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.

Adapting to Peak Oil

John Michael Greer suggests that composted gardens and small farms provide a fallback plan for the industrial farms that are very dependent on petroleum for energy and fertilizer. Do not read this if you think that we can continue to consume energy like we have in the past. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Little Steps That Matter.

What makes these (ethanol and nuclear energy) and similar projects as destructive as they are futile is precisely that they are meant to allow us to continue living our lives in something like their present form. That fantasy, it seems to me, is the single largest obstacle in the path of a reasoned response to the predicament of peak oil. The hard reality we have to face is the fact that the extravagant, energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past cannot be sustained by any amount of bargaining or any number of grand projects. Accept that reality, on the other hand, and redefine the situation in terms of managing a controlled descent from the giddy heights of the late industrial age, and the range of technological options widens out dramatically.

Is compost a replacement for fossil fuel-based fertilizers? In the straightforward sense of this question, of course not.

Instead, it’s a bridge – or part of a bridge – that reaches beyond the end of the industrial age. The industrial model of agriculture, for reasons rooted primarily in current economic and political arrangements, has established a stranglehold on food production in the developed world. Barring drastic political intervention – a new Homestead Act, say, meant to repopulate the abandoned farm country of the Great Plains – that situation is unlikely to change suddenly or soon.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the industrial model of agriculture will actually work well in a postpeak world. Far more likely is a situation in which soaring fossil fuel prices cascade down the food chain, turning industrial farms and their far-flung distribution networks into economic basket cases propped up by government subsidies, sky-high food prices, and trade barriers that keep other options out of the existing marketplace. In such a context, local microfarms and market gardens, and the cooperatives, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture schemes that give them a market outside the existing system, are guaranteed steady and dramatic growth.