Archive for the ‘growing greens’ Category

Foodie Focus: Mickey Murch & Gospel Flat Farm

December 14, 2009

Photo: courtesy of Sarah Warnock

It’s a great time to be a farmer. So says Mickey Murch, who tends his family’s farm in beautiful Bolinas, an eclectic coastal enclave in West Marin, California.

He hasn’t always felt this way. Mickey grew up running bare foot through fields but he didn’t want to dig dirt to make his way in the world. He’d seen how demanding a farmer’s life could be at close hand. So he left the life of the land for Reed College in Oregon to study art.  Perhaps not surprisingly, though, his art was informed by his life, which centers on food, family, farming, and the natural environment. He splashed paint on work boots and wheel barrows and threw popular beer-brewing and pizza-baking parties outdoors.

For his senior thesis he lived rough for a year as part of a one-man sustainability show exploring whether a student could survive on a college campus growing, making, finding, recycling, or bartering the basic necessities of life.  He camped out in a handmade rolling caravan, stitched his own shoes out of leather straps and worn tire treads, and preserved produce, beer, beans, cider, and salmon in mason jars that he used to create an indoor installation that included a film documenting his experience.

As a part of his artistic edible evolution Mickey began to realize that his creative self was so thoroughly entwined with his farm-boy background that he made his way back to the land. In Bolinas he built himself a pod to live in so he could commune with the wild world, and designed what illustrator/blogger Maira Kalman, calls his cockamamie contraption — a mobile kitchen from which he spreads the good word about eating local, organic food fresh from his family’s Gospel Flat Farm. The 10-acre organic farm is named for the four churches that once stood in the spot that now boasts a booming mid-sized row crop and modest animal farm.

When he started working alongside his dad, who had run the farm with his wife since 1982, Mickey made typical first-time farmer mistakes. It took time to figure out what produce to grow and where, as he got to know intimately the climatic conditions he inherited. Even something as simple as watering crops has a learning curve. “A new farmer will look at the surface soil and see that it’s dry but a seasoned grower will kick down the soil a few inches to check for moisture,” says Mickey.

He didn’t have a clue about how to sell what he grew. He tried delivering boxes of produce or inviting people to the farm to pick their own, but neither felt quite right. Almost as an afterthought, he began putting excess produce out by the side of the road. That proved the inspiration for the Farm Stand. The unattended stand works on the honor system; customers weigh and pay without oversight (the locked money box is emptied regularly.)

Now in its third year, the Farm Stand has grown so popular that the farm sells most of its produce there. Locals, travelers, and tourists purchase seasonal crops such as greens, flowers, beans, and beets at any time of day or night. Mickey’s favorite question from folks who stop by: “What do you do with this?” And he enjoys not having to haggle with wholesalers over the price or appearance of his produce: “You can accomplish so much when you don’t have to peddle your wares.”

Photo: Sarah Henry

Mickey, 24, hasn’t abandoned his artistic pursuits; at a recent open studios he presented an edible landscape installation. And an art studio behind the Farm Stand is slated to become a space for groups to meet and merge the world of art, food, and farming. He’s also keen to pass on his love of the land to novice farmers, through an apprenticeship program, and young children, in afterschool and summer camp classes and school tours. He’ll fire up the outside oven, he says, and ask the kids what they want to cook. Sometimes they bake bread or make chard-filled raviolis from scratch with eggs and produce collected from the farm. He also wheels his mobile kitchen (formerly a boat) into downtown Bolinas for community canning or cooking demos. Here’s what it looks like:

Flickr photo by Michael Korcuska courtesy Creative Commons license.

The farm remains a family affair. Mickey’s older brother, Kater, a physicist now living in Berkeley, runs the clan’s winery. His mother, Sarah Hake, is a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; she picks up starts and seeds for the farm from work. (Local note: That corn crop growing in Albany as you enter town? That’s Mickey’s mum’s doing.) She also planted a community vegetable patch next to her workplace. Mickey’s grandmother, artist Carol Hake, paints portraits of farm stand produce and brings persimmons from her Los Altos Hills home to add to the bounty for sale. Dad Don runs a local land-clearing, tractor-based business and provides oversight for the entire farm operation. And cousin Sam works alongside Mickey, planting, picking, and maintaining the crops and livestock.

