Converting Lawns into Mini-Farms

Kelly Spors at the Wall Street Journal describes how suburban mini-farms are providing fresh produce and supplemental income for enterprising residents.

Link: Green Acres II: When Neighbors Become Farmers – WSJ.com.

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.

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.

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.