loans, if needed. We felt that the primary concern was to get the land off the market to buy ourselves the time to continue fundraising, without the looming threat of losing the place. So we developed an impact investment option that works like a green-bond, through low-interest loans from individuals. We had a handful of families sign on to help us in this way, and many of them having already donated generously as well. We are thrilled that we have kept the total amount of these loans under US$2 million, which was our internal goal.

Phase one was raising enough money to get the land off the market. Now phase two is raising enough for the nonprofit to pay off the loans and to place a conservation easement on the land and protect it permanently. We still have a way to go, but it’s all really achievable. We just need to keep spreading the word and bring in more interested families to join this collective effort. What we are doing together is really inspiring and we want people to know that there is still the opportunity to join us!

BDG: Those of you that live here on the farm, those in the local neighborhood, those who participate in the onsite market, and the schools nearby, all are affected by this miracle purchase. This is also a model for everyone trying to do something similar. This project, although only five acres [two hectares], radiates out to larger and larger spheres of influence and affects the local economy, the environment, and energetic systems. People all over the globe who wish to do this kind of project can gain confidence from your experience. And now this accomplishment can draw support and interaction from many more families.

KF: Many names on the pledge list are people we don’t even know. They just learned about our project through word of mouth. Many others increased their pledges when they heard that the sale was going through. This really speaks to the endeavor being a model people can replicate with their own local flavor. No one on this project could have done this alone; the success required everyone giving what they were inspired to give, and together we achieved something amazing. Everyone who helped in some way and who contributed, even US$5, now feels like they participated in a tremendous and beneficial community endeavor.

Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden

BDG: I have only visited Dharma’s Garden twice and the experience still echoes in my body. When Im in my apartment, I can remember walking the wild fields and the garden paths, hearing the ducks, and knowing that I’m contributing to something very meaningful for the planet and the local community. 

KF: We have plans to put a community center on a corner of the property so that we can expand and enhance the educational components that we offer. We also plan to add a conservation easement to protect the wildlife corridor. Our vision is one of doing our best to model ethical stewardship. With the nonprofit’s purchase of the property, we took this land out of the extractive real-estate market. This is a radical act in our modern culture, to hold this land in perpetuity through a nonprofit so that no one person owns the property. This way, the land can remain a haven of wonder and a model of living in right relationship with the land for generations come.

Stewardship versus dominion

TF: A term that often gets used in reference to this place is a homestead in the city. It’s the idea of living on the land and tending that land in a way that sustains the beings who live here and also nourishes the surrounding community. It’s an attempt to model at the local level what we believe humanity has the opportunity and responsibility to do at a global level. Unfortunately, that’s a radical idea at the moment, although it shouldn’t be. We believe that the best way to achieve this vision is for a nonprofit organization to own the land. That way, we are not relying on one private owner—or even a group of people as a collective—to do the right thing and stay true to the vision. Instead, there is an organizational framework to uphold those values that we hope will last for many generations to come. As Kerry said, we’re intentionally taking this land out of an extractive real estate market. 

BDG: So you’ve essentially raised millions of dollars in order to give something up rather than own it?

TF: Yes, our nonprofit has purchased this land not to possess a resource, nor to own an asset of monetary value. Instead, we have taken the first step toward freeing the land from being captive to the market. What is being expressed, through the nonprofit’s purchase of this property, is a recognition of the land’s inherent value. We are saying that we believe it is right for this land to never be bought or sold again. All this points to a glaring need: we, as a global human society, need to reimagine our ideas of ownership of this Earth—its lands, its resources, and all the living beings that co-inhabit this world with us. There is a way of viewing land as sacred and infused with spirit, worthy of our reverence and respect, and deserving of our gratitude and loving care. It’s a view common to indigenous people around the world, each in their own unique way. And I believe it’s a view that each and every one of us can find in our ancestral memory—we can remember a right relationship with the land.

Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden

BDG: You’re clearly continuously asking yourselves how to engage with this relationship in the best way possible. 

KF: It became something very visceral from renting here and living here over the last seven years. We love the land and we love the creatures who live here and pass through the land. And we love the colors and the light, the movement and the seasons. Through our love of living in relationship with all of this, we felt that we needed to preserve this land. But we could see the trajectory of what was coming: that someone would buy this property for their own pleasure and wall it off from the community. That’s why we’ve worked so hard.

BDG: It seems that the love of tending this land is mutual. It’s not only that the two of you are tending to everything but I sense that the land, the animals, the insects, the plants, and the seasons are also nurturing you all the time?