Mickey, who lives on the property (in a building now), with wife Bronwen and their baby, has plans for expanding the farm. He’d like to cultivate more orchard crops and raise more livestock animals. But as he cleans and cuts brussels sprouts one recent cold morning it’s clear from the enthusiasm and earnestness that this young grower brings to his way of life that it is, indeed, a good time to be a farmer.

The Gospel Flat Farm Stand is located just before the plant nursery and stop sign on the Olema/Bolinas Road in Bolinas.

Grow Your Own Row

December 2, 2009

Meet my friends Leigh Raiford and Michael Cohen, typical nomadic academics who put down roots in Berkeley six years ago with their children Maya and Maceo. (Maya is in the same class as my son.)

These two transplants passed on their recipe for roasted kale and inspired me to start my own little backyard raised veg bed last summer.

I bet their story will get you excited about planting your own food too, whether or not you’re a budding urban farmer or suburban gardener.

What, a post on growing a row in December? Hey, we live in the balmy Bay Area. We pulled up the last of the tomato plants on Saturday, went to the beach on Sunday (glorious day, no fog, I swear), and picked up sweet strawberries from the farmers’ market today.

We’ve had a typically warm fall, but no need for folks in other parts of the country to turn green with envy; the relentless sunshine (honestly, it can be exhausting ensuring you enjoy the good weather all the time) will likely end soon. Indeed, rain is expected this weekend and that stuff makes us Left Coasters go running for cover.

Regardless, whether you’re keen to put in a winter crop or live somewhere where seed catalogs are the only thing sprouting until spring, these folks have learned a thing or two about growing their own grub and they’re willing to share the wealth.

When the Raiford-Cohen clan first moved out West they rented a home in North Berkeley with a massive backyard garden that was chock full of every kind of produce under the sun. “It wasn’t a vegetable garden, ” says Leigh, who grew up in Harlem, and had never seen the likes of figs, tomatillos, or white raspberries before. “It was a farm.”

The couple had dabbled in gardening at previous university pit stops around the country but once they landed in California they decided to get serious about growing greens.

When they bought a home of their own two years ago in sunny South Berkeley, a large concrete area out back begged to be torn up and turned into an edible oasis. So that’s just what they did. Michael dug out concrete, put up fences, and amended soil.  They solicited the help of professional gardening friend Andrea Hurd, who was keen to design a permaculture food forest but hadn’t yet convinced any clients to let her loose in their backyard. Leigh and Michael had no such reservations.

The result? More of an overgrown playground filled with edible finds and less of a traditional vegetable patch of tidy rows. Just my kind of food garden: A recent tour reveals enough pumpkins to carve for Halloween and plenty left over to make soup at Thanksgiving. We pick the last of the green zebra tomatoes; the kids promptly devour them. Snipped sprigs of lemon verbena will find their way into simple syrup for cocktail hour. We spot the first of the purple grapes, enthusiastically sampled.

Last summer the family harvested vegetables from their plot for every meal; fresh fruits for breakfast and veggies for lunch and dinner. Michael makes batches of tomato sauce that he freezes to preserve the surplus summer crop for the winter months, in a nod to urban homesteading. Leigh, who considers herself the primary harvester to Michael’s farmer, says her kids chow down on kale, collards, okra, and other homegrown veggies. (She’s also the family food photographer; the garden harvest images in this post are her own.)

Their advice for budding food gardeners:

Grow what you like to eat. The family tried to grow broccoli without much success; since Leigh’s not a huge fan of this cruciferous veggie, they moved on to other greens.

Stagger plantings & choose different tree types so everything doesn’t ripen at once. They chose two apple varieties that are ready to pick at either end of the season.

Pick up tips on companion planting. For instance, plant thyme next to cabbage, nasturtiums near pumpkins, or marigolds and basil by tomatoes to protect crops from pests.

Plant varieties you can’t easily (and more cheaply) find at the farmers’ market or grocery store. The couple skipped common apple choices like fuji and granny smith in favor of sierra beauty and carolina red june trees of antiquity. Check seed catalogs for heirloom varieties. The Lemon Lady provides a list of free seed catalogs.

