to educate, inspire and equip the urban homesteader

So you call yourself a farmer?

November 3, 2010

Urban Gardening Grow Bags

I’ve been hearing and reading a lot lately about this idea of urban farming and whether it’s fair to call what people in cities are progressively doing to grow and raise their own food ‘farming’.  I thought it would be fun to explore the different sides of this issue a bit.

One of my first indications that there was a perception issue actually resulted from an Apartment Therapy mention of Eat Real Fest participants and their real food pursuits.  Comments on the article ranged from skepticism and judgment to firm defense and intellectual discourse.  One particularly surly commenter claimed that they had relatives who were farmers and that these urban ‘hipsters’ would die after only a week on a ‘real’ farm.  Urban farm sympathizers railed in defense and fought careless words with reason and intellect.  It was a sight to be seen and I sat back anxiously watching the battle unfold.

It’s important to note that in this case, the critical party was not a farmer his/her-self but happened to know some farmers.  I find this sort of judgment comes more often than not from concerned parties who know a farmer or two and, therefore, think they can speak for them rather than from the farmers themselves.

So what do actual rural farmers think about this urban phenomenon?  As it happens, I spent some time last January at the EcoFarm conference in Monterey, California talking to some large scale organic farmers about backyard growing and urban food-raising.  In all cases, the consensus from rural farmers was that urban growing is a fantastic idea.  Here are the reasons:

Dragon Tongue Bean Harvest

1)   Right to good food. We all deserve home-grown flavor and nutrition.  When is it ever a bad idea for someone to be able to taste freshly-grown fruits of their own labor?  Just because a person has elected to live in a city does not preclude them from enjoying and appreciating fresh food.  It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

2)   Appreciation for carefully grown food. Growing ones own food allows a person to gain a better understanding of what it actually takes to produce enough food to feed a family.  I’ve heard dozens of gardeners express the sentiment that the produce from their backyard has a value that they had never before attributed to the simple tomato or squash.  What better result for large-scale farmers than for their customer base to fully understand and value the labor and resources they expend every single day growing the produce that ends up on city tables?  It’s possible that the experience of growing your own could help people begin to feel comfortable with the true cost of food and consider their options before they overstock on cheap apples just to throw them away in a couple of weeks.  F

3)   Connection to the land. Many of the organic farmers with whom I spoke, began farming in the first place because they loved working the land; people who have a passion tend to want to share that passion with as many others as possible.  Their eyes light up to hear of young people figuring out how to keep bees on their rooftops, greens on their balcony and chickens in their tiny urban plots.  Sure, it’s amusement as much as it is excitement, but hey, we’ll take what we can get.

Now this is farm country!

What does it mean to be a farm? My Oxford English Dictionary seems to have been lost in the last move; however, describes a farm as:

1. a tract of land, usually with a house, barn, silo, etc., on which crops and often livestock are raised for livelihood.
2. land or water devoted to the raising of animals, fish, plants, etc.: a pig farm; an oyster farm; a tree farm.
3. a similar, usually commercial, site where a product is manufactured or cultivated: a cheese farm; a honey farm.

That doesn’t entirely clear up the confusion much though does it?  Webster’s Online Dictionary defines a farm as a “workplace consisting of farm buildings and cultivated land as a unit”.

The unifying factor of the many definitions of a farm seems to be that it includes land where something (anything!) is produced and it doesn’t necessarily have to be food.  Tobacco and cotton are grown on farms (as well as trees in the definition above).  It’s unclear in classic definitions, though, at what point one crosses from being a gardener into being a farmer.

Huge Squash from Dog Island Farm

What does that mean for those of us in an urban setting?  I think most of us agree that a flower garden isn’t enough to justify calling yourself a farm.  What about a vegetable garden?  What if it’s a huge vegetable garden, one that’s productive enough to feed your family or at least supplement your grocery shopping?  What if you add fruit trees?  What about chickens?  Bees?  What if you have chickens but don’t slaughter them for meat?  Does a veggie-only plot qualify as a farm if you’re a vegetarian, but not if you’re a meat-eater?

Goat from Dog Island Farm

Even among city dwellers raising their own food, there seems to be a tiny bit of posturing.  The chicken-tending urbanite surely feels that a balcony herb garden and some rooftop bees won’t earn you urban farmer status while the rabbit- and goat-slaughtering townies surely thinks the egg-collecting chicken owner could use a lesson in animal husbandry.  How much farm do you need to call it a ‘farm’?

