The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again

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

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8 Responses to “The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again”

  1. anothermama Says:

    I also love that this home-grown movement includes options for folks who don’t have land…. a revival or energetic innoculation of community gardens and farmer’s markets — plus innovative ways for people to have access to local produce when they can’t (or don’t want) to grow their own.

    Thanks for highlighting this great stuff!

  2. anothermama Says:

    PS
    Here’s another local blog you and your readers might find interesting.
    http://thelemonlady.blogspot.com/2009/07/edible-east-bay-magagzine-anna-lemon.html

  3. Sarah Henry Says:

    Thanks for the tip anothermama. I took a look at what the lemon lady is doing — harvesting loads of fruit for food banks in Contra Costa County. You can read all about her efforts on the fruit foraging frontier here: http://thelemonlady.blogspot.com

  4. Dianne Jacob Says:

    Thanks for the well-reported story.

    A Montclair neighbor near me has four goats, and a class at the Institute of Urban Homesteading, http://www.sparkybeegirl.com/iuh.html, on goat farming was sold out. It’s one thing to keep them as pets, but then you have to take them to a butcher. Not sure most people have the room or the inclination.

    I’m also investigating beekeeping, which is quite complicated. See Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper, http://www.hmsbeekeeper.com/HMSB/Welcome.html

    Some of this sounds more romantic than practical.

  5. Sarah Henry Says:

    Browsing the shelves at The Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco I ran across another tome on this topic, released earlier this year, The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan. A quick flick through and it seems to cover all the basics — including cows — oh my! Find a review here: http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/blogs/editor/2009/02/backyard-homest.html

  6. farmers market shopper Says:

    … here’s one: a guy at the farmer’s market, drinking his beverage out of a mason jar, said he’s going to get a mason jar tattoo. that’s almost as cool as a beet.

  7. givinggardensfoundation Says:

    Thank you, thank you for making such a clear concise vision of what a beautiful movement is happening. On my blog, Giving Gardens Foundation, the overall mission is to “SAVE SEEDS to FEED NEEDS”. Let’s all come together to make a network to represent a congruent mission.

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