Look for resources in your community. Here’s just a sampling of what’s on offer locally: Berkeley residents can pick up free compost courtesy of the city on the last Friday of every month from February-October, buy soil and soil amendments at American Soil, and get advice, plants, and seedlings at the Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project. San Francisco dwellers can learn about growing food in classes and demos at Garden for the Environment. Low-income residents in West Oakland can get help tending their own backyard vegetable plot by contacting City Slicker Farms. And folks can also sign up for the uber-popular classes in gardening, beekeeping and more at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland or BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley.

Don’t have anywhere to plant where you live? Click here to read about how one Oakland gardener traded labor for land and fed two families in the process. Find other ways to outsource establishing your own food plot in the East Bay in this recent Diablo magazine story. And if you’re already growing your own, find tips to get more food from your garden this winter or next spring in this Oregonian article.

I learned this summer just how satisfying it is to go out the back door and pick your dinner (or at least some of it). So I’m thinking it’s time to get some dinosaur kale (natch), collards, and fava beans in the ground.

How about you?

Food photos: Leigh Raiford

Family photo: Sarah Henry

The Lemon Lady: Feeding the Hungry, One Bag of Produce at a Time

October 22, 2009

The Lemon Lady needs a new nickname, methinks.

Anna Chan, 37, has outgrown the title, which doesn’t begin to describe the difference this anti-hunger activist has made in less than a year in her one-woman campaign to get fresh produce into the mouths of people in need in her community.

This stay-at-home mom from Clayton, in Contra Costa County, has (almost) single-handedly harvested, by her own estimates, 12,000 pounds of local produce from neighbors’ front yards. She’s also collected more than $60,000 surplus fruit and veg from local farmers’ markets, which she hauls in the back of her SUV to food pantries in her area. And she’s donated hundreds of seedlings and helped plant veggie gardens in her county in the hope that she can inspire others to grow their own row — and feed their families whole food.

In September I spent several hours watching Anna in action. We met at one of her many pet projects, a modest but thriving veggie patch in a low-income neighborhood of Concord. (Anna got involved with the garden after being approached by Kathy Gleason,  corporate donations coordinator for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, who sewed the seeds for this edible effort on her own time by getting to know the neigborhood and seeking out other volunteers.)

Out of one of the apartments popped a proud mom who gave me a spontaneous tour of the garden before Anna even pulled up. Begun with seedlings tended and donated by The Lemon Lady, the summer bounty included tomato, eggplant, pepper, and squash. When Anna arrived, the three of us chatted about the challenges of raising corn and the ease of growing Asian greens such as mizuna. We were just three moms, one Japanese, one American, one Australian, talking about the joys of making tomato sauce from scratch with homegrown produce to feed our hungry kids.

anna.chan.lemon.lady.2Before we left, Anna gave the grateful woman a seed catalog, with the promise of more seeds to come for a fall crop. Next stop: The lively Concord Farmers’ Market, where Anna distributes cardboard boxes and chats with vendors when they’re not serving customers. Farmers such as the pear purveyors from Alhambra Valley Farms and the Bautista Ranch veggie peddlers willingly pack up leftover produce for her to cart away at the end of the market to take to local food pantries, including the Salvation Army, SHARE Pantry, and Monument Crisis Center.

While the market was in full swing, I sat down with Anna to get a sense of what drives this former office manager to spend hundreds of hours volunteering for the greater good, one piece of produce at a time.

Reading between the lines, I suspect that a challenging childhood, made a little less rough by the kindness of strangers and community volunteers much like herself, serves as a constant reminder of the importance of giving back.  That’s not some pat charitable phrase for this petite and pretty woman; she knows what it’s like to encounter tough times and deal with health concerns. Now, blessed with a thriving toddler, a supportive dentist husband, and a happy home life, she wants to help others less fortunate than herself. Plus, the gal has a big heart, a passion for nutritious home cooking, and energy that doesn’t quit. (Typically she does a farmers’ market surplus run four days a week.)

Anna’s efforts add a public service spin on the au courant activity known as fruit foraging. She combines two old-fashioned concepts: gleaning and doing good, and in a time of great need (one local food pantry recently closed for a day; demand is so high it ran out of food) she simply cannot stand to see perfectly good produce go to waste.

