DIY Life: Urban Homesteaders at Kitchen Table Talks | Civil Eats

DIY Life: Urban Homesteaders at Kitchen Table Talks

At the most recent Kitchen Table Talks in San Francisco close to 100 City dwellers came out in the pouring rain to hear stories from local urban homesteaders, who shared their experiences and insights on ways to become more self-sufficient. Kevin Bayuk, Heidi Kooy, and Davin Wentworth-Thrasher discussed growing and preserving your own food; keeping worms; composting (including the art of the compost toilet); greywater and rainwater catchment systems; and raising goats and chickens (Heidi’s chicken, Sweet Pea, graced us with her beautiful feathers).

In case you were wondering, “urban homesteading” has been defined as:

1. Growing your own FOOD on your city lot.
2. Using alternative ENERGY sources.
3. Using alternative FUELS & TRANSPORTATION.
4. Keeping farm ANIMALS for manure and food.
5. Practicing WASTE REDUCTION.
6. Reclaiming GREYWATER and collecting RAINWATER.
7. Living SIMPLY. Developing back-to-basics homemaking skills, including food preservation and preparation.
8. Doing the work YOURSELF. Learning to do home and vehicle maintenance, repairs and basic construction.
9. Working at HOME. Earning a living from the land or hand work done at home. Developing a home-based economy.
10. Being a good NEIGHBOR. Offering a helping hand for free. Urban homesteading is a community-based way of life, not a business opportunity. Being a neighbor, not a business person.

Our three homesteaders employ almost all of these ideals and inspired us with their stories and ideas.

Kevin Bayuk, a self-described “activated advocate for ecotopian living,” serves on the Board of Directors for the Urban Alliance for Sustainability, and teaches with the Urban Permaculture Institute and Urban Permaculture Guild. He introduced the concept of permaculture—or permanent agriculture—an approach to living and life philosophy that includes agro-ecological design theory and living in harmony with the ecosystem. Kevin stressed that as we start to examine at our surroundings, and our consumption patterns, we begin to realize the need to move from a centralized to a decentralized society, from a consumer-based culture to a producer-based one. Kevin reminded the audience time and again to take a step back and recognize the importance of self-reliance as part of a larger, community-driven, social, and environmental imperative.

Kevin traced his trajectory in his urban homestead, a 3,000 sq. ft. backyard in the Haight/Ashbury District of San Francisco, which contains some 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables, ducks and worms, as well as greywater and composting systems. His own path began by noticing his waste streams, and how he could efficiently close the loop on his food consumption, the waste there from, which could be used for compost, and the compost there from which, in turn, could be used to grow more food. Kevin’s practice starts with mindfulness towards reducing waste, recycling food and water, and what he described as incorporating simple additions, such as worms and ducks.

Davin Wentworth-Thrasher, the co-founder of the Ecology Center of San Francisco, offered the crowd information on how to do it yourself and more. He also brought homemade, handmilled loaves of bread, crackers, nut butters and jam. Davin recounted how, for nearly a year in 2008, he experimented with a low consumption lifestyle by living in a tent in his 1,250 sq. ft. backyard in the Sunset district; using rocket stoves and solar ovens; consuming less than five gallons of water a day; and relying on an outdoor shower, greywater system, and a composting toilet to save and reuse water.

He limited himself to the use of his bicycle and public transportation and determined that he could live on local beans, grains and the vegetables grown in his garden, for roughly $3.50 a day. What he noticed most, he said, was his quick attuning to the natural world around him: He could hear the ocean roar nearby and watched for birds that regularly visited his garden. He also realized he could grow peaches, eggplant, and corn in a notoriously foggy area of the City. Davin offered the crowd an important piece of advice: Have more potlucks. In his opinion, the best conversations were to be had around the kitchen table.

Heidi Kooy, a former anthropologist turned small business owner, shared her experiences gardening, cooking, canning, preserving, and tending to her collection of small livestock, including chickens and goats in her 1,000 sq. ft. backyard in the Excelsior. (Her City farming adventures are detailed in her blog, Itty Bitty Farm in the City and on Civil Eats.) Heidi’s chicken sat on her lap, as she shared the different eggs her chickens lay, and told her stories of becoming an urban homesteader in a multi-ethnic community. Now Heidi’s homestead project has brought her closer to her neighbors, who appreciate what she is trying to build. She creates community by sharing the eggs and the wealth of her garden.