Heritage Turkey Thanksgiving 2009

This dilemma reminds me of the criticism I heard frequently in the Midwest of vegetarians who wear animal products.  If you didn’t already know, many of my fellow Midwesterners think the second best use of a rack of ribs (after eating them, of course) is to slap vegetarians over the head, as if somehow choosing not to eat meat is a personal affront to everyone who ever enjoyed a burger.  Bear with me, I do have a point.  Even though the majority of vegetarians I know don’t claim publicly that no animal should ever be harmed for the benefit of humans, I’ve still heard innumerable comments from critics questioning a person’s decision to not eat meat.  “If you’re such a goody-two-shoes animal-lover, then why are you wearing leather shoes?”  As if being vegetarian means swearing off all things harmful to animals, rather than just the decision to not eat animal flesh, for whatever reason.

These criticisms seem similar to me because they bring into question a spectrum of behavior, each involving someone who has chosen a path for personal reasons and is taking steps to do what they consider the right thing.  Making the choice to take a step in a particular direction doesn’t mean they have to pursue that direction to its utter and final end.  A vegetarian doesn’t have to commit their lives to rescuing animals from factory farms to take a step in what they perceive as the right direction any more than a city dweller who loves fresh eggs, honey and veggies should have to buy a tractor and move away from the city to commit their lives to producing bounty from the earth.  We all take the steps we can to do the things we think should be done.  None of us is perfect and we should remind ourselves that ‘perfection’ should not be the enemy of ‘good’.

Our Chicken Coop

I’ve recently begun calling myself an urban farmer only hesitantly for a couple of reasons.  When I first starting growing my own food, even the loosest definitions of a farm wouldn’t cut it.  A San Francisco fire escape in upper Castro, however packed full of veggies it might have been, was urban for sure, but it was certainly not a farm.   In one season, I endangered my upstairs neighbor’s life by growing fava beans up strings tied to the bottom level of his fire escape, packing lettuce plants, kale and collards onto every step and letting my asparagus plant wave its ferny fronds in the strong afternoon wind.  I had home-grown veggies but there was no risk of being mistaken for a farmer.

It didn’t take long to outgrow the fire escape, however, and we knew it was time to look for a place with more sunshine and more dirt.  Buying a home was in the back of our minds and we thought the East Bay might be the place to look.  We rented an adorable bungalow with the assurance from our lovely landlady that it was okay to pull out the native flowers that had been planted to make room for squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and basil, all the things that had never been possible on my windy, chilly fire escape.  It still wasn’t a farm but the bounty kept us in fresh veggies all summer.



It wasn’t long before we had chickens at the Berkeley bungalow and it was at this point that my friends started referring to our house, mostly jokingly, as ‘the farm’.  When we finally bought our home in Oakland, it all came together.  We now have five chickens, two dogs, 14 fruit trees, and I grow about  40 different varieties of heirloom vegetables & herbs.  Bees are next on the list and we’re thinking about raising rabbits for meat, though that’s still up in the air.  There’s no way we could butcher a chicken because we’ve come to love them too much (we bought them for egg-production so meat was never our intention anyway).  Are we a farm now?  Hell, are we even urban anymore now that we live in South SOUTH Oakland?

The temptation is to use the term urban homestead and you’ll see me doing it, but after reading this blog post I hesitate to use that terminology.

Table all set for dinner at Dog Island Farm

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to a potluck dinner with “other urban farmers” at Dog Island Farm which, while we’re on the topic, is about as urban farm as you can get.  As we gathered around to tour the farm and share a delicious meal of homemade wonders, I pondered the commonalities within the group.  Some had goats, some had rabbits, some had bees, all had a garden full of edibles.  As the guests shared stores about deer that ate their garden to the horrifically loud rooster that had to be made into soup, I was struggling to find the one thing that tied them all together, when it occurred to me that it might just be their stories.  Throughout history, farmers were made through the sharing of experiences and stories.  A farmer would pass his/her experience and knowledge down to the next generation, ensuring that the successes were repeated and the failures not forgotten.