Not surprisingly, those she comes in contact with sing her praises. “She’s a local gem,” says Jessie Neu, the director of the Contra Costa Certified Farmers’ Market. “She’s a life saver,” says one food-distribution volunteer from a local food bank. The California Garden Clubs recently honored Anna for her community service and her efforts to promote growing greens and getting fresh, nutritious food to hungry people.

And it all began way back in February, when this suburban mom was simply trying to find a way to soothe her colicky child to sleep. Anna resorted to driving her fussy, nap-fighting toddler, so Ava would drift off to the Land of Nod. (Oh, boy, do I remember those car rides from my own sleep-resistant son’s early days.)

As Anna tooled around her neighborhood she saw trees laden with luscious lemons ready to drop and rot. Where others saw potentially fallen fruit, Anna saw good food needing a way to get to the hungry.

So she worked up the courage to knock on strangers’ doors to ask homeowners if she could collect their excess fruit for local food pantries. And she left fliers letting her neighbors know that she’d noticed their bounty and wondered if they’d be willing to share their surplus by leaving a bag or two for food bank donations, or allow her to pick their extra produce. The response? Overwhelmingly positive. People have happily donated lemons, as well as oranges, apricots, plums, peaches, tomatoes, beans, and zucchini.

Anna’s on a mission to spread the word that many food banks gladly take fresh produce. “Many people don’t know where their local food pantry is located and don’t realize that food banks will gladly take fresh produce,” says Anna. A lot of people, she points out, incorrectly assume that only canned goods or government surplus food is acceptable in such places. Not so.  (Check out a revealing New York Times Magazine article for the back story on why food banks are now accepting more fruit and veg in the recent Food Issue.)

To learn more about The Lemon Lady, visit her blog, where she champions the work of food banks and farmers, shares the joy of growing food with her daughter, and encourages others to follow her example in their own communities.

Check out one of her favorite baking recipes: lemon bars, of course.

And if you have an idea for a more fitting moniker for this food advocate, please share it below.

Images courtesy of The Lemon Lady blog.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

September 18, 2009

riverdog.farm.farmerPhoto of farmer Ramon Mojica taken by Brian Lee, courtesy of Riverdog Farm

Finally, a government policy I can dig. And based on such a simple premise: Know where your food comes from and who produces it.

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, a new federal initiative which culminated in Michelle Obama shopping for greens at a farmers’ market right outside the White House yesterday. (Critics sniff that there are already three farmers’ markets within walking distance of the Obamas.)

It’s easy to be skeptical. The U.S.D.A. supporting small farmers, sustainable practices, and local food? The same agency that has traditionally backed Big Ag? But the folks behind the government’s campaign say it is intended to inspire a national conversation on where food comes from and how it ends up on the plate. Bring it on.

An integral part of the initiative is a farm-school program that would make it easier for schools to use federal funding to buy fresh fruit and veg from local farms.  The agency even has its own farm-to-school tactical teams, set up to scope out school cafeterias and find ways to get more local food into students’ mouths, according to an announcement this week by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

alhambra.valley.farm.pearsI’ve decided to take the campaign to heart and make a concerted effort to get to know the folks who bring us our food.  Yesterday, at a farmers’ market in Concord, an outer East Bay suburb, I quizzed vendors who grow divinely delicious dry-farmed Bartlett pears about their farming techniques.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area: This Saturday Pie Ranch in Pescadero, on the relatively undeveloped coast south of San Francisco, hosts its work day and barn dance. (If you can’t make it tomorrow, these events are scheduled every third Saturday of the month and folks are welcome at other times as well.) Tomorrow volunteers will help harvest potatoes, dry beans, tomatoes, and berries.

On October 3, Full Belly Farm holds its annual celebration of rural life at its Hoes Down Harvest Festival in the abundant Capay Valley. And on October 18, about a mile away from Full Belly, Riverdog Farm hosts a pumpkin patch picking and meal sharing under walnut trees. Or check out the Family Farm Days at Slide Ranch, which boasts an organic garden with dramatic ocean views and farm animals too, near Muir Beach.

These events are hands-on, kid-friendly, and encourage eating.  Feel free to chime in with your own favorite get-to-know-a-farmer event. To learn more about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, check out Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s YouTube video or submit your own food-related videos or comments about the campaign via email: KnowYourFarmer@usda.gov.

