Promoting backyard farms, (or even large scale farms and modern-day homesteading), has a new term: "Ag"tivism. From the young and idealistic to the old and curmudgeonly, many people are finding time, space, and energy to grow their own tomatoes.
Edith Floyd is the real deal. With little in the way of funding or organizational infrastructure, she runs Growing Joy Community Garden on the northeast side of Detroit. Not many folks bother to venture out to her neighborhood, but Edith has been inspiring me for years. I caught up with her on a cold, rainy November afternoon. While we talked in the dining room, her husband Henry watched their grandkids. Q. What neighborhood are we in? What is it like?
A. This is the northeast side — near the city airport. It’s surrounded by graveyards on three sides and then the other barrier is the railroad track; we are surrounded by railroad tracks, and sometimes those trains stay for like 30 minutes, so you are trapped; ain’t no way out.
Q. So you’ve seen a lot of changes.
A. Yeah, when I came it was beautiful — there were grocery stores in the center, like in the middle of the neighborhood, but … There was like 66 houses on this block, and now [there are] about six that people live in, and three need to be torn down, and the rest of it is empty. That’s where I’m putting my farm on, all the lots. [Editor's note: some are calling this practice "blotting." Here's a recent NPR story on blotting in Detroit.] …
Q. What are you growing on those lots?
A: Across the street I have my strawberry lot. I try to plant by lot. I have a collard green lot, a kale lot, an okra lot, an eggplant lot, green bean lot. I had a corn lot, but it didn’t work so well. Right now I have a garlic lot, I had a tomato lot, cucumber lot, squash, cabbage, broccoli, watermelon, cantaloupe. I like flowers, so I planted some of them. I had potatoes, mustard greens, turnip greens.
Q. That’s a lot of food!
A. Well, if it comes up it’s a lot, but I give some to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. I sell some at Eastern Market, and Wayne State Market, but the cabbage does not sell so I don’t take cabbage there. (I still have about two of 300 pounds of cabbage I need to harvest.)
NPR recently had an article about how people of my generation are also taking up organic farming with a passion:
…there’s a new surge of youthful vigor into American agriculture — at least in the corner of it devoted to organic, local food. Thousands of young people who’ve never farmed before are trying it out.
Some 250 of them gathered recently at a gorgeous estate in the Hudson River valley of New York: the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown.
Some of these young farmers already have their own farms. Some are apprentices, working on more established farms for a year or two. And others are still just thinking about it. But the overwhelming majority of farmers here at this conference want to farm without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
They were there to learn skills — from seminars on soil fertility, handling sheep, and how to find affordable land — and just as importantly, to meet each other. In the evening, they played music and danced.
They represent a new breed of farmer. Very few of them grew up on farms. Most of them went to college. And now, they want to grow vegetables, or feed pigs.
The biggest question interviewers often ask is "why?" Why farm? Why go "backwards" to a life of farming.
For many people, it’s economical (see an earlier blog post about young entrepreneurs making a living farming, growing eggs and herding sheep). But an even bigger driver for most is the desire to feel connected to their environment, to enrich their surroundings with greenery and healthy food.
Q. You haven’t always been an urban farmer. What did you do before this?
A. I worked at Detroit Public Schools. I started out with the Head Start Center and then I went to the middle school, to the Ed Tech, [which is] now the Computer Lab. I started farming because they laid me off and didn’t call me back. Farming is not making a living, it’s just keeping food in my freezer. I try to sell some so I can get some more equipment, so it will be easier for me to farm.
Q. So how much money are you making in a season?
A. I was trying to reach for 3,000, but I only made it to two something. I have to add up the last bit; I haven’t got my last check. Every year I try to up it; the first year I made 1,000. The second year I went 2,000; this year I was trying to go for $3,000.
"It was born out of a concern for the environment," says Brian Bates, who plans to work at a farm in northern Michigan after he graduates from Penn State. "I spent the first two years of college with one question in mind – basically, how can I have the greatest impact in my life in the world. And the thing that I kept coming back to, that everyone connected to, was food."
Others say that they simply enjoy the work, the style of agrarian life, and the connection to food.
"I feel lost when I’m not farming, when I’m not out in the field. It’s where I find the most peace and harmony in my life," says Liz Moran, who helps manage Quail Hill Farm in the eastern end of Long Island, New York.
"When I look around, and you’re amongst the plants and the sunshine – that’s my office, that’s where I want to be," said Rodger Phillips, who grows food on an urban farm in Hartford, Conn.
Others talk about the satisfaction of doing something practical, creating something valuable. "Having a skill was really important to me. Having studied political science, I wanted to do something that was productive, that was real. To have a real skill, and be able to provide my family, my community, a vital element," says Kristin Carbone, who runs Radix Farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
And then there was Lindsey Shute. "How did I get into farming? Because I started dating a farmer!" she says with a laugh. [blogger's note: check out a similar story in the book "xx"]
It seems that people are looking for more control over their wallets, their lives, and what they put in their stomachs, and are doing it through farming.
I know a lot of medical and researched reasons why playing in the dirt is good for you, but I’m curious about anecdotal reasons. Leave your experiences with gardening and farming in the comments.