The Birth of an Urban Farm

I’ve always thought of myself as a farmer and I’m not really sure why. Technically speaking, I’ve never lived on a farm. Maybe it has to do with the fact that almost 50 percent of Americans lived on farms around the turn of the 20th century and that we are all a mere stone’s throw away from our agrarian forefathers. I suspect it probably has more to do with where I grew up: a small town in Nebraska. When you live in one of those Midwest plains states, everyone just assumes you are a farmer.

My childhood home did sit on a rural mail route, bordering the very edge of town where an alfalfa field separated my house from the high school I attended. And as a youth, I trespassed on many a farmers’ properties, leapt across giant rolled hay bales with great abandon, got liquored up in more than one cornfield, and went to work in those same fields at the tender age of 12 detasseling corn.

A further reinforcement of identifying with farm life comes from being a descendant of a long line of Swiss dairy folk. My mother spent her formative years on a Southern California dairy with her Swiss immigrant father who milked 40 cows, twice a day, by hand. Though my parents did not own acreage, farm lore was most definitely a part of our family consciousness. Consequently, my decision to actually “farm” wasn’t a huge conceptual shift for me.

What did take a bit of adjustment was the idea of putting that farm into the context of the city. I didn’t set out with the idea that “Now I’m going to be an urban farmer” since those two words “urban” and “farmer” are diametrically opposed to each other in our current cultural conceptions. The shift was more of a gradual “becoming” an evolution that has its roots in my childhood and continues into the present.

Three years ago, my husband and I came to the conclusion that it was time for us to buy our own home. We had both been living in the San Francisco area for well over a decade and had developed strong ties to the community. Though I had hoped to move somewhere a little more countrified, we ended up purchasing our postage stamp sized bit of earth in the Excelsior district where we now live with our 6 year old daughter. It’s certainly not the chunk of acreage that is usually brought to mind when one hears the word “farm,” but we’ve got exactly 1,000 square feet of soil to plant and raise whatever strikes our fancy. You’d be surprised what you can pack into such a tiny space.

The initial impetus to think big for our little lot began with a nagging obsession to own a chicken. Where the idea came from is not completely clear to me. Maybe it was the cost of truly free range, quality eggs that set the wheels in motion. At $7.50 a dozen for guilt free eggs, a more affordable and entertaining option seemed like a good choice. All I recall is my constant chattering about all things poultry. The response from friends and family was always the same: “Is it legal?” Heck if I knew whether or not San Francisco had laws about these things!

Nearly a year of ethereal fantasies of hen ownership had passed before I finally set Google to task on uncovering the legal issues of raising cluckers in the city. To my utter shock, not only was it legal, urban chickens were like… the new black! When did this happen? I consider myself to be a fairly well informed individual as these things go, but somehow I slept through the birth of this trend. Site after site, blog after blog, detailed the joys of urban poultry. Who knew? Not me, apparently. After thoroughly castigating myself for being so out of touch, I seem to recall prancing about my kitchen chirping, “I can have a chicken. I can have a chicken!”

But we didn’t stop at chickens. Oh no. Since then one thing has led to another and we are now the proud owners of two goats, Lucy and Ethel, and a menagerie of fruit trees and veggie plants scattered across our modest backyard. We are working towards becoming more self-sufficient in terms of food and energy consumption. It’s a lot of work and we have a long way to go. There have been some severe setbacks in our farm’s short existence, like the loss of six out of seven chickens due to purchasing from an unscrupulous breeder. And yet there have been glorious ups, like our ultra successful front porch container planting of cool summer varieties of tomatoes. We expect many more peaks and valleys as we continue along our path to a sustainable future. You can also follow us on our journey at http://ittybittyfarminthecity.blogspot.com. I’ll be checking in here at Civil Eats on a quarterly basis to let you all know what’s happening down on the farm.

Heidi Kooy is a former anthropologist turned small business owner and urban homesteading enthusiast. When she is not busy sewing for her handmade craft business, Pie Dough Productions, or bossing around workers for her construction contracting business, she is enjoying organic gardening, cooking, canning, preserving, and tending to her collection of small livestock. Her city farming adventures are detailed in her blog, Itty Bitty Farm in the City. She is also a member of the San Francisco School Food Coalition, an organization dedicated to improving school lunches for San Francisco public schools.

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