Photo: Darryl and Judy Pereira, Alhambra Valley Farms, courtesy of Contra Costa Certified Farmers’ Markets

Book Giveaway: Farm City by Novella Carpenter

August 31, 2009

In conjunction with the Eat Real Festival in Oakland last weekend, urban farm gal Novella Carpenter hosted an all day soiree at Ghost Town/Goat Town Farm, the one depicted in her very funny food memoir released earlier this summer. I swung by the event, which drew a steady crowd, to see what’s growing in the author’s garden (lots), sample some of Grandma’s peach cobbler, and ask Novella to sign a copy of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. (For the uninitiated — and locavores — she’ll be reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley this Sunday.)

So, attention all city farmers and wannabe urban homesteaders: There’s a free, autographed Farm City to the person who writes the most entertaining comment about their endeavors growing or raising their own food in the asphalt jungle (or their fantasies about doing the same).

Do you have a tale to tell about a veggie patch planted in the ‘hood that produced nary a thing to eat? Have you devised innovative strategies to keep metro-dwelling predators at bay? Are you contemplating or already raising bees, chickens, goats — or even a cow — in city limits?

Bring it on. Tell us a witty, eye-opening, or inspiring snippet about city farming and I’ll pick a winner by 10 P.M. PST on Monday, September 7, which just happens to be Labor Day. Happy Harvesting.

Update: Thanks to all for creative comments about the joys and challenges of city farming.  It was hard to single out just one entry but the autographed copy of Farm City goes to….Velma for her planted chicken story (scroll below for details). The author herself judged the comp and Novella noted that she chose Velma because she was moved by the childhood innocence of her tale.

Velma: Send me your contact details and I’ll ship the book off to you. My email is: sarahhenry0509@gmail.com.

Thanks again for playing. And stay tuned for a school food book giveaway later this month.

Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

August 20, 2009

Uber-funny urban farmer Novella Carpenter has gone from indie garage band status to full-fledged rock star of the urban homestead movement in a matter of months. In part, perhaps, because of zingers likes this one, about the lengths she and her partner go to — including nightly dumpster diving sporting head lamps — to keep two hungry and hefty pigs fed in the city. “If we had had time to think about it,” she says, “we would have realized that we had become these pigs’ bitches.”

novella-carpenterPhoto: Sarah Henry

Carpenter, who grows greens and raises livestock on a dead-end street in the ghetto, is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.  For the past decade, the 38-year-old has cultivated land in the city, the last six years on GhostTown Farm, the sunny, squat lot in Oakland, California next to her rundown, coral-colored flat — complete with a back porch covered in goat poop  — where she lives with mechanic boyfriend Bill and a menagerie of her so-called edible pets, including rabbits, chickens, and, on occasion, a turkey or two.

The ‘hood is also dotted with long-shuttered businesses, drug dealers, prostitutes, multiethnic neighbors, and what Carpenter affectionately refers to as “fellow freaks.” She feels right at home there. “The neighborhood had a whiff of anarchy,” she notes in her memoir. “Spanish-speaking soccer players hosted ad hoc tournaments in the abandoned playfield. Teenagers sold bags of marijuana on the corners. The Buddhist monks made enormous vats of rice on the city sidewalk…And I started squat gardening on land I didn’t own.”

A child of back-to-the landers, Carpenter has received stellar reviews, most notably in the New York Times, for chronicling her exploits in the urban jungle. An excerpt from the book — some 15 pages on raising pigs and learning the craft of charcuterie — fills the August food issue of San Francisco magazine. She’s been featured everywhere from mainstream outlets like Time, foodie circles, like Culinate, and eco-green arenas like Grist. Not bad for a first-time author.

A former student of Michael Pollan’s, she regaled an audience at a recent reading in Berkeley with tales of foraging for food for her ravenous pigs (everything from rotting fish heads, frosted cakes, and organic peaches for these well-tended swine), before the hogs eventually wound up as cured meat. “You work your ass off trying to feed your pig really well,” she tells a crowd who eats up her colorful quips. “And then you find yourself thinking: This is going to be good. It’s a little sexy.”