A lively Q&A session ensued, with the most immediate question being how many animals one is technically allowed in the City (it turns out the legal limit for small animals, poultry, and game birds is 4 per household and only 4 of one species. While, the law pertaining to the keeping of goats implies that up to 2 goats is okay. Here’s a link to the SF Health Code’s exact language.) Others wanted to know more about how to collect resources on culled and wasted food. Several audience members, including Margo True from Sunset Magazine, mentioned Happy Girl Kitchen as an example of a niche business sourcing food from farm surplus.

A great question came from another KTT’r: How does one go about building community if most of the urban homesteading is taking place in backyards? What about utilizing frontyards to allow for more interaction? And many participants, almost all of whom rent, were interested in finding simple ways to start. Heidi, Davin, and Kevin urged folks to get involved in community gardens, take classes, and meet other urban homesteaders. As for renting, they advised starting small and with what you’ve got: herbs on windowsills, tomatoes on front steps, sharing your neighbor’s fruit trees, and foraging together.

Davin brought with him a great local zine to share called “Source,” Issue #3, which focuses on “City Steading.” The mission of the Source, a simple, stapled-together pamphlet, is: “To gather our knowledge, share our skills and create conversation in the Bay Area. To offer tools, resources and inspiration for urban life. To imagine cities rooted in relationship to food, land and place.” This great little book has tips on how to make yogurt, vegetable stock, nut milk, kombucha, and provides advice on how to keep chickens, ducks, goats, and bees. It also has a nice interview with Oakland’s original urban homesteader, Novella Carpenter.

There is a wealth of other resources out there for the novice and expert city steader alike. Some of the most inspiring DIY ideas come from one of the best books on the subject, The Urban Homestead, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, who also share their stories of self-sufficiency while living in the heart of Los Angeles on their blog, They write:

The United States once was a nation of independent farmers. Today most of us do not know one end of a hoe from the other. In the last half of the 20th century, a cultural shift unique in human history came to pass. We convinced ourselves that we didn’t need to have anything to do with our food. Food, the very stuff of life, became just another commodity, an anonymous transaction. In making this transaction, we sacrificed quality for convenience, and then we learned to forget the value of what we gave up.

The authors remind us that urban homesteading is about action, and offer a compendium of hands-on projects and how-to’s. Their list of “essential projects” include starting a compost pile; composting with worms; mulching your yard; building a raised bed; and building a self-watering container. The book is chocked full of amazing practical advice and information, from how to forage in the urban jungle to raising livestock in the city, to simple basic instruction in “Revolutionary Home Economics” on everything from preserving food to making pickles, butter, jams, and sourdough bread. The book details how to “be your own utility” by explaining how to harness water and power for your homestead and provides concrete examples of how to harvest and conserve water to greywater plumbing, alternative methods of heating and cooling, and cooking.

For more information on urban homesteading, check out these other great resources:

Organizations/Web Sites

Berkeley Ecology Center

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Journey to Forever

An amazing list of resources from around the world on every sustainability topic imaginable.

How to test your soil for lead and other chemicals (University of Mass. Soil Lab)

Upcoming Workshops

Garden for the Environment
Urban Composting – Feb 6
Spring Vegetable Gardening – Feb 20

Raising Chickens in the City – Feb 21
Bakers Alley – Build an Earth Oven – Feb 27

Know of other resources not mentioned here? Please comment and let us know!

Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.  Read more >

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  1. This is a great list of resources for folks interested in urban agriculture, especially in the San Francisco metro area.

    Up in Seattle, we're also trying to address the issue building communities that connect backyard farmers and those interested in building a healthier community food system.

    We've started to build a comprehensive news and info sharing website called Urban Farm Hub. Any ideas on how to make this a meaningful community resource are greatly appreciated.
  2. great informative and so very inspiring. wish i could have come to the live discussion:)
  3. Looks like a fantastic event and there are some terrific resources listed here. Thank you for sharing.
    A note to people who are jazzed by the idea urban homesteading, but may be limited by space, time or other circumstances: adopting just ONE of the practices of urban homesteading can be a rewarding and soul-nourishing experience. Start simply, live simply, and - before you know it - you've shifted your relationship with the land.
    HOMEGROWN Shepherdess
    Farm Aid

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