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Suburban Farming

Green Acres II:
When Neighbors
Become Farmers
Suburban Arugula Is
Organic and Fresh, but
About That Manure...
By KELLY K. SPORS
April 22, 2008; Page A1

BOULDER, Colo. -- When suburbanites look out their front doors, a lot of them want to see a lush green lawn. Kipp Nash wants to see vegetables, and not all of his neighbors are thrilled.

"I'd rather see green grass" than brown dirt patches, says 82-year-old Florence Tatum, who lives in Mr. Nash's Boulder neighborhood, across the street from a house with a freshly dug manure patch out front. "But those days are slipping away."

A growing number of suburban Americans are earning extra cash by growing food in their backyards. WSJ's Kelly Spors reports.
Since 2006, Mr. Nash, 31, has uprooted his backyard and the front or back yards of eight of his Boulder neighbors, turning them into minifarms growing tomatoes, bok choy, garlic and beets. Between May and September, he gives weekly bagfuls of fresh-picked vegetables and herbs to people here who have bought "shares" of his farming operation. Neighbors who lend their yards to the effort are paid in free produce and yard work.

A school-bus driver, Mr. Nash rises at 5 a.m. and, after returning from his morning route, spends his days planting, watering and tending his yard farms and the seedlings he stores in a greenhouse behind his house.

Farmers don't necessarily live in the country anymore. They might just be your next-door neighbor, hoping to turn a dollar satisfying the blooming demand for organic, locally grown foods.

Kelly Spors on opportunities down on the yard farm. Read the latest post and share your thoughts.Unlike traditional home gardeners who devote a corner of the yard to a few rows of vegetables, a new crop of minifarmers is tearing up the whole yard and planting foods such as arugula and kohlrabi that restaurants might want to buy. The locally grown food movement has also created a new market for front-yard farmers.

"Agriculture is becoming more and more suburban," says Roxanne Christensen, publisher of Spin-Farming LLC, a Philadelphia company started in 2005 that sells guides and holds seminars teaching a small-scale farming technique that involves selecting high-profit vegetables like kale, carrots and tomatoes to grow, and then quickly replacing crops to reap the most from plots smaller than an acre. "Land is very expensive in the country, so people are saying, 'why not just start growing in the backyard?' "

Environmentalists embrace the practice because it cuts the distance -- and the carbon dioxide -- needed to get food from farm to consumer. It also means less grass to water and fertilize and fewer purely ornamental plants. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly a third of all residential water use goes to landscaping. Why not use it to grow food instead?

But for the neighbors, the new face of farming can have a decidedly ugly side. The sight of vegetable gardens -- and the occasional whiffs of manure from front-yard minifarms -- is not their idea of proper suburban living. Many homeowners associations ban growing food in the yard, believing it damages a neighborhood's appearance and may ding property values.

Kris Rickert, 39, who lives with her husband and four-year-old son about a block from three of Mr. Nash's front-yard farms, says she particularly doesn't like looking at the farms when nothing is in bloom. "In the winter, it looks pretty yucky," she says. Before they moved to the neighborhood two years ago, the Rickerts toured another house that was for sale where Mr. Nash had recently started farming the yard. "I just kept thinking about how I'd have to tear it all up and plant grass again," she says.

Still, for an increasing number of residents in the suburbs, it's the reverse -- turning grass into edible greens and maybe even greenbacks -- that is proving so alluring.

Start-up costs for a one-eighth-acre farm run about $5,500, says Ms. Christensen of Spin-Farming. That includes a walk-in cooler to wash and store fresh produce, a rotary tiller and a farm-stand display. Annual operating expenses, including seeds and farmers-market stall fees, can add about $2,000. Such a farm can generate $10,000 to $20,000 in annual sales, she says. That's "an entry point into farming to see if they have a talent for it," Ms. Christensen says. "Those that do will eventually be able to expand and increase that income level quite substantially."

Susan and Greg VanHecke planted a small, 6-foot-by-20-foot vegetable garden in the back of their house in Norfolk, Va., two years ago to help teach their two children to grow and eat more vegetables. Reaping a bumper crop last year, Mr. VanHecke asked the owner of a local restaurant called Stove for whom he once worked as a sous-chef, to buy vegetables. Soon, Mr. VanHecke was making weekly deliveries to the restaurant, averaging about $100 in sales per week. The VanHeckes have added another restaurant customer this year and are tearing up all their backyard flower beds to grow more vegetables.

They're also trying to figure out how to more easily fit farming into their otherwise busy schedules. Even minifarms take a lot of time, and suburbanites with full-time jobs find themselves a little stretched.

The VanHeckes decided to be practical and replace their labor-intensive lettuce crop with easier vegetables. "My husband would come home from his all-day job [as a Navy officer] and snip leaves and wash them one-by-one," says Ms. VanHecke, 43. "Things like tomatoes, you can just rinse them. You don't have to spend your whole evening [on] them."

Close quarters in suburbia and in inner-city neighborhoods pose other problems. Growing vegetables takes sunshine not always abundant in yards with shade trees. And protecting the soil is another challenge, as is keeping manure out of the house and off the sidewalk, especially when pets run loose. Mr. Nash sweeps dirt off the sidewalks, and has to remember to clean his dog's paws each time she runs inside from the backyard.

Meanwhile, even modern yard farmers who know what they're doing aren't protected from the age-old bane of farming: nasty weather. One early frost or bad storm can wipe out a crop. A midsummer hailstorm in 2006 shredded Mr. Nash's first attempt at farming yards. "It's just one of those things you have no control over," he says.

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High prices are forcing agrarianism back into the suburbs. Very interesting development.

-Kev