But hers is not some sort of groovy-urban-gal-goes-green shtick. She’s the real deal. On a recent Friday at 7 am she greets me at the door and then diligently goes back to milking her goats.  Once the task is done, she heads outside for a farm tour. She checks in with and feeds her animals and waters her plants by hand. Clearly, tending creatures and crops nourishes her in more ways than one. “I realized that not only did I make the garden, it made me,” she writes in her book. “I ate out of this place every day. I had become this garden–its air, water, soil. If I abandoned the lot, I would abandon myself.”

It’s also clear it takes discipline to be a city farmer. She goes to great lengths to source supplies for her animals (like trips to the local racetrack to pick up alfalfa for her goats). And she takes personal responsibility for killing the animals she eats. She’s surprised that some vegans buy her book — and pleased that people on either side of the omnivore aisle respect her efforts to eat meat with integrity. (Still, I suspect many vegetarians would wince at her descriptions of slaughtering animals, however humanely and humbly she goes about it.)

For those of us who have a hard time growing veggies in the backyard, a big part of her appeal may simply lie in knowing that a modern day urban homesteader like Carpenter is out there doing her thing, day in and day out. She’s a fixture in the ‘hood, along with hookers, dealers, homeless dudes, and kids who stop by to visit the animals. Her Cuban neighbors take care of the farm when she’s away; the Yemeni liquor store owner down the block offers advice on goat husbandry pulled from his earlier life as a goat herder. Talk about community.

I admire Novella’s moxie, and I suspect others do too. I’m not much of a meat eater, but the fact that she buys these farm animals and learns as she goes, in true D.I.Y. fashion, how to raise them and get them on the table for dinner is pretty impressive. Plus, just like me, she really doesn’t like rats, an unfortunate fact of life for an urban farmer.

Novella estimates that about half of her food comes from her farm and she sells some of her animals to fancy pants restaurants that want well-fed, farm fresh meat on the menu. But the girl isn’t raking it in, with animal expenses, vet visits, and seed and feed costs this is a labor of love not a moneymaking venture. The advance for her book, for instance, promptly paid for a milking goat.

So when she’s not tending her farm, Novella divides her time between writing, she’s currently at work on a how-to book for folks intrigued about urban farming, and running a biofuel station, the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, where she’s one of the owner/worker biodiesel divas. It may well be the only fueling station around that holds classes on raising chickens and bees in close quarters.

Her advice to those interested in joining the urban farming bandwagon? Start small, go slow, and grow what you like to eat. Radishes are easy, she points out, but if you don’t love ‘em, why grow ‘em? “The easiest urban farm animal is the bee, since they do most of the work and require little maintenance,” she says. “After that, try chickens; the eggs are amazing and they’re funny to watch.”

Curious to learn more? If you live in the Bay Area, check out Novella on the farm in person on Saturday, August 29, during Oakland’s Eat Real Festival next weekend. She’ll give farm tours, sign books, teach workshops on slaughtering chickens and raising goats, and harvest food to share. Oh, and she has a trio of dwarf goats for sale. Anyone game?

Go Green: White House Vegetable Garden

July 27, 2009

white-house-vegetable-gardenImage: Syracuse Cultural Workers

Inspired by everyone I know growing their own (including the President’s family, my neighbors, friends, & urban homesteaders) — and this postcard, picked up at a pre-Point Reyes hike at a special little store Spirit Matters — I finally planted some seeds & seedlings in my new planter box this weekend. It’s loaded with corn, cuc, tomato, basil, & chive plants from the friendly food security folk at Spiral Gardens and lettuce, spinach, & carrot seeds from my green-thumb friend in Bolinas.  Look forward to seeing my son heading out to the backyard to harvest whatever looks good for lunch or dinner. Nice to put down some roots, however temporary, after 7 moves in 8 years. Kale, to come, natch.

The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again

July 20, 2009

You know how right after you first learn the meaning of a word or hear an unfamiliar expression you find yourself running across that word over and over again? Maybe it pops up in a book, on the news, or in conversation. It’s like the term was floating out there in the universe all the time and you just didn’t know it.

That’s how I feel lately about the au courant label urban homestead. Everywhere I turn the term seems to be sprouting, in chats with friends, in interviews with farm and food folk, in discussions with colleagues, and in the press.