Urban Farmers

However, with the industrialization of farming, much knowledge was lost.  Here we all were, sitting together at a table, talking about the trials and tribulations of the urban farmer which ranged from having to learn how to slaughter rabbits from YouTube to not getting the cheese culture shipment you ordered from an online retailer.  Without the network we were all trying to learn on our own.  Whether they intended to or not, Rachel and Tom of Dog Island Farm were forming a network of ‘farmers’ who could learn from each other, mimicking the knowledge-sharing from days of yore.  As we all settled in to enjoy the homemade goodness that came from all of our kitchens, it was really dawning on me what it meant to be a farmer.

In the end, I don’t know where the boundaries lie, but call it what you like.  Until I can think of a better name for what I’m doing, I’ll continue to call it an urban farm because it takes too long to say this: We’re two people who have stressful city jobs, raise chickens for eggs, make compost, chat with our neighbors over the fence, grow an ever-increasing amount of our produce at home, buy sustainably-grown meat from a local farm, track hay into the house on a regular basis, love food, put up the harvest for winter, make cheese, brew beer, do our best to eat seasonally, share our bounty with friends and neighbors, love to cook, love to eat, love each other and want to share what we’ve learned with as many people as will listen. We love this life we’ve found – here, in the city, with our chickens on our quasi-farm.

Jared and Ruskers - Dec 09

Nicole & Chompskie Dec 09


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  • Thanks for sharing this manifesto! As someone who’s recently gotten into edible gardening and is currently tearing up and rebuilding her backyard in the middle of San Francisco to have two big veggie beds and another fruit tree (I’ve been nursing our apple tree back to life after it was hit by lightning six years ago; this year we got 120 apples!), I’ve also been exploring the “urban farming” moniker and space. I found your insights from interviewing farmers and your own position inspiring and right-on!

    • Thank you! thank you! thank you! for your comment! I was a little nervous about posting this for some reason, but I do think it’s worth exploring, even if I do get a backlash of “you’re no farmer!”. :-)

  • Nice piece! Is your chicken coop made out of a file cabinet?

  • Thanks for the shout out! It just so happens I wrote about this same thing awhile back and the post is going up again on’s site next Wednesday. If you want to read my take on urban farming vs. gardening go to:

  • Just because you have day jobs, doesn’t mean you’re not farming. I admit, we’re not ‘urban’ in the true sense of the word, and we do own an albeit small tractor, but our ‘farm’ isn’t very big. I agree with Rachel, you’re producing food for yourselves (and/or others), and that’s farming in my book. Don’t care if it’s dubbed micro, mini, small, urban, rural, the symantics don’t really matter as much as the intent, drive and passion to produce one’s own healthy and wholesome food. Besides, it’s not the size of the land that matters, it’s what you do with it. I had family in England with a larger farm than us, that did a heck of a lot less with it, but it was still called a farm, even though at times it was just a house surrounded by fallow arable land. By the way, was great to meet you at Dog Island, Farmer Nicole, you forgot to remind me to send you that pumpkin pound cake with caramel sauce recipe! Will try to do that this weekend, promise!

  • What’s with all the urban farm haters? my opinion is that calling ourselves urban farmers, whether or not we are a “true” farm (whatever that means) is how we are reinventing the way we live in cities. post WWII, laws were enacted to clearly delineate the country from the city by relegating agriculture to the former. By bringing the process of sustaining ourselves into our backyards, we are changing the way we think of space, urban vs. rural, etc. We are bringing the farm to the city. it’s a radical concept for our country which requires a radical name. you go farmer girl!

  • Lovely post,and you know I agree 100% with you. Speaking from the “middle” (produce distribution,) there are lots and lots of farms we deal with that have very small production, but are no less important to the world of organic produce. We often go out of our way to support very small farmers. There are many “farms” that are more like factories too, where the production is quite high. We may get an entire pallet (49 boxes, 24 heads each) of lettuce from a large-scale farm and maybe three boxes from a small farm in a shipment, but we make space and sell both. Production numbers cannot be used to make someone a “farmer” or not. I can also say that most of the small-scale farms have gorgeous, amazing produce carefully packed in sturdy boxes that customers will pay extra to sell in their stores….and I can’t always say that about the large-scale farms. Also, the Eco-Farm Conference schedule for 2011 just came out and one of the discussions is about small-scale urban farming. And one more thing: is the site NPR reported to have the most “tracking bugs” (or whatever they are) attached to your browser when you visit… so beware!