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The rise of urban farming

Urban farming's trendy frugality is drawing converts in an age of economic uncertainty.

By Staff writer / September 21, 2011

Andrée Collier Zaleska, who lives in Jamaica Plain, MA, works in the backyard garden where she grows tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, cabbage, broccoli, and more.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Greg Peterson's 1950s tract home looks like any other house on his block in Phoenix, with one notable difference: Practically everything in his yard is edible. More than 70 fruit trees reach for the sky. Chickens patrol for bugs in the yard. Late summer tomatoes, okra, and herbs such as basil and oregano punch fragrance into the air. Rain and gray water are harvested for watering, and solar panels on his house convert the sun's rays into energy.

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Mr. Peterson calls his oasis of bounty on one-third of an acre "The Urban Farm." Once an anomaly among the manicured lawns in his neighborhood, Peterson's place has been so convincing an example over the past decade that scores of other suburban dwellers have traded decorative bushes for raised vegetable beds and straw-filled chicken coops.

"I started offering tours and classes at The Urban Farm every first Saturday [in 2001]. There were Saturdays where I would wait twiddling my thumbs ... for people to show up," Peterson recalls. "Now it is nothing for me to get 250 people ... for four different tours."

Meet the urban homesteader. Slowly, across the past decade, more Americans like Peterson have been proving that growing and preserving food is possible in all kinds of populated settings. City dwellers are practicing sustainable living at new levels beyond shopping for organic carrots and recycling bottles. Whether it is a tilapia farm in garden tubs in Kansas City, Mo., beekeeping in Chicago, or jars of homemade pickles in an apartment pantry in Austin, Texas, urban homesteaders are rebelling against the industrial food system by shouldering more of the responsibility for producing their own food.

"There is a population and culture that is finally saying that all this processed stuff is not good and the only way we can guarantee that food we use is safe is to grow it ourselves," says Joyce Miles, a family and consumer science expert in Maggie Valley, N.C., who traces the roots of modern urban homesteading back to the late 1880s.

While growing and preserving food in cities isn't new, these visionaries have elevated planting, composting, and canning to "retro hip" levels. It's a kind of trendy frugality fueled by a desire to be part of an environmental solution in a do-it-yourself era. Some urban home-steaders are home-schoolers who want to teach their children practical science skills. Others are simply trying to eat locally while reducing their food bill. Still others have repurposed domestic chores abandoned by their mothers and grandmothers into a fun hobby.

It is too soon to tell if this back-to-the-land mentality will be only a temporary balm for the anxiety of modern living. Victory gardens, after all, faded with the advent of peace after World War II when industrial food production turned again toward feeding families instead of troops. A homesteading movement in the 1970s was laughed out of existence as an idyllic but impractical response to the energy crisis. However, signs suggest, from the fashionable to the legislative, that today's hands-on engagement is here for the long haul. A few examples:

Urban farming resources

Path to Freedom

The Urban Farm

The Urban Farming Guys

The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking

Punk Domestics

"A Chicken in Every Yard" (Ten Speed Press), by Robert and Hannah Litt

"The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for A Year" (Seal Press), by Spring Warren

"Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living" (Skyhorse Publishing) by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume

"The City Homesteader: Self-sufficiency on any square footage" (Running Press) by Scott Meyer


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