Not sure what urban homesteading looks like? It’s city dwellers who both enjoy all the urban jungle has to offer and turn city lots, their tiny backyards, balconies, or roof tops into little farms by growing their own greens, preserving, brewing, keeping bees, and/or raising and butchering their own animals for milk, eggs, and meat.

Why are city slickers cultivating this way of life in increasing numbers? For some, it’s a way to connect directly with nature and the food they eat. For others it’s about self-sufficiency, independence, food safety, or food security. Some get going for economic reasons. Still others site its eco cred, lowering their carbon footprint (especially those who opt to go off the grid–as much as humanly possible in the urban environment–by installing solar panels and rain tanks, recycling gray water, and hanging laundry). Of course, for many urban homesteaders, all or many of the above apply.

At its core, this homegrown urban farm revolution marks a cultural and political shift from consuming (buying food) to producing (growing and making your own chow). What makes it different from previous back-to-the-land moments? It’s taking place in major metropolitan areas — and there’s an underlying ethos that participants derive pleasure and build community from all this D.I.Y. production and preservation.  It’s meant to be fun, as well as good for the body, soul, and planet. Urban homesteaders throw canning parties, team up to cure meat, exchange eggs and milk for honey and herbs, and enjoy the fruits of their labor in elaborate feasts with like-minded foodie friends, or so recent news accounts suggest. It seems the domestic arts are groovy again and these newly-learned or rediscovered skills and home-based habits may very well outlast the current economic downturn.

For those of us barely keeping a few chives alive on the windowsill it can feel a tad intimidating. Urban homesteading may be a new kind of extreme sport. It no longer feels enough to cook your own dinner from scratch with organic produce from the farmers’ market and whole grain, non-GMO ingredients from the bulk food bin of your neighborhood natural grocer or food co-op. These days folks are routinely making their own yogurt, pickling and drying their own produce, foraging for fruit, baking bread, making pasta, catching, filleting, and smoking fish — the list is long and admirable. (It may also feel a bit insurmountable and exhausting for well, at least this writer, who is just trying to get a meal on the table after a day at the office.)

This emerging trend echoes earlier grow-your-own efforts, like the World War II-era victory gardens that took root after Eleanor Roosevelt planted a veggie patch at the White House. The Grand Pappy of the modern-day city farm trend may well be Jules Dervaes in Pasedena. On his family farm Dervaes and his three grown children cultivate just one-tenth of an acre, which has produced over three tons of food from some 350 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Their online urban homesteading journal dates back to the pre-blogging, olden days of cyberspace, circa 2001.

In my corner of the globe several urban homesteaders are making names for themselves beyond their home base. Food forager Asiya Wadud is profiled in a previous post. Anya Fernald, who served as executive director of Slow Food Nation in San Francisco last year, and who recently launched LiveCulture and is organizing next month’s Eat Real Festival in Oakland is another garnering national attention.  More on this food activist’s projects to come. Writer Novella Carpenter, whose memoir Farm City hilariously chronicles the joys and hazards of squat-lot farming in the ghetto, is another. Carpenter and her edible pets will make an appearance in a future post.

Looking to learn about how to start your own small-scale urban farm? Check out the blog spot homegrown evolution, by SoCal city farmers Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, authors of The Urban Homestead, who pass on urban homesteading tips and techniques gleaned from their experience. “Once you discover that lettuce actually has a distinct flavor, or you eat a sweet tomato still warm from the sun, or an orange-yolked egg from your own hen, you will never be satisfied with pre-packaged and factory-farmed again,” writes Coyne, summing up her urban homesteading philosophy elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Do you keep bees on your roof, chickens in your side yard, or goats on your back deck? Have you hijacked an abandoned lot and become a pirate gardener, turned your front yard from lawn into lunch, or revitalized that strip of unused land between the street and the sidewalk into an edible oasis? Since a central tenet of the city ag movement is sharing the wealth, feel free to fill us in on your success stories, food-raising failures, or obstacles (legal, logistical, or otherwise) as an urban homesteading adventurer.

Flickr photo by chotda used under the Creative Commons license

Book cover image by Gregg Einhorn

Food Foraging 101

July 8, 2009

The votes are in and the Bay Area’s favorite food forager is Asiya Wadud, the Chez Panisse bartender and urban fruit gatherer.