KF: If it weren’t for the land loving us back, we could not have worked this hard without becoming sick or injured. There has been a mutual exchange of nourishment! We have been nourished and benefited in deep ways from this land on a soul and a heart level, as well as emotional and physical levels. We might have moved on by now, except that we noticed other people were being loved and nourished by the land and by the experience of relating with the land. People were moved to tears when they thought Dharma’s Garden might be gone one day soon. One neighbor said: “If we lose this place, it will be like a little light will go out inside each one of us.” A lot of people felt that way. It’s been a radical act of hope to believe that this could happen, that we could actually maintain and steward this land. And the fear that it could be taken away was very motivating. Now that this land has been purchased by our community nonprofit, people feel the deep sense of hope that this achievement brings with it.

Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden

A symbiotic love of the land

BDG: How do you envision the trajectory of this homestead over the course of your lifetime? 

KF: We felt when we came here it was almost as if we were enchanted by this land, and were acting on its behalf. We gave very little thought to our own personal future. People used to say we should have a backup plan, yet we decided no, this is our mission and our plan. Personally, we can go somewhere else if this doesn’t work out, but our mission is to preserve this land for future generations. So we have been very focused. In fact, we’ve never been so goal-oriented and focused as we have these past seven years! Even with this plan, we never really thought about our own future. This project will outlive us because we want it to be here forever. It feels vital that someone should live here and steward the land—not just drive in from elsewhere to work the land. To be here and live on the land, not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of all. This requires living, eating, sleeping, and breathing on the land through all seasons. In this way, you come to know the land in a much deeper, relational way.

We’re working on embedding how the land is stewarded into the nonprofit charter. We imagine ourselves here for at least as long as it takes to see the loans paid back and to have everything set in place for the foundation of this homestead to endure. 

Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden

Concentric spheres of impact

TF: I’ve been thinking lately that even without the surrounding community who benefit so much from this place, this would be a worthwhile endeavor. If only a single family lived here and tended the land, holding and protecting it in permanent stewardship, never to be bought or sold again, that would be enough. But considering there is also a community of people all around, and thousands of families living nearby, considering all the beautiful ways this place adds meaning and value to these lives is an incredible bonus. Imagining people from much further away coming here and being inspired, then returning to their own communities to enact change and start similar endeavors, that’s an even greater bonus. These ripples of impact, concentric circles emanating outward, are ripe with the possibility of transformative, positive influence. That’s the grand vision that really inspires me: that this one project could go on to inspire other similar projects and spawn a movement. Although being here and tending the land is enough for us. We are committed to seeing this through to the point that it is self-sustaining for the long term, and that another land steward can step in and take the reins from Kerry and me.

BDG: And would you then retire?

TF: Well, not exactly. We don’t really know how long we will be here, and I’m sure we will still want to do our work in the world after this place. I guess I don’t believe in retirement, in the typical sense. I think we should always be engaged in meaningful work for the entirety of our lives. We would love to travel, to learn from other farms and homestead projects, and share our knowledge and experience in service to them.

BDG: What I experience from this land is what it really means to be human: tuning back into ancestral ways—wherever our people came from. Tending animals, tending land, hunting, gathering, cultivating trees. Keeping forest gardens, making hospitable environments for birds and bees. Raising children as a village and living in symbiosis.

KF: This has been a fascinating education for us. We realize that around the globe, people have always worked in this way and now many people are returning to these ways, even in small projects, out of necessity and out of love.

Image courtesy of Dharma’s Garden                   

Growing future dreams

BDG: What do you see as a strong need to make this possible for others?

TF and KF: For more projects of true community homesteading to come to fruition, we need reservoirs of funding that could support others to do the same: to dream big and to realize those dreams. Bridge loans are vital for conservation efforts like this. Banks, credit unions, conservation agencies, we could not persuade any of these agencies to lend us the necessary funds at the time we needed them. How can other projects purchase and protect land without this kind of support? Who can be the bridge organizations for similar small projects within neighborhoods and cities?

Parting thoughts

Wild land can be conserved to be left untouched. But land can also be held in a way where some intelligent development can occur—in modest and sustainable ways—to include the co-habitation of all local species. There is no longer any land that is completely untouched by human impact. One silver lining from the catastrophic climate destabilization is our increased awareness of how deeply we impact land, ecosystems, and creatures. Therefore, let us steward the natural environment in responsible, responsive ways. In a true union of the wild and the cultivated, we recognize the value of each. We humans are likewise both wild and cultivated. Neither can be denied, yet both can live in harmony if we are caring, sensible caretakers.

For Dharma’s Garden, it is the children, the future generations, that are the reason for this project and the energy behind it: not only future generations of human children, but plants, bees, birds, wildlife, farm animals, and the interconnected web of life woven in between. At the celebration for the homestead purchase, the whole community came together to bless all aspects of the land, including planting a symbolic Foundation Tree, a Burr oak, which can live for hundreds of years. One child wrote on the wishing note during the tree-planting ceremony, “Dear Land, I love you.” This message says it all.

See more

Dharma’s Garden

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