For the last 18 months or so Wadud could be found pedaling around South Berkeley and North Oakland scooping up fallen or really ripe fruit, such as hachiya persimmons, Santa Rosa plums, Meyer lemons, and Persian mulberries, and passing on this excess backyard bounty to hungry souls who put it to delicious good use.

(Wadud’s out of town this summer and fall but says a team of food foragers who will tend to members’ trees will be announced shortly, according to her blog Forage Oakland.)

I first learned about Wadud’s fruit-bartering-via-bicycle project in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. Since then she’s been featured in the New York Times and her photogenic self graces the cover of this month’s San Francisco magazine. Last week a New York Times Magazine story on urban homesteading included Wadud at the table of a local-grown feast. Clearly, her fresh idea has captured the mainstream media’s — and the produce-loving public’s –  attention.

Wadud’s rules for her volunteer program are simple: There’s no picking before permission is given. Ripe fruit is a terrible thing to let rot. Sharing the wealth with your neighbors creates good feelings and good food. She began with cold calls, knocking gingerly on strangers’ doors and asking politely for samples; she now boasts some 200 members.

Similar free, urban foraging programs abound in the Bay Area. Saddled with excess beans or blackberries this summer? Looking to trade some lavender for lemons? Check out People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), North Berkeley Harvest, San Jose’s Village Harvest and  Marin Open Garden Project. In L.A., Fallen Fruit is a resource for off-loading extra produce.

Programs that connect homeowners overwhelmed with fruit with volunteers willing to pick produce and take it to local food banks can be found in cities such as Portland, Ore., Philadelphia, and Boston. And websites like neighborhoodfruit.com and veggietrader.com help folks find willing homes for, say, a surplus of Meyer lemons or an abundance of dinosaur kale.

Future foraging posts will look at programs that offer folks freshly foraged local food for a fee.

In the meantime, since it’s peak produce time in most parts of the country, you’re encouraged to leave a shout out for your favorite, local, free foraging outfit below.

Oh, and while I think of it: Does anyone want the load of loquats that make a huge mess once they fall from the tree out front and strip the paint off my car? I’ve thought of them as a nuisance, squirrel fodder at best, but Wadud writes that this unfamiliar fruit makes some mighty fine chutney, jelly, or jam. Happy harvesting.

Cover image courtesy San Francisco Magazine. Photo: Sara Remington

Dig It: Growing Greens, Creating Community, and Feeding Families

July 3, 2009

Chris Geiger comes from a long line of gardeners. He grew up eating out of the family garden in Ohio and was eager to replicate the experience for his own daughter. But his backyard in Oakland, California is small and shaded. What to do? The resourceful dad simply sent out a request for land in exchange for labor on a neighborhood list-serve in time to till the soil this past spring.

He got lots of offers (he says he spied on neighbors’ yards via Google Earth) but he opted for the first, from homeowner Emily Bezar, who had location, location, location on her side. Emily’s rear yard is big, gets loads of sun, and she lives around the corner from Chris, his wife Madeleine, and their daughter Gwendolyn. A perfect match.

digit.growgreens.chris&emily

Chris and Emily are delighted with how their backyard experiment turned out. The plot has produced chard, beans, tomatoes, basil, squash, lettuces, and cucumbers.  “It was great to find Chris, who offered skills and expertise I didn’t have,” says Emily, who lives with her son Noah.  “And it’s wonderful to share the bounty with another family. It’s so satisfying to watch a garden grow rapidly before your very eyes. And Chris has an aesthetic sensibility; I love the splashes of color among the greens. I don’t know why more people don’t do this. It’s a wonderful way to cultivate food and community.”

Such partnerships are sprouting elsewhere. Sunset magazine reports this month on urbangardenshare.org, the brainchild of Amy Pennington, who runs an edible garden business in Washington state, and designer Gannon Curran. The site connects Seattle homeowners who have green space with keen gardeners who have none. Chime in if you know of similar efforts in other places.

This is the first in a series of posts on innovative ways folks grow greens and forage for food in the urban jungle. Check back for more profiles, ideas, and resources in future posts.

digit.chris&emily.gardenPhotos: Sarah Henry



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